At 25, SEAN LEON knows what he likes and he isn’t afraid to let everyone know. The Scarborough born emcee has recently become one of the pillars of the “New Toronto” sound and an advocate for originality — whether it’s via his IXXI collective or in his interest in visual arts and photography — and it’s partly because he has his finger on the pulse of a new artistic formula. His Instagram account tends to cater to this chic millennials that like avant-garde, House Of Balloons-type shit, but when it comes to his music, the moody aesthetic is punched up with a vicious sense of confidence.
For example, there’s Black Sheep Nirvana. Leon’s forthcoming project was named after his daughter Xylo and while it blends together the jagged emotions that solidified his previous releases (see Narcissus, Ninelevenne), it primarily focuses on the tangible, “in real life” moments that bleed into his creative philosophies. To shed some light on his upcoming plans, we recently sat down with Leon and discussed Black Sheep, his recent collaborations, and why its crucial to find your own lane.
You recently spoke with Green Label about Toronto’s marginalized sound. How does your upcoming project Black Sheep Nirvana represent a new perspective?
I think it does just because of its honesty and the fact that it is a product of me and I am being honest as an artist. So just in doing so, it is a new perspective because it’s not chasing a sound. It’s not trying to be something that it isn’t; I wanted the music to make itself this time and I wanted to give it a chance to tell me what it wanted to be. I just followed and listened.
As an emerging Toronto artist, how do you maintain originality and cultivate a style that is different from your peers? Is it more difficult than people think?
Nah, it’s just like I said before, this is just me being me. Where I come from there isn’t much to do and there isn’t much going on. It’s kinda not cool to be from there and in the past people have been ashamed to be from there. It’s like the place that everybody’s from but the place that nobody wants to admit they’re from. Again, because I was being honest the only way I figured I could be successful was if I made the place I’m from, cool. I told my story and I made it refreshing.
I don’t think it’s difficult to stand out if you are being yourself. It’s kind of like a cheat code. It’s perverse that it is a cheat code in 2016, but to me the easiest way to get on and stand out is to follow your gut, your heart, and your instinct. Again, don’t follow a trend or swerve in a lane that isn’t yours because you want success immediately or you want that instant gratification. Take the time to build something special that is only yours and nobody will take it from you.
I feel like people are pretty quick to realize when you are in someone else’s lane because it doesn’t sound right at all.
Yeah, it doesn’t feel natural. You kind of feel like someone is selling you something and our generation is so perceptive to that. At least with my friends, we’re critical thinkers and we don’t appreciate when someone is trying to sell us something; we prefer when we have all the information and we are able to make judgements of our own. It’s that type of thinking that goes into what we do.
Do you think Canadian artists, especially within the rap and hip-hop genres, are put at a disadvantage simply because they’re Canadian?
My whole philosophy is that I don’t really believe in a disadvantage. Anything that isn’t set up for you or anything that is something that you have to get is kind of like a gift, because then it’s like something you have to attain. I’ve never really felt at at disadvantage. I just always wanted to work on myself and be the best me, and once I felt comfortable and I wasn’t as insecure about myself, I wanted to present my shit. You know maybe there hasn’t been something that has stood out yet. I don’t know. I’m just so confident that we’re gonna get everything that we want after this and because of all the work we’ve done, it’s hard for me to look at it any other way.
Can you shed a little light on the name of your upcoming album, Black Sheep Nirvana?
It’s called Black Sheep Nirvana because my daughter’s name is Xylo Hailey-Nirvana Leon. The project is for her because her existence touched me in a way and affected me so deeply that it bled into my art. I’m so grateful for her and so blessed to have her so this is the best gift I could give her. There’s that and then there’s a juxtaposition too; because of this beautiful soul that my girlfriend and I conceived, I have this responsibility to now protect this really beautiful thing and I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect her. If that means I have to wake up and set the rest of the world on fire to do so, then I’ll do that.
So it’s this juxtaposition of this “black sheep”, this hard, dark aggression, and then “nirvana”, this really sweet, perfect little girl that is my daughter. Those euphoric moments… fatherhood is just absolute euphoria at times. It’s crazy (laughs). I know I could rant about it forever. I just see her in my head and then I just get lost. But it’s just that. It’s capturing these moments but then also realizing that I need to do what I have to do, no matter what, so she is okay and her mother is okay and our family is okay. The title is about all of that and that’s Black Sheep Nirvana.
On previous projects like Narcissus, The Drowning of Ego, you embodied a rather dark aesthetic. What kind of tone should people expect on the new album?
They can expect me. I grow and the music grows with me because the music is always a reflection of who I am and where I’m at. On Narcissus, those were very dark times and times are still very dark but as I said earlier, I’ve had a beautiful girl. I have a daughter, I have a family, and I have experienced some really happy and really bright, really perfect moments. There’s a lot of range; there is the right amount of everything. I think my fans are going to be really fucking happy and that is the most important thing. At the end of the day, they are going to be super fucking proud.
Anyone that has ever rooted for me and has had to hear some dumb shit about Sean Leon that made them think, “Wow, this person doesn’t understand” — those people are going to get the last laugh and I’m happy I could get that for them. Because now we can all laugh together and throw a party (laughs). It’ll be sick.
2016 has already been a major year for pivotal album releases. Which ones have you been feeling so far?
I like Daniel Caesar a lot. I listen to my shit really, that’s all I really listen to. I’ve also been listening to the same songs that I’ve been listening to since high school, just on Apple Music now. It’s really dope to be able to go back to all of that. I haven’t really heard anything new. I like Archy Marshall’s new one, but that was 2015. I like the Cudi album a lot too. But right now, we are really, really locked in.
You haven’t listened to The Life Of Pablo at all?
I went through it, but I don’t think he’s finished so I’ll wait. I think he is clearly still working which is the vibe I get from social media and my gut so I’m just going to wait for him to finish it. I watched Yeezy Season 3 though and that was dope.
In terms of your team, how would you describe your IXXI initiative to someone who wasn’t familiar with the artistic collective? And how does the project feed your passion for music and vice versa?
We are just a bunch of problem solvers. We all like making art and we all like making things. When you’re making something, conflict arises so we enjoy finding solutions to those problems, whether it’s making a song or a film or designing whatever. We’re just a group of people that like making shit, we’re just an art house.
I’m really hands-on with everything I do and this year I decided to express myself more and not be so scared to do so. There were things that I’ve always had a passion to do, like some of my friends are some of the greatest photographers I’ve ever seen so I’ve asked them questions and learned things. I developed a taste for it, so I started expressing myself through photography. I’ve also been painting a lot; that was something I’ve been wanting to do forever but I’ve just been too nervous to do it.
Music is just what I’m known for right now but that might not be my biggest contribution to society as it’s just what I’m doing right now. It opened doors for me. Like when I first started making music and expressing myself that way, it gave off such a rush that I’ve just been pursuing it ever since. Because of it, I’ve had the confidence to take a picture, learn how to paint, and take those steps to be better.
When did you know music was the creative facet you wanted to pursue full-time?
I guess I can’t really remember when as I just started making music, but it was just like a really good feeling and I started chasing after that feeling of seeing something through to completion. I really like that rush of having a task and checking it off. That’s why I like painting so much because sometimes I’ll have a song and I’ll be working on a song for like three years, but a painting is something that I’ll finish in a night. I’ll hang it and maybe I’ll walk past it in eight months and add something more to it and then it’s finished again. It’s a faster way to get that rush.
It’s the same thing with a photograph; I’ll take a picture and develop it, and I have this physical thing. So maybe that’s what I’m after — that feeling of completing something and contributing something that affects and resonates with somebody else.
You recently did a track with Jazz Cartier and WondaGurl called “Above The Rim”. What was the recording process like for that collaboration? Because you seldom see a creative effort like that in Toronto but when a project does come along — like River Tiber and Daniel Caesar’s “West” — it tends to generate a really positive response.
Yeah, it was fun. I work with WondaGurl all the time so that was normal and I’ve been in the studio with Jazz before. I was just in there smoking blunts and freestylin’ until I got the verse and then Jazz did his part. It was just fun. There were time constraints and there were certain things we could say and certain things we couldn’t say, but it was fun. It was like my first corporate job, you know? The track sounds dope though, I like it. Toronto should work together more for sure, but when it makes sense. There is a community that is collaborating a lot and there’s a lot of Canadian talent on my project. When they’re done right, collaborations can be the best, right Jack?
(Jack says: “For sure”)
In an industry that is so focused on image and co-signs, how do you stay grounded and true to yourself?
I don’t know if that is really possible because every single person on the planet has an image. You know, they walk out the door and everyone has a look. As I was saying earlier, it’s about being yourself and how much of yourself you decide to show to everyone else.
But people are in it for different reasons. Like the people I associate myself with, we can be very passionate about a really good product or something that resonates and something that lasts. So with us, you are always gonna get that feeling. Some people aren’t in it for those reasons though; they’re in it for survival and they’re more focused on making money so they can make decisions based off of that. Everybody approaches things differently, but I know for us, we’re always focused on making good music first because we believe good music will sell itself.