On ‘When Smoke Rises,’ Mustafa Rekindles Art as Activism

Folk music history may not be as rich or storied with Black singers and songwriters as it should, but Canadian poet and musician Mustafa is trying to change that. Working with the likes of James Blake and Sampha on his debut studio album “When Smoke Rises,” Mustafa Ahmed has developed a tendency thus far to reflect or emulate the sound of the artists around him more so than progenitors like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway or Love’s Arthur Lee, who combined the genre’s ideological and musical foundations in ways both revolutionary and firmly indebted to its foundations. But in an era where too many musicians abdicate a responsibility to use their platform promoting social change and consciousness, preferring instead to pursue personal wealth (and often equating that with authentic self-expression), Mustafa’s music is a breath of fresh air, utilizing the language of alternative R&B to smuggle deeper thoughts to the masses with seductive beats and ethereal harmonies.

Ahmed released the first single, “Stay Alive,” fourteen months ago, echoing a conversation about gang violence in the black community that began in the 1980s and was galvanized from the opposite direction just a few months later when the deaths of George Floyd and others sparked a woefully overdue discussion about systematic oppression, white supremacy and police overreach. Singing “All of these tribes, and all of these street signs / None of them will be yours or mine / But I’ll be your empire / Just stay alive, stay alive, stay alive,” Mustafa makes an earnest plea for solidarity and love, direct to the listener, in a way that virtually no one else in the mainstream is doing right now, as producers Frank Dukes, Simon Hessman and Blake pull back everything except for his yearning voice and an acoustic guitar. 

On tracks like the Jamie xx co-produced “The Hearse,” he exposes loss, vulnerability and impossible choices, empathizing with a young man who simply wishes to live peacefully but is forced to prepare for street corner conflicts inherited from, and instigated by, a clash of colors or communities. Later on “Ali,” he pays tribute to a young man lost to this kind of violence, mourning his absence except in the pained hearts of friends and loved ones: “I see you on your sister’s shirt / And it’s hard to mask the hurt.” What Ahmed’s music does, over and over, is conjure history, summon tangible experiences and sense memories alike, to share with the listener — sometimes for catharsis, others for solidarity.

Dukes contributes to almost every track on the album, while other collaborators cycle in and out — some on guest verses, some just behind the boards, and it’s hard to assess how much of a difference they make to the overall structure or sound of his music. Sampha turns up on “Capo,” and his second verse flows so smoothly from the first one from Mustafa that you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for one another; that said, Sampha’s songs typically feature piano accompaniment, so when this one does, it evokes some of the stripped-down tracks from his albums. There’s also a piano backing him and Blake on “Come Back,” as they acquiesce to elegant loops like the ones the British singer frequently uses on his own tracks, and as a finale for the album or maybe just a compromise between Ahmed’s comparative specificity and Blake’s more elliptical songwriting, they harmonize beautifully after one verse with a requiem for a moment before anxiety and self-awareness: “At least in my dreams / Please, come back.”

The longing in that sentiment feels particularly relevant right now, in a time of seemingly constant turmoil on both a global level and in our own backyards; but Ahmed’s lyricism as a songwriter puts him in the company of those predecessors — not to mention artist-activists like Dylan and Joni Mitchell — while his music feels fully contemporary. Even where individual tracks are ready in sound to take their place on the radio and the charts, this is a song cycle about pain and loss and outrage — and ultimately, it makes immediate sense why Mustafa isn’t more optimistic about the experiences he centers and chronicles in his music. But sharing them raises awareness — certainly socially, but more importantly, emotionally — making “When Smoke Rises” an eight song mission statement not just of his sound but a reminder of the thoughts, feelings and ideas that popular art can communicate when utilized effectively.

When Smoke Rises” releases May 28 on Apple Music.