Riding the bus, a moment of fruition can strike Zach Zoya, and he can forget himself, absolutely. It’s the lightning bolt of inspiration, the moment before your love answers your text, the pop of the champagne cork—the arrival of the muse.
“Sometimes it just falls into place and I’m just like, 'Yeah!' and people look around at me like I’m crazy, but that’s the drug part of creativity—it’s where I get my high,” says Zoya, a Montreal-based musician whose last two years in the studio will bear two highly anticipated new Universal Music records this year. “That moment, out of nowhere, beauty is born and I’ll say something or play something back and it’s just—mwah! It’s a masterpiece, and that’s when I start jumping around: ‘We’re going to make it, bro!’ Watch out—nothing is stopping my grind.”
Creativity is difficult to define and every artist has their own process. For Zoya, who was born in rural Quebec after his father moved to Canada to escape the South African apartheid, creativity drips from his vocal delivery—from Drake-esque sing-song choruses to Ludacris-styled multisyllabic word flows—to his stage show, videos and influential fashion sense. Learning English early on from American artists like Kendrick Lamar and Eminem, Zoya says that first he’ll listen to a beat, process it, then let it stir his emotions to action. Music, for him, is tied to both art and communication.
“I didn’t have a dictionary in my mind when I started in music, I had rhythm, and from there I learned flow and melody,” says Zoya, whose neighbourhood didn’t have an underground rap scene or urban outlets, so he learned about hip-hop through pop music channels, better understanding 50 Cent than 2Pac Shakur. “When you don’t understand English, melody becomes more important than wordplay and for me as an artist now, I think it’s given me a broad range of tools I can draw from. I let the sparks fly and create.”
In the summer of 2020, as protests shake the world from Sydney to Hong Kong, Atlanta to Paris, creativity has almost taken a back seat to pure outrage. The reckoning of systemic racism is affecting everyone, and Zoya, who learned about race and racism from his father who left the overt racism of apartheid, has armed himself, intellectually, for the resistance.
“In South Africa, the whole tourism industry is located in the white area where everything is good-looking, big houses, but if you go thirty minutes west to the townships, people barely have electricity and are just now having running water and bathrooms inside the house,” says Zoya, who has made five trips to South Africa and maintains close relationships with family there and feels a deep connection to that country’s ongoing racial struggles. “Overt racism—apartheid—is over in South Africa, but the CEO of the mining company is still white. Systemic racism is about the unfair distribution of power and wealth."
Things are different in Canada, says Zoya, but that doesn’t mean his adopted country gets a pass. “Canada doesn’t wear its racism as overtly as they did in South Africa, or even in the States with slavery, but there’s so much that makes people of colour less fortunate and provides us with less opportunity,” he says. “Sometimes, it makes you want to give up and cry or riot and express your anger and rage, but I still also think that the time to make the world a better place is coming. I think that time could be now.”
A better place is on the horizon for Zoya, who has taken the COVID-19 pandemic to refocus on his health and wellness. A former athlete, the musician has been eating well, exercising and sharpening his new music. He says he’s getting ready to build on the strength of his new single “Slurpee,” which has a video that looks as if it could have been directed by Spike Jonze. Zoya says he’s focusing his creativity on the future.
“I have a deep story that's part of me—I’m literally the mixed-race product of systemic racism and segregation, but that’s part of today’s conversation,” he says. “I make music and that’s how I contribute to the conversation. I look to the future and think that we’re going to be alright.”