When Smoke Rises
Over the past decade, Toronto’s Mustafa Ahmed has worn many hats: spoken-word poet, community activist, documentarian, member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policy-shaping Youth Advisory Council, and, more recently, a songwriter for pop stars like The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes. All of those accomplishments—not to mention a number of enthusiastic Drake endorsements—have made the long-awaited arrival of Mustafa’s debut release, When Smoke Rises, a major event, complete with an A-list guest list that includes James Blake, Sampha, and Jamie xx. But Mustafa has answered those heightened expectations with a set of deeply meditative acoustic-soul hymns that, at times, feel almost too personal and painful to bear. The title and cover shot of When Smoke Rises pay tribute to Toronto MC Smoke Dawg, a fellow member of the Halal Gang rap collective who was killed in 2018, and these eight songs reverberate with the trauma of losing loved ones too soon and the crises of faith that result from enduring endless violence. Atop the rumbling rhythms of “The Hearse,” Mustafa preps his slain friend’s body for a traditional Muslim funeral while questioning whether his natural peacemaker instincts can keep his desire for vengeance at bay. “Ali” is even more harrowing, an emotional plea for a friend to leave town to avoid the trouble coming to him, only for the trouble to find him anyway. (“There were no words to stop the bullets,” Mustafa ruefully admits, in a voice that isn’t so much calm as numbed.) But When Smoke Rises’ grim subtext is leavened by Mustafa’s natural melodic graces—even when recounting the worst days of his life, his songs summon the strength to carry on. “Just put down that bottle, tell me your sorrows,” he sings on the quiet yet resounding mission statement “Stay Alive,” a reminder that reckoning with the pain is the first step toward healing it.