Featured Q+A: Witch Prophet
Issue 5 | An Ethos of Caring
The concept of speaking things into existence is de rigueur right now. Countless memes about manifestation and intentions litter Instagram explore pages. But words really can be imbued with the meanings we envision and last year Toronto-based singer-songwriter Witch Prophet did just that when she tweeted about manifesting her way onto the Polaris Music Prize list in 2020.
Her second full-length, DNA Activation, made it onto the 10-album shortlist from a pool of over 200 contenders—Canadian albums that jurors from across the country considered this year’s crème de la crème. (Full disclosure: I am on the Polaris Jury and I voted for her album.)
The album demands full attention, pulling you in from the first track, “Musa,” named after Witch Prophet’s late grandfather. In fact, all the tracks are named after members of her family. She weaves an elaborate and intricate tapestry of tales set to freeform jazz, mellowed-out R&B, hip hop and soul beats.
The album is sung in Amharic, Tigrinya and English, blending the stories of her family with Biblical stories and traditional Eritrean and Ethiopian myths.
“Roman” is a song named after her grandmother, whose name means pomegranate in English. In the Jewish faith, pomegranates are a mystical fruit said to have 613 seeds, one for each commandment in the Torah, giving deeper meaning to the lyric, “I give you life 613 times.” “Makda,” named after her sister, is a retelling of the story of the Queen of Sheba, where she reclaims her autonomy over her own story rather than being controlled by the will of men. “Darshan” is about her son, who was born when she was 18 years old. It is an ode to him for allowing her space to grow, giving thanks to him for choosing her and helping her become the person she is today. The album does an incredible job of speaking to the complex relationships that we have with our families, and the myriad of ways we can love them. “Ghideon,” a song about her estranged father, was a form of release, to delve into her disappointment about their relationship.
These are just a sample of the painstaking detail and care Witch Prophet has put into the crafting of these songs. They are inextricably tied to the people they are named after. This project has been bubbling in her mind since 2014 when she applied for an Ontario Arts Council grant to create an album that explored ideas of ancestry and diaspora. Unfortunately, she wasn’t selected and released The Golden Octave in the interim but she kept coming back to that first idea.
After a second attempt she received the funding and she released the album on Heart Lake Records, an independent label she started with her wife SUN SUN, who also produced the album. They created the label to create social change through music by platforming women, gender non-conforming and non binary artists.
The recognition and love the album has received feels like a win not only for the artist but for her family and extended communities. We spoke with her about creating the album, sharing it with her family and how she has come to understand her identity over the years.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SOMEWHERELSE: I’m curious about how you came up with the concept for DNA Activation.
WITCH PROPHET: After I released The Golden Octave, I still felt that wasn’t the album I wanted to release, like, the one I really wanted to do was DNA Activation. I refocused my idea and applied again for the Ontario Arts Council and got the grant. When I had first thought of it in 2014, it wasn’t the time and my proposal wasn’t really clear and that’s probably why I didn’t get the grant. Everything in its time and in its season, so it came out perfectly when I was supposed to. It was really just an idea of singing about my family and my life and trying to connect myself as a child of the diaspora back to Ethiopia and Eritrea. And the easiest way I thought of doing that was through music.
Where did the idea to name the songs after your family members come from?
WITCH PROPHET: Usually the beats come first and that inspires my lyric writing. But with this album, it was the theme and the idea that inspired the beats. If I was going to do an album about DNA and about ancestry, then it should have my grandparents, it should have my parents, it should have my sister and it should have my son and myself. That inspired me to really think of which beat matched with which family member and what stories I wanted to tell.
And how was the reaction from your family?
My family was really excited and they’re pretty humble people so they don’t really like being in the spotlight. Having a song named after my mom, “Elsabet,” playing on CBC or having my sister turn on the radio and say, “Oh my God, your song is playing on G. 987! The whole city’s hearing you say my name or hearing you say Darshan!” I think for them, it’s a bit shocking that it’s even real because I kept talking about it, but I don’t think they really believed me until I released it. All my grandparents except for one grandmother, Regbu, have passed on but I’m sure they’re smiling from wherever they are.
I’ve gotten messages from my aunts congratulating me for my vulnerability. In Ethiopian and Eritrean culture it’s not a lot about public displays of anything. So, for me to share even people’s names or the fact that I’m queer and Ethiopian or to be singing in Tigrinya, to be integrating my North American culture with my Habesha culture is something that is a shock, but also I think that is something that they’re proud of.
Our family’s are a type of community that we’re born into but another sense of community that I think of is the diaspora. I’m Jamaican, but I always feel I need to put an asterisk beside that because I was born in Toronto, I’ve only ever lived in Toronto. But, at the same time, when I land in Montego Bay, I feel like I’m home, where I’m meant to be. I’m wondering how you feel as a member of the diasporic Ethiopian and Eritrean communities?
Growing up, I was ashamed because I was trying to assimilate. I came here when I was four. I was born in Kenya, and then my family immigrated to Toronto. Growing up, I was always othered. And it was confusing for me because at such a young age, that identity of Ethiopia, Eritrea wasn’t with me. I was still creating my identity. I stopped going to Eritrean or Ethiopian events as soon as my parents couldn’t force me to go with them. As I grew older, and I had my son, and started doing music, I realized that was a horrible mistake. I realized that that is my identity, no matter how much I tried to assimilate to this North American culture. I am an immigrant, a settler in North America, but really my true self is an Ethiopian and Eritrean woman, and even within those dynamics it’s more layered because within Ethiopia and Eritrea, there are over 100 different ethnicities. Of those hundred ethnicities, I have nine within me.
It’s such a layered thing of trying to break down who you are, where you come from and what your community is. When we came to Canada, there weren’t a lot of kids our age so I didn’t grow up with a lot of the young diaspora kids that are around now. So, when I see their understanding of the community and culture it really warms my heart. All my life I thought being othered was something wrong, but it wasn’t wrong. It was right. I am other, I am different but I’m not alone.
Written by Kelsey Adams
Lead Photo Illustration by Marta Ryczko
Photos courtesy of Witch Prophet