Toronto Spotlight Idris Lawal Goes All In With Gung Ho

Toronto Spotlight: Idris Lawal Goes All In With “Gung-Ho”

Earlier this year, Idris Lawal dropped the first of a trio of singles titled “Jordan” where he reflected on being a young black man trying to figure shit out. This was followed by his sold-out debut show, A Travelling Light, and he now returns with single number two, Gung-Ho.

Taking on production duties, Lawal is joined by Canadian singer, Sydnee Croft, and saxophonist Jelani Watson. With slinking notes, an array of afrobeat inspired percussion, and Watson’s subtle sax, Lawal looks back on the lessons his parents taught him and how they’ve helped shape the man he is today. Speaking on the single, he says:

“The song through the chorus started out as an outpour of passion and a yearning for more. I was reflecting on the last year – having moved from Ottawa to Toronto to get closer to my dreams. Dealing with new adult responsibilities in a new environment became tasking and in my reflections, I became a lot more appreciative of the effort my parents took – moving away from family and the familiarity of home in Nigeria to a foreign country in Qatar, and then South-Africa, before settling in Canada. All the while, they instilled in me the importance of always remembering your roots and where you came from. These experiences and teachings what was ultimately inspired “Gung-Ho”’s lyrics.”

I spoke with Lawal about the single, his youth, the next installment of A Travelling Light, and more. Learn more about the emerging multi-talented artist right here.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hi there. My name is Idris Lawal. I’m Nigerian-born but based in Toronto and have spent several years of my life in various other cities including Doha, Qatar; Cape-Town, South Africa and Ottawa, Canada. I see this early exposure to different cultures as the catalyst to my multi-genre sound today. I produce, write and record music inspired by rap, afrobeat, highlife, afro-pop and soul music.

I used to front a band named tadé in Ottawa but have started releasing music solo since moving to Toronto in 2018. “Gung-Ho” is my second solo and first self-produced single.

What drives you, inspires you, frightens you?

My family and the people I love drive me. Especially lately. “Gung-Ho” is very much about me getting accustomed to becoming an adult – the ups, downs and how I pull on lessons from my parents to get through it all. When things get tough, I think to how much tougher it must have been for my parents who had me at a young age and then moved from Nigeria to a foreign country in Qatar. The thought of that, plus knowing that the moves I make are being watched by my siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces who all look up to me as an inspiration is what drives me. I also have a very special woman in my life who has been a driving force in it for the last 5 years.

Right now I am very inspired by the global spread, adoption and general excitement around Nigerian culture – music, clothing, slangs and even memes.  For me, this also happens to be happening around a time when I’m discovering what being a Nigerian outside of Nigeria means to me. One downside of moving around so much is the feeling / need to always assimilate yourself into a new culture. Every time I moved to a new place, I lost a little bit of my Nigerian culture, regardless of how hard my parents worked to make sure I don’t. Today, at 27, identity isn’t a struggle for me anymore. I am very confident in myself and my culture as a Nigerian and that is definitely in part due to that global spread of the culture. So, it’s very inspiring.

Death frightens me. Seriously. Don’t mean to get deep but it’s a deep question, ha. I was raised Muslim and one of my Imam’s taught me a short prayer and said that as long as one said the prayer every-day, they will always be protected from death but on the day that God has pre-destined for the person to die, they will forget to say the prayer. It’s kind of twisted but I actually say this prayer every morning after thanking God that I woke up. I want to live forever until I’m the best version of myself I can possibly be. When I do die, I want to know that I’ve worn out my soul instead of tracing my steps and searching for something to hold.

When was the moment you knew you wanted to pursue music?

2009. After I moved to Cape-Town. I was home alone with my siblings and was trying to record myself for the first time with a plastic microphone my mentor (RIP Jermaine Silvera) then had bought me. I got carried away for what must have been 2 hours before I realized that I hadn’t checked up on my siblings. I got up to do so, turned around, and they were both lying on the carpet behind me, resting their heads in their palms, listening and smiling. They probably don’t even remember. It was beautiful and I think that was the moment I decided I loved making music.

Toronto Spotlight Idris Lawal Goes All In With Gung Ho

Where’d the idea for the title “Gung-Ho” come from?

The first time I heard the word “Gung-Ho” was in the lyrics of ‘Goodnight Saigon’ by Billy Joel – “and we were so gung-ho to lay down our lives”. The word stuck with me and so did the thought of willing to die for something you love. It also made me think of the opposite – willing to die because you’re not able to do something you love. I love creating music but it really does get harder to do it as you get older – life starts to take time and money away from you just when you need to start investing a lot of both into your art in order to grow. There’ve been many times where the thought of not creating has crossed my mind. It crossed my mind a lot in the last two years as I settled into Toronto but thank God music is something I am Gung-Ho about. Music is actually how I discovered the culture every time I moved and I had to remind myself that now that I am moving as an adult.

How’d you link up with Canadian singer, Sydnee Croft, and saxophonist Jelani Watson?

I met Sydnee through a fashion show at Vaughn in which I performed. She mentioned that she used to sing actively at the Church but had stopped doing that and wanted to get back into it. She dropped by my home studio and after not singing seriously for a few years, performed an amazing cover of Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’. Sydnee sang back-up with me at A Travelling Light Showcase Volume 1.

I went to PRACTICE in Toronto in the Spring. PRACTICE is a quarterly improvised open session for musicians and performers to come and jam. Jelani was in what I call a “brass-off” – 2 groups of 4 brass instrument players stood at each end of the club and took turns challenging each other to play intricate melodies. It was amazing. I told Jelani to drop by the studio 2 days later and he recorded ‘Gung-Ho’ in just 2 takes after having only heard it for the first time that morning.

Sydnee was there too and the 3 of us recorded 3 songs in 3 hours. All 3 will be released in 2019. They really blessed the music.

What can you tell us about the Travelling Light Showcase Volume 2?

A Travelling Light Showcase Volume 2 will be happening in October – tentatively on October 10. In volume 1, which happened in March, I premiered a music video, performed some song demos and shared a rough draft of my digital art project – ‘Nigerian Music Timeline’ – a visual exploration of Nigerian popular music and influences from the 1800s to today. For volume 2, I want to expand on this and share the finished timeline.  I will also be premiering a new music video for an unreleased song and performing completed songs with my new band (Back up vocalist, Saxophone, Guitar, Percussion).

Knowing what you know now, what would you say to your younger self?

Don’t change too much or you’ll lose yourself.

Toronto Spotlight Idris Lawal Goes All In With Gung Ho

What are your most memorable memories involving music?

Some of my earliest memories involving music were long weekend drives in Lagos traffic with a multitude of sounds and rhythms blaring from my dad’s car, other cars in traffic and the okadas (motorcyles) weaving through them. I don’t know if he made or bought them but my dad used to have these hour-long mixes of popular Nigerian musicians (Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Sir Shina Peters, Sonny Okonsu, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Ebenzer Obey) etc.

Another memory is what I consider my first exposure to music by a non-African artist. My mom was watching the Bodyguard and I must have joined her in the living room towards the end. She made me close my eyes during that final kissing scene and all I could hear was ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston playing. Blew my mind.

The final memory I’d like to share is the one that got me writing. While in middle school in Qatar, a friend shared a verse he had written to 2pac’s ‘Changes’. I had just started listening to rap music then. I remember asking him to let me re-read the verse like 10 times during the day and when I got home that night, I wrote my first rap verse.

What’re some of your favourite spots to hit in the city?

I just saw Lionel Richie perform at Budweiser stage at that is now my favourite venue to experience live music.

Also been discovering some Nigerian restaurants – Kiza was an early favourite but the restaurant has since been closed with the owners rebranding the name as a music label. Other spots I’ve eaten at are Mamaland Africa and The Suya Spot.

I also just discovered the bike path that goes all the way from Bay street to Etobicoke. In Ottawa, I used to wake up on Sundays to bike the path around the city then I’d find somewhere remote to sit and just write for an hour or so. Looking forward to doing that more this summer.

It takes about 2 years to settle into Toronto, so I still consider myself new and am still discovering the city to be honest.