Greys’ Shehzaad Jiwani Talks About Racism In Canadian Music

The Toronto post-grunge band’s new album,Outer Heaven, is about the power and pain of stepping back to observe.

April 22, 2016
Greys’ Shehzaad Jiwani Talks About Racism In Canadian Music Ebru Yildiz / Buzz Records

As I’m about to leave his Toronto apartment, Shehzaad Jiwani tells me with a mixture of humor and exhaustion, “I hope you didn’t want me to make some kind of grand statement about my experiences with race. A lot of interviews want me to do that.” I say no, then immediately wonder if that was true. Shehzaad is the frontman of the Toronto post-grunge band Greys and one of the most visible people of color in Canada's independent music scene right now. Conversations about diversity and racism in these circles have spiked recently. But reducing an artist’s work to the most politically contentious aspects of their humanity is an easy trap to fall into, not to mention just plain wrong for an album like their new one, Outer Heaven.


Jiwani says that his band's second full-length, out today on Buzz Records/Carpark Records, comes from “the prism of perspective,” but Greys set out to make an album informed by the times, out of a sense of responsibility. “It’s not enough to be a rock band in 2016 and just write about being in the beach or having a bad day,” he says. “You have to be saying something. If you’re not, get out of the way and make room.”

It would impossible for Greys to make “the most topical thing [they’ve] ever done” and escape the black holes of Trump and police brutality. But what motivates Outer Heaven is what Jiwani sees as a growing feeling of detachment in himself and his generation. While he's unsure of the causes and remedies, Jiwani believes the internet and social media is “a major contributing factor.” He takes pains to emphasize repeatedly that he's invested in these same systems, that he gets the same explosion of serotonin from a popular Facebook post as you do. He just hopes that some kid a generation down the road figures out how to pull us out. “I think younger people are gonna have this fresh perspective and they'll almost teach us how to navigate this kind of information wasteland, show me how to really use this technology for real good in the world. Because someone has to.”


What kind of things and what kind of people do you feel detached from?


Jiwani: I think it's really easy to feel detached these days because everybody has this specific avatar they've cultivated for themselves via social media or whatever. They reinforce that through the way they dress and pictures they take of themselves and the bands they listen to. Everything seems to be like curated, and you want to be seen as this specific thing. It's really difficult to relate to people in a lot of ways because it all seems somewhat superficial.

I recently broke up with my girlfriend in September, but we dated for a few years, and before that Tinder wasn't a thing. So this way of communicating with people, like, purely based on this one dimensional persona they've created on a card, as opposed to going up to them at a bar and seeing what kind of person they are is weird to me.


Ah, but Tinder also has the info option, where you can tap and turn their profile around and that gives you such a richer three dimensional picture--

Right, of course [laughs]. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that or with social's just [how we] choose to engage with it that makes me feel like people relate to each other a little bit less. [Also] the way that you can curate your Facebook feed and remove conflicting ideologies from it, solely to reinforce your belief system is somewhat frightening to me. As opposed to going to school and hearing a conflicting opinion and talking about it with people; that's what communication is. That breakdown of communication is kind of referenced in the last song on the record, “My Life As A Cloud,” where it's sort of like this sci-fi hypothesis of moving toward some big singularity where you remove all sense of your identity.

I feel 100 percent detached from all of that. I don't know how to engage with that because I just wanna talk to people, but it feels like we're all pieces of toilet paper and we're not fully connected. We're just like perforated, but nobody really seems to empathize with one another.

Talk more about using the Internet to reinforce your opinions.

I had a friend of mine from high school almost gloating that Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted, saying “Don’t get mad at it, that’s how the justice system works.” I told him “Dude, the justice system also allows police officers to murder black kids. That’s not an excuse.” The very idea that you would gloat about this is disgusting to me, and I told him that. But you do need to have different perspectives to know they exist and combat them.

I think the majority of us use the internet to fully reinforce ideologies we already have, and I think that's really dangerous. And this is where I sound like a kook, but I feel like people in power want that to happen, like they don't want you to think deeper and in complex ways. I'm not above it at all. That's the whole thing about the record. It's like “I'm totally in this with you.”

Is your detachment different from cynicism?

I think if you are cynical, then you might not necessarily even make those attempts [to understand other perspectives]. But if you're detached, it just means that you want to connect with people—you just can't. You can't help it. That's a mental health thing too: people who are sad don't want to be sad. Nobody wants to be depressed, nobody wants to be anxious all the time. It's just you're simply not getting from your surroundings what you need to connect with them. And to me, that's what detachment is.

"If It’s All The Same To You,“ is a song that addresses how it's always been a smaller amount of people that are more progressive and analyze these things and look to disseminate facts and progress, not only in music, but any number of things. “You're all who you wanna be and that's alright,” that's a lyric on the song. It sounds like it's this defeatist anthem, but it's not. You're never going to relate to everybody, but the fact that you acknowledge that and that you can see that in the world means that you're a thinking person.

Give me a timeline of your relationship with the music industry, the ups and the downs, how you feel about it now?

When I was a kid I wrote for different music magazines, and then started playing locally in Toronto. I never have felt excluded for the color of my skin. But my experience is not everyone’s, and that’s a huge thing that I think people don’t realize.

The language of offence is a new thing for a lot of people. It just takes people awhile to understand how to navigate their privilege and how to articulate those thoughts without hurting other people’s feelings and putting other people down. It’s progress because so many people already know that you shouldn’t be doing certain things like yelling at a girl when she’s playing onstage. That stuff happens all the time still, but i don’t see it as much in Toronto as I might in other places. I’ve never personally experienced any sort of racism while i was onstage, but i might have other places. It takes time and patience on both sides, it’s just frustrating when it takes more time on the side of the marginalized people because you’ve already had to put up with so much shit. Before we’re born, we’re putting up with shit.

Once Buzz Records was established and The Garage became a thing, a community formed. There were really great groups of musicians starting really great labels—Hand Drawn Dracula, Telephone Explosion, Pleasence, all these great people. Ian Chai of Buzz is a Korean man, and every band on the label has a woman in it, if not as the frontwoman. I immediately felt at home there: it’s the most inclusive, wonderful place to make music. Outside of that community in Toronto, again, I haven’t experienced any overt racism, but I’ll still get things when people at shows will ask if I’m doing merch. I’m the frontman, but you don’t see me that way. I can drive them around, but I can’t sing in the band? It gets to be a little frustrating when it’s like “Ah, I just want to meet someone who’s...”

From your own world?

Yeah a little bit. The fact that I’ve never seen someone who looks like me on a billboard—granted, I’m like a 6 out of 10 looks wise—but a brown guy on the cover of a magazine or on a bus ad, I don’t have that. I don’t have any heroes who are brown men. I’ve become more conscious of something, and part of this is just being single again, but if i walk into a bar with a friend that looks basically the same as me but white, chances are he’s going to get a lot more attention, because the girls also haven’t seen me on a billboard. It’s almost like I have to prove to someone that I’m worth their time, and you can’t blame them. I’m also guilty of that, because the people who I automatically find attractive are the kind of girl that’s on billboards. Those are the celebrities! What brown women do you see on billboards, other than Mindy Kaling?

I feel like as a skinny, small, brown guy who isn’t good looking in a predominantly white community, I was hobbling before starting the race. That’s not me complaining, that’s how I feel. That being said, I’m really lucky to be a part of a community that doesn’t make me feel that way and doesn’t treat me any differently.

Greys’ Shehzaad Jiwani Talks About Racism In Canadian Music