For an artist still on the come-up, Canadian rapper Belly sure knows how to make a statement. The MC enjoyed a solid career in Canada over the past decade, racking up JUNO Awards and critical acclaim before taking a step back and upping his songwriting game in the past few years. That eventually manifested itself in a pair of Grammys at this year’s awards for his work on The Weeknd‘s Beauty Behind the Madness (Best Urban Contemporary Album) and particularly the song “Earned It,” which won Best R&B Performance, one of six writing credits he has on the album (He also co-wrote Beyonce‘s “6 Inch” from Lemonade).
But Belly is more than just a songwriter behind the scenes. Late last year, he signed a label deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation, and his song “Might Not” featuring The Weeknd off his last mixtape Up for Days, made its way to the Billboard Hot 100 chart. His first project since signing to the Roc is Another Day in Paradise, his new tape released Friday (May 27), which features collaborations with the likes of Lil Wayne, Juicy J, Waka Flocka Flame, Kehlani and Travi$ Scott, and serves as the precursor to his upcoming Live From the Shadows tour, which kicks off June 27.
He’s also been in the headlines this week for reasons outside of music. Scheduled to make his debut appearance on national U.S. television as the musical guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live this past Wednesday, Belly pulled out of the performance after refusing to appear on the same broadcast as Donald Trump, who was Kimmel’s only other guest that evening.
“I’m here on a campaign of positivity and love and to contribute what I can to music,” Belly told the AP regarding his decision. “For me, being Muslim and being somebody that appreciates my access here in America, I love the fact that I’m able to be here. To play my part in this business is a privilege and a beautiful thing. The fact that I could lose that ability through the actions of someone such as Donald Trump isn’t right to me. At all.”
On the heels of his Kimmel cancellation and the release of his latest project, Billboard spoke to Belly about Trump, Kimmel and the meaning of paradise.
How did the Kimmel show come together?
It was my set initially as the musical guest that night; I was planning on performing “Might Not” and bringing Abel [Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd] out with me. I just didn’t want to be part of a night that felt like Trump Night that night; there wasn’t anyone other than me and him. I just didn’t want to be there for that kind of thing.
When did you find out Donald Trump was going to be on the show?
I mean, I knew initially, I just didn’t know that the night was going to be based around just him. I figured it would be a regular night on Kimmel where there would be a few guests. I really figured I’d be more of a musical guest where I’d be sort of in the mix rather than… Like I said, it felt like Trump Night. He was the only guest, and I didn’t want to feel like I was like a court jester that night. That’s really how I started feeling like it was going to be like: Like I was the court jester for a false king, you know?
This was going to be your first major U.S. television appearance. Did you have any reservations about pulling out of the show?
Nah. You know, I gotta follow my gut, man, no pun intended. It didn’t feel right to me, I didn’t think the vibe was gonna be right, I didn’t really think positivity would be there that night. So I just chose to not be there.
What was the reaction from Kimmel’s people?
I don’t know; that’s not really my department. That’s more on them than me, and I don’t really know what’s happened since then. But I know they offered to have me come back another night and be the musical guest. I’m sure I’ll be back; I love Kimmel, I love the show and I was really excited to do it. It would have been my first major TV performance in the United States. It was in support of Another Day in Paradise, which drops today, and it was all lined up to promote this new project. So it would have been a great thing for me and I was really excited about doing it. But I felt like I would rather go with my gut feeling.
As a Canadian, how do you feel about the potential of a Trump presidency?
You know what? I don’t like to get into politics. That’s never been my thing. For me, it was more the fact that, you’re generalizing people, and I fall into some of those categories that you’re generalizing. This is the land of opportunity. I’m out here doing music with the biggest stars in the world and making beautiful stuff and creating and getting to do what I feel like I was put here to do. And when one man comes along and says this stuff; this guy with his remarks just generalizes people and puts everybody in one category and says, “These people can’t cross the border,” that’s not politics anymore. Now it’s a human issue. I’ll leave the politics to the politicians. I’m a musician.
And you dropped a new mixtape, Another Day in Paradise, today. What does this project mean for you?
All my music is about progress. I feel like it took me a lifetime to gain the experience and the knowledge that I needed to put the project together, you know what I mean? But all my projects are ongoing. I’m halfway through the album right now, I just put this out, I’ve got another short mixtape I’m working on on the side. Music, for me, is ongoing. That’s everything. People think of paradise as sunlight, palm trees and beaches. For me, paradise is all the hell I had to go through to get here. And every time I look at all this beautiful scenery, that’s the first thing I think about. That’s what I compare it to. And that’s my paradise. That’s kind of the concept behind the project.
What about sonically? “It’s All Love” samples Lauryn Hill, you have a sort of consistent sonic theme throughout the project…
Yeah, absolutely — I approach projects like movies. I want projects to have a mood and a feeling, and I want it to have a climax; I wanted it to tell a story. That’s what I worked to achieve when I was making the music, to just fill in the blanks and fill the gaps of this greater concept that I had in my mind.
The past year, I think it’s safe to say, has been the biggest of your career so far. What are the biggest changes you’ve gone through?
I’m starting to learn. That’s really what I feel like. My team has been with me for the last 20 years, man, these are my best friends, I grew up with my team. The work ethic never changes; they still have to peel me out of the studio. I think the stars aligned, man, and I think the universe is ready. And to me, that’s the greater power: the universe has spoken, the stars are aligning and I’m here.
You’ve got a tour coming up, right?
June 27 is the first date in San Francisco. Live From the Shadows tour, man. I’m excited. I feel like I’m so blessed to wake up and be able to do this every day, so I wake up and try to do something every day, whether it’s albums and music or songwriting, I’m dabbling in other forms of entertainment, I’m working with a couple other major, major conglomerates right now. You know, all the crazy thoughts I’ve had in my mind my whole life, I’m just trying to bring them to life and let the people see them. That’s what it is.