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Cadence Weapon Wins 2021 Polaris Music Prize

This third placing on the Polaris Shortlist for the acclaimed Toronto-based rapper, born Rollie Pemberton, nets him the $50K Grand Prize.

Cadence Weapon Wins 2021 Polaris Music Prize

By Karen Bliss

Cadence Weapon appeared every bit as excited to hear his name being called by last year’s Polaris Music Prize winner Backxwash from the comfort of his home, on a Zoom call with the other shortlisted artists, as the rapper and one-time Poet Laureate would’ve been had the prestigious announcement been made in person.


“Wow. I can't believe this is happening. I feel amazing. Shout out to all the other nominees. I think this is one of the greatest shortlists in the history of Polaris,” he said, before rattling off many thank yous to his family, partner, collaborators and business team. “I’ve never won anything before.”

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His albums 2006’s Breaking Kayfabe and 2012’s Hope in Dirt City both made the shortlist in the past.

The Polaris Prize is judged solely on artistic merit by members of the music media. Cadence Weapon — born Rollie Pemberton — wins $50,000 for Canadian Album of the Year, for Parallel World, and a promotion distribution package from new Polaris partner Play MPE.

“One of the things I was thinking if I won this is I wanted it announced that next year I'll be using some of my resources to organize some voter registration events around the Toronto municipal election, as well as the Ontario provincial election, because we need some changes to our leadership and we need to make things more equitable for people in the city to be able to vote,” he said.

“So if there's any bands or anyone who wants to be involved with that, just hit me up because that's going to be my big project next year.” He also called out PM Justin Trudeau for wearing “Blackface” and added, “That's exactly why I need to be making rap records that are political, that are about these subjects because that's still a fact today.”

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For the second consecutive year in its 16-year history, the prestigious Canadian award skipped an in-person gala ceremony due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, and instead broadcast live from the CBC Studios in downtown Toronto, streamed out to the world on CBC Music and its various social channels.

The 45-minute program was presented from a “living room” set with a couch, armchairs and coffeetable — on which the envelope containing the winner’s name was placed — and CBC Music’s Odario Williams deejaying in the corner.

It began with a flashing-lights-may-cause-seizures warning due to Backxwash's two strobe-heavy performances of her explosive noise-rap, then settled into the “show,” which was hosted by CBC Music’s Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe, with commentary on the Polaris shortlist by CBC Music’s Jess Huddleston, and two of the grand jurors, Xtra’s Michaelle Da Silva and Exclaim!’s Calum Slingerland, as Williams spun snippets of a track from each nominated album (eligible release period was May 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021):

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Theory of Ice; Cadence Weapon’s Parallel World; DijahSB’s Head Above The Waters; Dominique Fils-Aimé’s Three Little Words; Mustafa’s When Smoke Rises; The OBGMs’s The Ends; Klô Pelgag’s Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs; TOBi’s Elements Vol. 1; The Weather Station’s Ignorance; and Zoon’s Bleached Wavves.

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What wasn’t made entirely clear to the viewer was the process to get to the shortlist. Albums are suggested all year on a private online group for jury members comprised of music journalists, bloggers and broadcasters, this year 199 people from across Canada, who then vote for the longlist (40 albums), and later on the resulting shortlist.

The grand juror is a special experience, with the 11 people debating over two days — the final voting process sequestered on-site of the gala — but this time was on Zoom with the final vote confirmed Monday morning. The jurors are not told the outcome in advance.

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When Tetteh-Wayoe asked the two grand jurors, “Ever think about the live performance and whether or not these artists are able to execute in a live environment?,” Slingerland was very quick to explain, “Not at all… We are there for the album, the body of work, as it is in front of us. Nothing else. No prior successes, no prior releases. That’s all you have to focus on.”

After the 2021 Slaight Family Heritage Prize nominees were announced, honouring past albums before Polaris existed, Backxwash, who had come in from Montreal to do the honours, said her win has enabled her not to second-guess her creative decisions.  “Because of the response I got, I was able to take that out of my mind and just experiment with different genres and different sounds, and my approach is just the most authentic music that I want to make right now.”

She then reached for the envelope to announce the winner. “My heart is beating,” she said.

When Cadence Weapon was read, he immediately appeared on the screen from home, his partner giving him a big hug.

The shortlist runners up will receive $3,000 each, courtesy of Slaight Music, and a Play MPE promotion package.

Past Polaris Prize winners are: Backxwash (2020), Haviah Mighty (2019), Jeremy Dutcher (2018), Lido Pimienta (2017), Kaytranada (2016), Buffy Sainte-Marie (2015), Tanya Tagaq (2014), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2013), Feist (2012), Arcade Fire (2011), Karkwa (2010), Fucked Up (2009), Caribou (2008), Patrick Watson (2007) and Final Fantasy / Owen Pallett (2006).

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