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06th Jun 2018

Belly: “Music is my therapy, my situation would be much worse without it”

Will Lavin

Drake isn’t the only rapper from Canada with clout

No, there’s been quite a few. Whether you go back to the likes of k-os, Choclair, Kardinal Offishall and Saukrates, or you look at some of the new dudes coming through like Nav, SonReal, Preme and ShaqIsDope, Canada has and always will produce some of the best talent when it comes to music.

However, there’s one class in particular that really put Canada on the map, and it’s not strictly made up of rappers.

The world first got a glimpse of this new wave of Canadian artists when Drake exploded onto the scene in 2009 with his So Far Gone mixtape. Then followed Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and more recently Tory Lanez, PARTYNEXTDOOR and dvsn. 

They’re a special breed. Oozing copious amounts of originality, they’re the ones responsible for doing away with the stigma that Canadian artists weren’t as dope as their American counterparts.

But there’s someone we’re missing, someone we haven’t named yet who has been an integral part of putting Canadian Hip Hop on the map.

Enter: Belly

It’s hard to describe Belly as one thing because he’s such a complex individual. Born in Jenin, Palestine, at a young age he and his family moved to Ottawa, by way of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan, to escape the violence and poverty of his home country. Originally going by the name Rebellyus, he’s gone on to be recognised as one of the Hip Hop’s most respected artists with co-signs from Diddy, JAY-Z and The Weeknd.

Building on his craft since releasing his first mixtape, 2005’s Death Before Dishonor Vol.1, he’s worked hard and hustled his way into a longstanding career. There’s no such thing as an overnight celebrity and Belly is the poster child for this.

Coming up in the same movement that Drake and The Weeknd were a part of, Belly’s take on why Canadian Hip Hop and R&B started to stick commercially has everything to do with not conforming or wanting to be in a box.

“We wanted to make the music bigger than the borders,” he says. “We wanted to take Canadian music further, we didn’t want to be pigeonholed any longer, we didn’t want to be in a box.

“Shout out to everybody that came before us because they really set the wave but guys like Drake and my brother Abel (The Weeknd) they really smashed those doors down and it really made it possible for a lot of other artists to come out and do their thing.”

I personally first heard Belly when an early song of his featuring Drake hit the internet back in 2009. Titled “Make It Go”, it was a laid back number that was neither of their best work but demanded your attention because the buzz surrounding Drake at the time was undeniable.

“What he was bringing to the table was so different,” Belly says of Drake and how he was able to infiltrate the music industry. “It was refreshing. The music was dope as fuck. The production was on-point. He transcended all of the other shit because the music was bigger than borders, the music became bigger than that line that they drew.”

Now signed to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation – “I play my shit for Jay first before I play it for anybody because that guy’s ears are second to none” – as well as The Weeknd’s XO imprint, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows for Belly.

In and out of trouble from an early age, whether it was drugs or violence Belly knew he needed another way to make money, he needed another passion to pull him away from the street life. Music answered the call and saved his life. The freedom his mother gave him also played a big part. Helping him carve out a new life through learning by his own mistakes and teaching himself to be resilient, he was forced to think on his feet.

“The biggest role my mother played was just letting me be myself,” he begins, thinking back to his first taste of independence. “At first she wasn’t so supportive of the process but she was always supportive of my goals, she knew where I was heading. 

“I moved out of my house when I was 15 and I never went back, I never looked back and I’ve been on my own ever since. So I think the best thing she gave me was freedom, the freedom to be my own man and the freedom to learn my own lessons. She was always there when I needed her. She always held us down, she’s like the rock of my family. She fought for all of us. She inspires a lot of what I write.”

As of late there’s been a bit of a tug of war between the older and younger generations as far as Hip Hop goes. You’ve got the old heads trashing today’s music and labelling anything that doesn’t feature a boom bap beat as mumble rap, and then you’ve got the younger fans disregarding everything the older fans say and disrespecting the artists that came before them.

J. Cole’s “1985”, a track that offers advice to the younger artists of today, specifically Lil Pump, is a good place to start if you’re new to the discussion.

On Mumble Rap, Belly’s latest project, he makes a point to contribute to the advancement of Hip Hop culture. He wants the younger and older generations to work things out.

“I wanted to take the term back,” he says of the project’s title. “When people think of mumble rap I don’t want them to think and discredit what a lot of the young guys are doing. So I did that to steal back the term. Now when they talk about mumble rap they’re talking about this album and it’s pure rap.

“Everything in Hip Hop is flourishing right now, it’s beautiful to see. I’ve been a student of the game for so long that I think everything belongs, I think that everything that’s happening right now is happening for a reason. I think it’s special and I think it’s something we should embrace and not knock.

“There’s something for every situation. My car has a specific type of music, my house has a specific kind of music, my party playlist is a whole different type of playlist. That’s the beauty of music and that’s the beauty of rap shit, you know? We can find all those different types of genres within our own genre and be able to set any mood. That’s beautiful to me.”

One of the stand out records on Mumble Rap is “Lullaby”. Flexing his lyrical muscles throughout and proving that his penmanship is top notch, Belly talks to God while remembering the hard times and letting listeners know that these don’t subside just because you’re famous.

“That song to me is like a poem,” Belly explains. “I really wrote it like a poem and I had like five different beats that I rapped over and when Boi-1da played the one we used I was like, ‘That’s the one right there.’”

Some of the lyrics on “Lullaby” read:

“Screaming ‘Fuck what you think’/ Tears falling while I write it down, smudging the ink/ Please pour out a couple of drinks/ Sometimes I wish that I was up there with Chinx/ You wouldn’t even care if I ever died/ So I wrote this for the tears that you’ll never cry.”

Referring to his friend Chinx, who was shot and killed in 2015, Belly addresses his suicidal tendencies. Asking him if this is a regular occurrence and whether he deals with mental health, he replies:

“Absolutely. I’m someone that deals with a lot of mental issues. Music is like my therapy, it’s my outlet. I feel like if I didn’t have that my situation would be a lot worse than it is. I feel like when shit gets too much for me I use the music to put it out, release it and take the weight off of my shoulders.”

Asking him whether or not he thinks he will ever find peace, he says: “Maybe when I retire. I think what drives a lot of this shit is me breaking my mind in certain situations and these are the words that come out. A lot of the time people ask me, ‘How did you think of that?’ and it’s because I’m not in a normal mind state most of the time when that shit comes. I’m really trying to deal with real-life and put it on paper.”

Belly’s a soldier, a hustler, someone who doesn’t stop working and because of that he’s achieved so much. Rewarded in many different ways, whether it’s his friendship with Diddy, who he says put him on his first private jet, or the accolades that include a Grammy for his writing contributions to The Weeknd’s mega hit “Earned It”, taken from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, it’s all deserved.

But for Belly there’s only one thing that really means something to him when it comes to his music, and that’s the recognition from his peers.

“Do you know what means something to me?” he asks. “When I put out Mumble Rap Swizz Beatz posted it on his Insta Story. That to me means something. These are the guys that raised me so to see that they appreciate what I’m doing is the greatest reward I can get right now.”

Belly’s new single “What You Want” with The Weeknd is out now. You can catch him on stage Saturday July 7th at Wireless Festival, Finsbury Park, London (More info here).