FOR THE RECORD: Raised By The Radio, Zach Zoya Reflects On His Francophone Upbringing

Growing up in Quebec, the young rapper meditates on his decision to rap in English over French and the concept of sound versus meaning when writing songs.

FOR THE RECORD is an ongoing artist essay series where we invite some of our favourite artists to explore themes on their albums to provide a deeper level of insight into their work. On July 8, Montreal’s Zach Zoya will be releasing his latest video/single, “Slurpee.”

I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda, a francophone city 600 miles northwest of Montréal. I went to a French school, had a French-Canadian mother and a South-African father. We didn’t have a TV or a computer so most of my childhood days were spent in front of the radio. 

The music library at home consisted of a mix of my dad’s, mom’s, and older sister’s CDs: from Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Marley, Soweto Gospel Choir and Michael Bublé to the Black Eyed Peas, Drake, Kanye West, and Beyoncé. This diverse musical universe was mostly anglophone while the rest of my world was communicating in French. I can remember listening to all of those artists and not understanding a word of it. For me, it was all about tempo, the key, the general groove of a song, and how the pronunciation and the delivery of words sounded as opposed to what they meant.

My interest in rhyming came when I was exposed to the culture of hip-hop (which I didn’t have access to early on). Even then, I always preferred melody-based rap like a lot of Drake or Kanye ballads. Through the sheer amount of music I listened to and studied, I unconsciously developed a good ear for song structure, melodic flow, and lyrical delivery. When it came time for me to start writing songs, I had developed a good understanding of what made a song sound good.

“Being a professional musician was just not a thing where I was from.” – Zach Zoya

But I had never really considered music as a viable option. Being a professional musician was just not a thing where I was from. The image of the French-speaking musician was not one I identified with. The “American” version of an artist was the one that spoke to me the most at the time, partly because the representation of minorities in my small Québec town is minimal. You could make a case for people in Montréal where there’s a larger presence of immigrants and a more significant cultural mix, but from where I stood, the people that looked like me were mostly American or English-speaking artists. So, I decided that if I were to become an artist, I would follow the path of the English music that had inspired me throughout my life. I was privileged enough to be able to travel a lot with my parents and began learning English while visiting the rest of Canada, the U.S., and, occasionally, my dad’s native South Africa.

As music became a legitimate avenue for me, writing in English just made more sense. Why would I limit myself to a smaller audience when English music could help me reach the world? It was the English music I was raised on and the way I heard voices as instruments and not as communicators of a story that has impacted the way I write today—with a beat or a melody in mind first. The way I prioritize how my vocals are delivered—how they sound versus what they mean—is what I see as my biggest strength in this game, and I owe that unique songwriting perspective to my experience as a French Canadian.