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LAL's Music is Shifting the Dynamics of Social Justice

Rosina and Murr from LAL talk about their new video and making change with music.

Lizzy Sermol

If you, like many of us, get frustrated by the sometimes vapid social scene that surrounds some electronic music acts (girls! booze! more girls!), or are hungering for music with a bit more of a message, you better get acquainted with Toronto-based outfit LAL. I met up with them at the Holy Oak cafe on Bloor Street West to talk to them about their new video "Tiny Mirrors," and ended up talking everything from identity issues to social justice to what it means to be political with music.

LAL is comprised of Rosina Kazi on vocals, Nicholas Murray (aka Murr) on the electronics. The band started initially with just Rosina and Murr, who met while working at the dance section of HMV. After a bit of convincing, Rosina persuaded Murr—who has a long history in hip-hop sampling—to start making music with her. The duo then expanded to include a number of other musicians, but eventually got scaled back to just the two of them.

The group has developed a unique sound fusing West Indian influences with their South Asian roots, and bringing in elements of hip-hop, dub, downtempo, broken soul, techno and everything in between. The result is a melting pot of sounds which defy categorization, and has endeared them to almost every musical niche in the city. "We've always explored our different cultural heritages. We really didn't know what the hell we were doing at the beginning, but we made the attempt to figure it out," Rosina explained, when I asked her about the early days of LAL.

The band is constantly facing questions from media about who they are speaking for, what minority or social group they are representing. Questions which are loaded with base assumptions that don't sit too well with the members. Their references to social activism and use of sounds and rhythms found in non-Western traditional music lead people to immediately need to frame them as a spokesperson for particular social groups. "We've done everything from hip-hop shows to folk festivals to techno events, we don't fit nicely into a box, and that stresses some people out. And so we just keep doing just that," Rosina laughed.

"What happens is that when you are a person of colour in Canada, or from any cultural background really, you are told that you have to make music that is relevant to the cultural background that you're from—there is no regard to your individual experience of growing up in a country and being engulfed in another culture and absorbing it and taking it and reforming that experience... that is completely ignored," Murr explained, frustrated with the definition of "world music" that some people give their work.

It's an issue we see in the media all the time—a person who does not fit into the white-male demographic becomes identifiable not for their message but for their presence as a visible minority, and are given the responsibility of speaking for others rather than being responsible just for their art. LAL, although frustrated by this dynamic, has found that it is also the reason that some of their fans have become so connected to their music. LAL's music is not about speaking for people, but instead creating spaces for conversation to occur.

"A lot of what we talk about is social justice, and we've done a lot of work in the activist, queer, and feminist communities, so that's definitely something that registers with our listeners," Rosina elaborated. "I personally would like to see more people address some issues, but at the same time if whatever you're creating puts out a positive note, or if someone reacts positively and enjoys your music and spirit, I think that in itself is a form of social justice. I don't expect everyone to start talking about issues, but at the same time I think if it's not part of your music, at least have it as part of your life," explained Rosina, referencing the dearth of other people using their music to create change. "Especially nowadays when it's so easy to listen to a track and then forget about it and onto the next one, I think it really adds substance to what you're putting out, you're adding value to the community rather than taking." Rosina's view has shifted over the years somewhat, from her original stance that the music or lyrics should be about a particular issue or be rights-based, to appreciating that while political work is some of that, it is also about creating positive spaces for people to discuss issues and be creative. "It really comes down to are you treating people well? Are you treating yourself well? Are you creating positive space? That's as much a form of social justice as anything else." LAL's music, at its core, is really about shifting narratives to include the excluded.

The making of the video for "Tiny Mirrors" proved to be yet another opportunity for the band to maximize the impact that their platform as influential members of the artistic community provided them. The haunting, ethereal video was created by Ayelen Liberona and Joseph Johnson-Cami, the highly talented duo behind Wandering Eye Productions, and is actually a series of cuts taken from their longer film/multidisciplinary project The Shift. "This is the first one," Rosina said, "Ayalen and Joseph used this wonderful new technology which attaches the camera to the dancers' body, allowing them total freedom but also these wonderful, completely new visual perspectives. I love this idea of cross-collaboration and cross-promotion. In fact, I've now approached a director or filmmaker for every song on the new album."

LAL's new album All You Need To Know will be released in Spring 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for new music videos from the band and a whole host of other amazingly creative Torontonians. You can also catch them this weekend at the Gladstone Hotel for BOLD AS LOVE, a new music and art series curated and dedicated to uniting POC and Indigenous Artists on the same stage. It also happens to be their sweet sixteenth.