Rollie Pemberton: Your book, Who is Wellness For (HarperCollins), it's gotta be the most radical wellness book ever. I found it, compared to what my expectations are for this world, to be very provocative. It’s anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, in a way that, in my experience, books like this typically aren't. Even just talking about the wellness industrial complex, which obviously parallels the prison industrial complex. I was wondering why you felt it was important to highlight those things in this book?
Fariha Roisin: Obviously Who is Wellness For and your memoir, Bedroom Rapper (McClelland & Stewart) are not at all similar books, but there is an overlap in both of us establishing this deep historical context for where we are; how we are artists, how we are writers, what we're thinking about and why.
Wellness is a billion dollar industry, and it profits off of the global south, primarily. And those profits, by and large, are not being seen in the global south—case in point, the massive Farmers Strike led by a million farmers in India in 2020 and 2021, or the reality that more than a quarter of India’s population lives below the global poverty line. This felt like such a vital perspective to actually talk about and I was mad that nobody had attempted it yet. I think it’s especially pertinent right now, in a post-perma-COVID landspace, where we are record levels sick but every rich person has a wellness brand. I mean, these are things, culturally, we need to talk about.
There’s so much about your book that I really, really related to. And for me, it's that frustrating prism of existing in whiteness, and in white spaces, where there's all of this presumed intelligence about the world, and yet, there are so many voids in people’s imagination about race or privilege. So many of the people that you write about, especially in the Montreal chapter, I know. I've had interactions with these people. I've fought with these people. I spent a lot of my time in Montreal fighting with white people. I do see myself as an educator, and I'm both educating myself through my writing and then creating this larger world so we can actually exist and communicate and coexist with each other more effectively.
Rollie Pemberton: I found it really interesting how both of our books have elements of memoir, obviously, but I feel like we're both kind of searching for a universal truth from our personal experiences. I wanted to hear how you navigate that balance in your book, because I feel like, in a way, so much of this book is about you and your life experience and your family and everything, but I feel like it's also about the entire world. And every person living on it. So, you know, how do you balance?
Fariha Roisin: Well, you know, the word synecdoche…I first heard about it because of the movie by Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche New York. What really excited me about finding out what it meant was this understanding of river tributaries, those rivers go into a larger ocean, it goes into a larger mass of water, a larger body of water, but they're all connected. They're all a part of each other. And similarly, the synecdoche is just a larger focus of a much bigger and more global issue.
Being a child sexual abuse survivor, it was something I never talked about. And yet more people than I ever assumed or thought possible have come to me in private and talked to me about these things. And I do think that there's a larger world of abuse and trauma that we all come from, that we aren't actually understanding. [We’re not] seeing how everything does come together, and everything has a root cause. I think that we do live in a sort of whirlpool of numbness and dissatisfaction and a confusion about how to be better or happier. We think that money is gonna fill up all of this emptiness, but actually, you have to start at the beginning. You have to come back to yourself and your body, your ancestry. Your cultural origins have so much information and knowledge that if you just tap into it, you will understand yourself beyond limitation. I think that's really exciting.
Rollie Pemberton: I really liked the parts in the book where you talked about generational trauma. Because it's something I've thought about a lot and examined within my own family. It was recently uncovered by my sister that my grandmother on my dad's side, she was abused by her father. And where did that [cycle of abuse] start? Does that start from slavery, and how my ancestors were treated, and then trickle down into what I experienced with my father, where it was more of an emotional abuse? Just seeing all the connections and how far it goes back, I found that really interesting. For me, it was really cathartic to write about my dad. Because it was something I didn't really talk to anyone about throughout my life.
Fariha Roisin: My mom is this huge looming figure in my life, but this book felt like very much the first and the last time that I want to spell it out like this. I feel like I've done what I needed to do to talk about my mother. It felt like a nice relief to be like, I think this chapter of my life is done. So much of my twenties was this agony of feeling like, how can I sublimate all of this trauma and pain? And now I'm at a stage where I feel like I've done a lot of the groundwork, I created that foundation in my work and in my life, to establish my reality. And that’s the most important thing you have to do as a survivor, you have to find the truth in your experience, then you have to believe yourself, then you have to forgive the part of you that feels betrayed by your own lack of self-protection, the part of you that rejects or blames yourself.
There was a point in your book that I really felt this—the sense that being able to tell the truth about your life just releases you from [the trauma]. I think that a really hard part about a lot of my life is that people didn't really fully understand where I come from and fully understand how trauma has informed me, how my abuse informed me as a person. Yet all of those elemental parts are what I think are really important for anyone who reads me or anyone who knows me to understand. And I felt similarly about Bedroom Rapper. I felt like you were creating this beautiful world where you were giving all this context for us to understand you and how you were formed and that’s kind of a gift for an artist to give, because it’s a lesson in truth. When you have to articulate an experience out into the world that has never been etched before, it’s lonely. It’s scary.
Rollie Pemberton: My dad was kind of a larger than life figure, especially in Edmonton. I think a lot of this book is about me establishing why I am the way I am and where I came from. But also explaining why I make the music I make, why I had certain experiences at certain times in my career, whatever. I feel like there's a parallel between our books, trying to create space for ourselves to exist. Because I think, our experiences, there previously wasn't a lot of context for them. Especially in the mainstream media.
Fariha Roisin: There's a lot of similarities between us being alt indie kids that are thrust into a lot of white spaces. We're anomalies in these white spaces. I experienced a lot of hate as a girl, as a woman. I'm flawed. And we all are, and we make mistakes. I've carried all of these things with me so shamefully, I’m really embarrassed by past selves. But then, reading your book, the parts about Grimes, and Claire [Boucher, who performs as Grimes] being this person who could get away with anything. There was so much allowance. Whereas when you're the cool person and you're not white, there's an anger toward you. There’s this desire to be more like you, but not a desire to really appreciate you. And I wonder how you felt, being one of the only if not the only Black person in these spaces?
Rollie Pemberton: It was complicated, because I think, from an outside perspective, it would be perceived as if I was being accepted by this community. And in a lot of ways, I was, but it was like, you know—I talked about this in the book, how they wouldn't put out my records. And they wouldn't put their own equity at risk, right, to support my art. I think it wasn't coming from a place of malice, but it's just weird that it didn't cross [their] mind[s] more. But it always crossed mine. I was just like, I would love to do this, we should do this. But there's another thing, with my label issues, [fighting with my former label for my rights to my own work]. Maybe [they] didn't know what was possible, and how to extricate me from that situation.
Fariha Roisin: I just found this line [in your book] that I underlined, that I loved. “I wanted to write myself into a protective cocoon that couldn't be breached.” And I think that that's what I was thinking about, us giving each other context, giving ourselves context. That, to me, is such a vital part of this experience that we're talking about: Blackness, brownness, identities, especially being a Black person who was raised in Edmonton, in Canada. Outside of Drake, what do we know about Blackness in Canada? You’re coming from this very unknown space, globally. Like, it’s not an experience known to many. So, then you're creating, I think, not only a universe for yourself, but a universe of acceptance for anyone like you. Which is so powerful, but such a burden.
Rollie Pemberton: That was something that was really important to me, and I see you doing that with your book, too. We're creating a lane for other people to follow, you know, and that's something that I've been really conscious of, with my music. In Canada, there isn't a lot of acceptance for Black artists who want to do things that are outside the mainstream or do things that are not stereotypical. And I think that was another thing, in the Montreal time. I felt like I was always the observer, I was watching everything that was happening. I saw what the scene [in Montreal in the late 2010s] was becoming before other people did. I became really aware of white privilege during that time more than ever. I always felt like I had to work like, five or 10 times harder than some of my peers to get the same kind of recognition.
Fariha Roisin: You wrote for Pitchfork for a year.
Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, this was when I was in university.
Fariha Roisin: Yeah. I mean, you were a baby. I bring that up because you were meeting, like, Ghostface Killah, Questlove. These people were in your periphery. You were interacting with these people. I was just like, how is this your life?
Rollie Pemberton: Everyone I grew up listening to, I ended up playing shows with. I feel like part of that is, you know, manifestation. I always believed in myself in a way that was looked down upon. People found it offputting for me to really believe in myself, especially coming from a place where there's just no precedent for what I'm doing. I used to be really angry about it. But I realized it's just like, how can someone else understand what's happening inside of my mind?
Fariha Roisin: But I also don't think it's fair for you to have to consistently, even into your thirties, have to fight for yourself. It’s exhausting. It is really admirable. That kind of gusto that one needs because I'm so embarrassed by myself still. To see you perform and sort of move into that bravado, I'm curious how you nurtured that. It must be so difficult because you're also shy. You're fucking Pisces. How do you deal with that?
Rollie Pemberton: That's interesting. I feel like now, to me, it isn't hard. It's actually the easiest. Being on stage is actually where I'm most comfortable. I feel like that side of my life is what allows me to be grounded in the rest of my life. Having that outlet to be as extreme and out there as possible. It helps me a lot just on a day-to-day basis. I give everything when I'm onstage. I have extremely high standards for the performance. It’s a transfer of my spirit. I'm giving my soul out there, you know.
Fariha Roisin: You are very much a vessel for this work.
Rollie Pemberton: Absolutely. That's like that Kendrick song, “Rich Spirit,” where he's like, “Spirit medium, I don't rap, brother.”
Fariha Roisin: I think I'm getting there. Performers like you excite me so much. I felt this recently in Portland. It was the only time during my book tour where I felt this. I was on a stage and there was a light on me. And I felt so fucking powerful. And for the rest of the tour, I kind of felt like, whatever. But that was that one moment where I was just like, Oh, I think I'm actually good at this. I was making jokes. I was funny.
You know, like, that's the thing about my book. It's very, very deep. And it's very dark. Someone told my friend that it was really hard for them to read the book, because she was just like, Wow, your life was so fucked. And she doesn't know me, but she feels for me. But the thing is, I think, plot twist, Who Is Wellness For? is really funny as well.
Rollie Pemberton: It's staggering, you know, to see it all in a book like that. I think the thing that I really took away is, it is a really good representation of who you are. And the way that you read in public I think is amazing. I think you're a very powerful performer. And I really appreciate the way your vulnerability comes through. I think that's your greatest strength—moments when you're really vulnerable. And I felt like, in the book, those were the moments that I resonated with the most. Where does that impulse, to express this kind of raw, unvarnished emotion in your writing, come from?
Fariha Roisin: People ask me that a lot. I don't think it's something that I'm even conscious of, it's similar to being a vessel. I feel as if it's my only way of existence. And I think that the times, like when I lived in Montreal, that I've actually really done a lot of self-harm, were the times when I hid those parts of me and where I pretended as if I was very strong, trying to really fit in.
Montreal is really drug filled. It's just like Neverneverland. People are very, I think, dissociated from themselves. And I just, like, couldn't deal. Basically, I hid from everyone. I just didn't talk about [my trauma]. I was going crazy inside and then giving this very, like, sort of clean-cut mirage of who I was, and I was slowly kind of glitching. I talked about this in the book, that when I turned 25, I hit rock bottom, and I was suicidal. There was just something very clear to me about the dishonesty with how I was living and how unreal everything was because I think that there is such a performance in Montreal. You talk about it in your book, how like, all of these kids are super wealthy, but they're pretending not to be. So, there's this disconnect between you and your own existence because you're like, Well, why am I not like, you know, more together? Why don't I have money? You're not understanding or not being told the truth about other people's reality. So, you're constantly like, what's wrong? It really just took a moment of acknowledging like, oh, I actually had a very difficult life. And this is my reality. And these things, whether I like it or not, have completely shaped me. And vulnerability, I think, is my strongest factor as a person because now I have nothing to lose. I lost everything. I've never had much, you know, I came from this very broken family, and I built a world for myself. It's entirely my own. But it's taken so much out of me. And I think the only thing that feels like a salve is those moments of connection that come from vulnerability.
Rollie Pemberton: I feel the same way. I talked about that in the book. When I was having problems with my label, and all the exploitation that happened with my record deal and stuff, where I felt like, I was just at the total bottom of my career, I think it was an important moment where I kind of looked up from there, and I was just like, Oh, I'm not dead. Like, it didn't kill me. That moment was something that really changed my life. And I feel like from that moment, I just kind of operated without thinking about how I was perceived, or how other people felt about me. I realized that those feelings often have nothing to do with what's actually going on with me. It's all just the outward perception, you know, oh, yeah, this artist is really popping right now. But it's just because they have like, PR or something.
Montreal was definitely a very destabilizing place for me. Artistically, it was nice to meet people like you. We would go to Dép Cafe and write together side by side, you know?
Fariha Roisin: I always felt like you understood my reality. You could get it even if we didn't have the language when we were young. And I definitely didn't have the language to be like, This is wrong, this is not good. I'm not happy. Even just to talk about the whiteness. I was always trying, and fighting, you know. It was easier to talk about anti-Blackness, even though it was still not a thing that people understood. It was easier to talk about some more global things than like, this is my injustice, I feel like you're being unjust to me.
Rollie Pemberton: It was good artistically in some ways. But then, on the other hand, I feel like it's the place that can bring the absolute worst out of people. And at times, it felt like that for me. I was going to tell you that I actually quit drinking in the last few months. Reading your book, I feel like it kind of hit me at the exact right time. The thing I've been thinking about a lot is, especially as a musician, how much alcohol is emphasized. You have to perform in the bar, and they're giving you an unlimited amount of alcohol and there's this culture of like, sex, drugs and rock and roll. There are implications, like, we're all gonna take a bunch of shots, you know? But the thing is, nobody cares about what happens to you after the show. Right? I really liked the moments in the book where you talk about the intersection between capitalism and health. And that's something that I've really been thinking about a lot in my life. What would you say to somebody who is currently renegotiating their relationship with their body?
Fariha Roisin: First, though, tell me a little bit about what got you there?
Rollie Pemberton: I'm getting to a point where I want to be more accountable for myself. And I've had a lot of family members who died recently. I've had health issues. I want to give myself the best chance to outrun that generational trauma that you talked about in the book. It's something I've been thinking about for a long time. And since I have not been drinking, I have a really good level of clarity. Just about everything. I even feel like I'm rapping better. It's really trippy, actually. I feel like my voice is just way more effective.
Fariha Roisin: You’re tapping into your body by tapping into a relationship with your body. Firstly, like, so proud of you. It's so huge, and anyone who chooses to do that, I commend them so much, because it's a journey. I don't know how you're personally going to fend. For me, it's been up and down. I have a chronic illness. It's really, really uncomfortable. One of the reasons I'm sick today is because of something I ate two days ago. I'm in chronic pain for most of the day. And that is something that, in my twenties, I tried to hide. I felt like I could because of drugs and alcohol. I am having to come to terms with the fact that I have a very reliant relationship, codependent relationship, to weed because I smoke and then I'm not in pain anymore, or I'm not thinking about the pain in my stomach anymore. So I think for me, one of the most humbling realities is that you're gonna fall off the train, and failure is important to note on a wellness journey.
Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, that's actually the way I feel about it. I feel like it's almost like a superpower. I feel like I'm just getting to know myself for the first time. I'm actually dealing with my emotions, just with my own mind and my body and accepting what's happening to me instead of being like, Okay, I need a drink. I feel like there's something really powerful in that. I've had enough partying for a lifetime. I'm at the point where I'm like, I'm good.
Fariha Roisin: You hit that, right? Because you're just like, Oh, it's just the same thing again, and again. I don't think I actually need this anymore. I think it just is showing that you're evolving.
Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, you know, one of the coolest things is doing things I used to do, that I couldn't imagine not having a drink at, going into, like, a barbecue, going into a rave. And it's like, oh, I'm still me. It's been a really positive experience.
Fariha Roisin: You get to locate yourself in those moments, instead of just blurring yourself and denying.
Rollie Pemberton: I have a very overactive mind. Things are just worrying all the time, which is why I've been starting to get into meditation.
Fariha Roisin: That's amazing. Right?
Rollie Pemberton: And I found that chapter in your book really funny because I got [the meditation app] Headspace. And it is interesting, the monetization of something. It's like, how did they find a way to profit off of our own minds?
Fariha Roisin: I feel like Headspace and all of these places are so important, because they give access to us. But they're also criminal. Like, they're actually criminal. The fact that you have to pay money in order to take care of yourself. It's just truly mind boggling. I was just thinking about something like Bon Appetit. And comparing it to like something like NTS Radio. You go on to NTS and you listen to any radio station across the world. You can give money if you want to, but you don't have to. It's a community radio station that's international. Whereas with Bon Appetit, if you read more than, I think, three recipes a month, you have to get a subscription. And it's just the ways in which we monetize and the ways in which we allow and create accessibility to certain things. Like, if you have money, you can cook for yourself, but if you don't, fuck off. That's really, essentially, what these messages are, and it really fucking infuriates me.
Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, if you don't keep paying, you will lose your mind.
Fariha Roisin: And they're okay with that, honestly. Whereas, if you were following the ethos of the understanding behind meditation, if we're going to bring it back to Indian culture, which is where meditation derives from, then it should be for everyone.
I want to ask you about the politicization of your most recent work. You talk about the murder of George Floyd and the radicalization in 2020. It's not that your work before wasn't overtly political, but now you're talking about gentrification, you're talking about houselessness. Why write about these things?
Rollie Pemberton: I had all this time on my hands, right? Because, you know, we're all locked down. And I'm starting to see people on the news talk about microaggressions, talk about structural racism, right? And it's like, holy shit, they're actually talking about it on TV. And that was a moment where I was like, Oh, I've always thought these things. I've always talked about them amongst my friends and stuff, and I just never really went all the way in my music. And I was like, Oh, damn, well, like, let me get my shit off now. Because people have the language to appreciate it, you know. The more I did that, the more I felt like there was something very real from inside of me that was coming out in the music. I think maybe there was part of me that was afraid to be so outspoken about it on a record because of Canada’s culture of politeness. But then it turned out to be my most successful album.
Fariha Roisin: It’s like all the people that fought me in Montreal in like, 2015, writing apology letters to me, like, seven years later. It is a really exciting time because I feel like I am an agitator. And I didn't realize that about myself until very recently. I was just like, Why does everyone hate me all the time? Why is it that my presence bothers people? And it's because I think I just naturally agitate people. And that's what one of my superpowers is, and it sucks, because I want to be beloved, but I'm not. And maybe the work can steer people into conversations and questions about themselves and about the society that they live in that will sort of force them to interact with the truth. I don't know how you feel about that. But I think that we live in exciting times.
Rollie Pemberton: I was thinking, you know, have you heard of the rule of 10?
Fariha Roisin: Say it to me again.
Rollie Pemberton: I just read about this recently. And I think they were specifically talking about music. But usually, the way it breaks out is like, three people are gonna love it when you put something out. Three people are gonna hate it. And then there's going to be four people on the fence. It's always gonna break out into that, in those segments, especially if you're doing something that's polarizing. I was concerned for your safety with putting out this book. It's so provocative. I haven't read something in a while that is so openly against white supremacy.
Fariha Roisin: I'm trying to write a nonfiction book. And one of the essays is called “Death to America.” Like, I'm playing into it. I'm also Muslim. I piss white people off because I talk about white supremacy. All I'm doing is forcing them to look at it even more deeply. Every fabric of society has been affected by these systems of power that we have to acknowledge.
But I wanted to talk about something else, I've been feeling a little deflated by the experience of putting my work out there. Especially something as big as this. How are you feeling now, after the book has been out for a year?
Rollie Pemberton: I’ve experienced this feeling a lot with putting out records. With a record, you spent a couple of years working on it, then you put it out. The difference between a record and a book is, with the record, people are on Spotify, they drain it, like it's a wet rag, for the first week. And then they're like, Okay, can you make some more? Whereas books have a longer life than you might expect. It could be years down the road where somebody's like, this book changed my life, you know? And I think it's going to be resonating more in a longer way.
Fariha Roisin: We have that shared history of being expansive in our musical tastes. You're not just listening to one type of band. One paragraph from your book really stuck out to me: “To the outside observer, the prairie rap scene might sound like cultural appropriation. To me, it never felt like they were exploiting the culture. The white rappers did their homework and were reverent of their Black forefathers in the genre. They never tried to act, look or sound Black, the prairies weren't very diverse back then. But even if they were these rappers were never popular enough to be taking space from anyone else. Plus, the local scenes were often more diverse than the general population and their provinces at the time.” This is one example where you're giving this historical analysis of a time that's very specific to you. And I guess it stood out to me, because I've been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation. I watched Elvis recently. And I want to know how you feel about Elvis, but I also want to know what you think about rapping made by non-Black people?
Rollie Pemberton: Wow, that's a great question. So, here's how I feel about it. Rap music, it's an oral tradition. And it's a conversation. It doesn't start or end with one person. And so, I'm often reluctant to be a gatekeeper. Who's allowed to rap, who's allowed to rap certain ways, who can use these flows? Who can't? Because it all goes into the same pot of gumbo in the end, right? But here's the thing. It is Black culture. And soon you get a Macklemore in the mix, and he makes a wack version of what we used to do. So, we keep it moving. It’s the chameleon, you know, we change our shape. And it's a new step, a new sound, a new style. Once they rip off the trap music, maybe we start making drill. So, you know, they can't really totally do it. But when it comes to Elvis, I think it's important to acknowledge that Elvis was very reverent of blues musicians. For a long time, in the Black community, we were always like, Elvis is racist. I always think of Public Enemy:
Elvis was a hero to most, but he
Never meant shit to me, you see, straight out
Racist—that sucker was simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne!
But, you know, the more research I did on Elvis, he did as much as he could, within the cultural climate at the time. He really did love the music. He did what he could to support the older artists. I could never call him the king of rock and roll, obviously. But I will accept him making this style of music. This isn't, like, Vanilla Ice or something. You can either be a Vanilla Ice or you can be a Mac Miller. And there's a huge fucking difference between the two.
Fariha Roisin: Mac is a good example. Both Elvis and him had such terrible lives in a lot of ways, too, which I think is important—what encourages and inspires people towards art? A lot of the times it’s adversity. I, similarly, was always like, Fuck Elvis. And then I did all of this research recently... And I was just like, Wait a second. This man was consistently, even when anyone said he was the king of rock'n' roll, he was like, I'm not. Every single time like people would be like, your music, he'd be like, well, actually, this isn't my music. I actually grew up with this music. This is the music of my Black forefathers, essentially, admitting he’s just a white boy and that this was not from his direct lineage.
Appropriation is this ideology that you take for commercial interest, but you have no desire for the culture, you have no respect for the culture. I mean, that's what happens to Blackness all the time. People try it on. People want to be Black without wanting to be Black. And that is a reality. At the same time, what happens when it is a part of your culture, when it is what you grew up with, when it is sort of your identity in a lot of ways? Elvis grew up with Black people, so in a lot of ways that's his origin and it makes sense that would be the music he makes.
Rollie Pemberton: I think a lot of your book is about appropriation, talking about yoga, for instance. I feel like it's all about the intention behind something, right? Elvis, in a lot of ways, was exploited by the music industry, too, because they just saw it as a great way to make tons of money, right? They didn't appreciate the fact that this guy actually really cares about the music. That was his life, right?
Fariha Roisin: Yeah, I'm not saying people can't practice yoga, I'm saying we have to understand the context and the intention behind why we do what we do. Because you can't deny people art, you can't deny people an art form, and similarly, you can’t deny them yoga or spirituality. These things are universal, essentially, they are for everyone.
Rollie Pemberton: The more that we're like, oh, yeah, these are cultural vultures, they're appropriating Black culture, I think it prevents Black culture from really becoming just full stop culture. It kind of backfires in a way. It's like, Mac Miller, growing up in Pittsburgh, listened to a bunch of rap music, ends up making certain kinds of music, and this is American music. It's American. It's American music. I'm not calling it just African American music, because it's the most important music that's happening in our lifetime. And it just happens to be created by Black people. I think that's an interesting thing. You know, I don't like to be pigeonholed as, like, a Black Canadian artist, or whatever. I always find that very limiting. Because, you know, I feel like what I'm doing is kind of beyond that.
Fariha Roisin: You're creating unity, we both are. And if we thought of Black culture just as culture, because that's what it is, it is culture, then maybe we'd have more awareness and respect of/for it. Because understanding it's moved beyond just American culture in many ways as well, means understanding its value. I think of Indian kids that grow up in slums that listen to rap music, kids in Palestine that are listening to rap music, Muslim kids being bombed by American drones listening to rap music... you know. I guess, it's just like, the global solidarity? There's extreme power in that unity.
Rollie Pemberton: It seems like we're part of the same continuum. We're fighting against capitalism, to be able to retain our community in general, you know?