Throughout his career, Yao has struck the perfect balance of singer-songwriter and artist-educator. Hailing from Ottawa, with roots in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, Yao is most famous for his work as a rapper and slammer and has led over a decade’s worth of writing workshops for high schoolers. These two passion projects are inextricably linked for Yao, a wordsmith and music lover with four solo albums under his belt—most recently Kintsugi, released in spring 2022.
Yao’s won numerous awards throughout his prestigious career, but his real purpose is giving back to the community through writing workshops. In a lengthy interview with the National Arts Centre (NAC), he spoke about how he got here and his love of teaching youth.
You’ve been leading French-language writing workshops for many years now. How did you first fall in love with writing?
As a student, I was lucky enough to go to a hip-hop/rap workshop. Although I wasn’t interested when I entered, two things happened during that workshop. First, the teacher asked us to choose a word from each page of a magazine and make a sentence with them. I wrote “L’art incite notre âme à se parler. [Art urges our souls to speak.]” I had no idea the impact art would have on my life, but I already knew that art was an outlet for me. I then wrote a poem about wanting to feel like I belonged in this culture that was new for me. I read my rap in front of the class, the school and then the school board. And suddenly, I had a new identity. In the schoolyard, I was no longer the new kid, I was the guy who rapped.
How did you develop these workshops?
Thanks to a grant from Ontario Arts Council – Artists in Communities and Schools Projects – I was able to build a workshop. I work mostly with ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders. So the workshops account for how they learn and how to connect broad topics like writing, poetry and literature to something that speaks to them. Music is a great way to do just that.
How long have you worked with the NAC and Arts Alive?
Since 2016, when I worked on the I Love to Jam program as part of Music Monday. I led workshops for two Francophone schools and two Anglophone schools. The students’ texts were put to music and performed at a NAC Orchestra concert conducted by Alexander Shelley.
You have a successful career as an artist. Why continue to be both an artist and an educator?
They go hand in hand! I love being an artist-educator because it allows me to take on issues from different angles. As a professional artist, I can support what I say with my own experiences. On top of that, I’m so inspired when I read what students have written at the end of a workshop or when they or their parents send me a message. These kids have so much to say—we just need to give them a way to say it. Seeing their confidence grow is good for the soul. I can’t not do this. It gives my life purpose!
Between workshops and concerts, you’ve been all over Canada.
And I’ve been able to speak to thousands of students each year! I lead at least 100 workshops every year, if not more. I’ve got 32 just this February and March. I’ve led workshops in almost every province, and in Nunavut. In May, I’ll be in the Yukon. That just leaves Newfoundland and Labrador. I actually lead workshops wherever I tour, including Tunisia, Algeria, Madagascar and Morocco.
These workshops help students, but how do they help you as an artist?
I feel like I’m giving back to the community that has given me so much! I can trace everything I’ve done to this one moment in a classroom. At the end of a workshop, I know we are all going to walk away with something from the experience we’ve shared.
Practically speaking, I also realized it’s a good way to get my name out there. Who knows how many students have followed me on social media, messaged me or come to my concerts after attending a workshop?
What is the goal of these writing workshops?
Identity building, but also an appreciation of the French language, especially in communities where it’s a minority language. The workshops serve as a reminder that Francophone music is not a style — there’s good stuff being done across musical genres in French.