Backxwash Between Heaven and Hell

Backxwash’s latest album is “I lie Here Buried with My Ring and My Dress.”
Backxwash Album Cover

In Backxwash’s music, God and Satan are fighting an apocalyptic struggle over her soul. She began using this imagery flippantly, in songs like “I Got a Pentagram Tattoo” and “Devil in a Moshpit,” but she’s taken it increasingly seriously. The trans Zambian-Canadian rapper says she rejects Christianity in favor of indigenous African spirituality and describes herself as a witch. Still, her recourse to Christian references as a powerful metaphor for her experience is all over her work. The title track of her second album, “God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It,” started with a sample of Ozzy Osbourne moaning “Oh no, no, please God help me” from Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” The song goes on to describe her contemplation of suicide. On the album’s next song, she declares ‘I f**k with black magic/I love the bad magic.”

Both heavy metal and the hip-hop subgenre horrorcore are full of exaggerated violent imagery, but her music uses them to enhance an intensity grounded in real life. Shouting over metal samples, as she has often done, she uses the genre’s theatricality as a quest for catharsis. But while “God Has Nothing” goes into some extremely unpleasant places, it closes on a note of acceptance and forgiveness, with “Redemption” as the final song. In addition to Patti Smith and Led Zeppelin, it samples a Christian choir from Zambia and megapreacher Kenneth Copeland. Her latest album, “I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and Dresses,” returns to the worst moments of her life, when she was struggling with a drug problem after emigrating to Canada to attend college.

“God Has Nothing” was Backxwash’s artistic and critical breakthrough, winning the Polaris Prize for the best album released by a Canadian artist in 2020. But due to its use of uncleared samples, she had to keep it off streaming services and give it away as a free download on Bandcamp. She followed it with an ep, “Stigmata,” where she rapped over samples of unblack (Christian) metal. But “I Lie Here Buried” is far lighter on samples, the main one being her flip of post-rock band Godspeed! You Black Emperor on “Burn to Ashes.”

On a first listen, the turmoil of “I Lie Here Buried” is clearer than its lyrics. The production, mostly done by Backxwash herself, is thick and loud, filled with noisy guitars and electronics. It’s a harrowing listen, with no relief from the pain it expresses. Most songs allude to suicidal ideation. “Nine Hells” describes her struggles with drugs. The title song uses a chorus of death metal growls from Ada Rook, a singer/producer in the noise-pop duo Black Dresses. Sad13’s tuneful signing on “SONG OF SINNERS” almost seems sarcastic. (Rapper Censored Dialogue gets a feature, the noise-rap group clipping produced “Blood in the Water,” and members of the metalcore group Code Orange contributed to the album.) “666 in Luxana,” which combines samples of African singing with extreme noise, takes the album in a different direction without departing from its signature sound.

Backxwash identifies as an anarchist, and her political perspective comes through on “I Lie Here Buried.” At various points on the album, she attacks Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau. The title song bemoans “I see no such thing as justice/The world is run by the wicked.” “Terror Packets” ends with the words of Angela Davis, while “IN MY HOLY NAME” goes in the other direction and samples a homophobic preacher. “666 in Luxana” addresses the literal demonization of African culture: “They say ‘your culture is evil’/Here’s a realer story/We have the answers that you’re needing.”  Backxwash’s awareness that her struggle with evil isn’t entirely self-created lurks behind this album’s cries.

“I Lie Here Buried” starts with a 90-second spoken word track, which says “the purpose of pain is to get our attention that something is wrong, protect us from further damage, and get us to request care. In this sense, a little bit of pain is a good thing.” Pain rap has become its own lane akin to a contemporary version of the blues, with artists like Polo G, Lil Durk and Rod Wave delivering downbeat autobiographical stories. But it tends to be melodic and accessible, with singsong Autotuned vocals. “I Lie Here Buried” matches its sonics to the emotions it expresses. She also avoids the pitfalls of horrorcore’s many empty attempts at over-the-top shock value. “666 in Luxana,” which combines samples of African singing with extreme noise, takes the album in a different direction without departing from its signature sound. When she raps “I’m on the verge of losing my soul,” it’s a response to living in a world so hostile to Black trans women that the extremes of Christian beliefs about hell are taking place here and now.

BACKXWASH |“I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and Dresses” | Ugly Hag Records