Cayden Carfrae isn’t just a lover of hip-hop, he’s a self-styled scholar of the genre.
The 22-year-old Winnipeg musician, who performs as Caid Jones, grew up on a steady diet of guitar and classic rock, but everything changed when his dad gave him a copy of The Eminem Show more than a decade ago.
"It was love at first sound," Carfrae says.
He played the album over and over and over — eventually expanding his CD collection to include other rappers, such as Tupac, Dr. Dre, NWA and Rakim. At 10 years old, he became an avid listener and researcher, digging into the history of hip hop and the backstories of his favourite artists. The music pulled back the curtain on life as he knew it.
"It became a big teacher to me; I was learning a lot about the world and I was learning a lot about society," Carfrae says. "There’s police corruption, there’s government corruption, gang wars, violence, poverty… my vision of the world before, when I was a bit younger, was, ‘OK, well the world is all rainbows and lollipops,’ and once I started getting into hip hop it was a more authentic view on things."
Carfrae has since become an involved community advocate, but he didn’t always feel like giving back.
High school was tough. He struggled with attendance and acceptance from classmates; there were few things he felt he excelled at. It was easy to adopt the angry, world-is-against-me attitude of idols like Eminem.
That facade melted away, however, when he discovered a love of — and natural talent for — poetry.
He was encouraged by an English teacher to keep writing and soon Carfrae connected the dots between rhyming couplets and rap verses. Poetry allowed him to fully participate in an artform he had thus far been enjoying from the sidelines.
"I realized after one class that (my poem) sounded a little bit like a rap if I read it a bit quicker and changed up a couple of words," he says. "Once I found hip hop, there was a big sense of identity to it, and pride as well — I can do this, this is something I’m good at."
He started writing every night, filling up sheet after sheet of looseleaf with verses. Carfrae’s musical journey was buoyed by support from his mom, stepdad and uncle, who gave him a keyboard and some basic production software to start making his own beats.
In June, he released his debut EP, No Distractions Please. The seven-track album introduces a talented vocalist and provides a glimpse into Carfrae’s wise-beyond-his-years outlook on life — a perspective that’s been shaped by faith and learning about his own heritage.
Carfrae’s background is Irish and Cree, but knew little about his Indigeneity until he was 16 years old. His biological dad was adopted and raised outside his community without access to his culture. As an adult, he started reconnecting with his Cree roots and sharing what he was learning with Carfrae.
"I knew that I was Indigenous, but I was almost ashamed of it growing up… because of what some people’s preconceived notions are and what some people’s prejudices are," Carfrae says. "Once I found my culture, I was very proud."
He immediately connected with ceremonies, the Seven Sacred Teachings and the idea that music is medicine — not only for performers but also for listeners. He knew that was how he wanted to approach his career.
"I started realizing the true potential behind how powerful (music) is and what you can do with it if you use it correctly," he says.
Looking back at his early musical influences, Carfrae saw past the anger and found comfort in the honest expression of difficult experiences — he felt seen by Eminem’s songs about family strife and other rappers’ stories of systemic racism, injustice and suffering. He wanted to do the same for others, but with a positive message.
"I would rather be contributing to the positive stuff in the world, than contributing to the negative," he says. "I want to be able to have another person listen to me and find relation in it, not feel so alone, not feel like they’re the only person who feels that way. That’s my goal because music has helped me so much."
Carfrae has approached his career with the same academic rigour he applied to learning about hip hop. He’s spent countless hours researching the ins and outs of the music industry and how to market himself as an artist. He teamed up with a local record company, Birthday Cake Media, to release No Distractions Please and has started his own label, PayAttention Records, with a cousin and friend. The label is still in its infancy, but the partners hope to build Winnipeg’s hip-hop scene by providing a platform for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) and immigrant artists to get noticed.
Beyond music, Carfrae is involved in community outreach projects through Graffiti Gallery and CommUNITY 204. He also hosts a radio show on UMFM 101.5 called Engage! with his friend and collaborator Josue Davi, which highlights people and organizations who are making a positive impact locally.
"My focus is underserved people, people that have been marginalized the most by colonialism and affected the most by failed systems," Carfrae says. Issues of homelessness and addiction are a top priority, as he’s watched both play out within his own family.
"A lot of the time people will neglect those (who are)... struggling with addiction or intergenerational trauma. A lot of these people just need housing, they need food security, they need love."
Carfrae is currently working on a full-length album and collaborations with other local musicians. No Distractions Please is available on most major streaming platforms.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.