HOW FAR CAN A DRAKE CO-SIGN AND A DREAM GET TORONTO'S HOTTEST MC?
Mo-G peeks his head over a booth at the back of Cloud 9. Cloud 9, also known as Rotonas, is a shisha spot in East York. He stares at me with what my mom calls indho adeeg — hard, magnetlike eyes. He is surrounded by his friends, some of whom grew up with him in Regent Park. He’s golden-complected, tall, thin, dimpled. He’s wearing a brand-new True Religion jacket and jeans. He looks and acts his age, which is to say he’s 19 going on 20, and you can tell by the way his attention shifts rapidly with laser focus. One minute he’s staring at me, the next he’s looking at his friends or lookingover the counter near their booth, then he’s staring at me again. His observance, scattershot, mirrors the hazy energy of the room: There’s incertitude, but he’s present.
Mo-G, born Mohamed Bahdon, reps Halal Gang, a crew of young diaspora kids from the Downtown Toronto neighborhood of Regent Park. Halal Gang’s most prominent member is the rapper Safe. Safe’s moody, trap R&B single “Feel” blew up last summer. Safe, unlike Mo-G, has a manager, and his sound complements the OVO sound. But Mo-G isn’t interested in the machinations of an industry — he doesn’t care about prominence, he’s just a kid from Regent Park — that feels so removed from here. Regent Park is Toronto’s first and largest original housing project created by the Canadian government. Since its creation in 1947, Regent Park has gentrified, replacing many of the subsidized homes with high-rise condos and businesses. Mo-G grew up here, on Sutton Ave., which is predominantly Somali and working-class. Bahdon, whose parents are Somali by way of Djibouti, is a middle child of eight siblings. At the age of 10, Bahdon, inspired by legends like Tupac and Jay Z, started rapping for fun. “I was mad talented, was one of those kids who stuck out,” he explains. He knew he had something, and this was part of it. “Everyone who knows me knew I’d get my money.”
But the money didn’t come right away for Mo-G, who at 10 years old elected to drop out of elementary school. “He was in the hood with his friends getting street education,” Jibril, one of Mo-G’s oldest friends, says. A hood education and all that comes with it — rapping in basements, hustling in the streets — has occupied Mo-G’s life for the last nine or so years. Save for a two-week stint through Toronto’s Exhibition Place, also known as The Ex, Mo-G has never worked for anyone but himself.
A month ago, what might constitute Bahdon’s big break came in a Drake couplet in “Summer Sixteen,” which effectively introduced him to the world beyond Toronto: “Mo-G with the dance moves / Ave Boy with the dance moves.” “That nigga gave me a career,” offers Bahdon; for him, Drake isn’t simply an avatar to project onto, or an elusive Orwellian figure of Toronto — the “6 God.” Bahdon refers to him as “big brother.” “He is genuine, that’s why I f*ck with him.” Bahdon's recent come-up owes a debt to the superstar's largesse — OVO helped Mo-G record his first EP, Ave Boy — but the work he’s put in is his own.
Mo-G is an engaging speaker. His voice, loud and direct, is part of his easy charisma. With his pretty-boy dimples and infectious smile, Mo-G’s ripe to be more than a hood star. A hood star, after all, follows a specific formula: record a street banger, hypermasculine, regional, and heavy on the bass. The video includes a fun, new, whippy dance. The hood star gets co-signed and plucked, deus ex machina, by a prominent rapper, and for a few months fate seems certain. Then, in most cases, you never hear from them again — their hood resonance doesn’t cast a wide enough net. Whether Mo-G is the Canadian Bobby Shmurda (limited staying power, institutional barriers) or the name that breaks in the wake of Drake (a singular talent) has yet to be seen. Mo-G doesn’t seem to think much about the future; he believes he is just himself, choosing faith and living in the moment over any record deal. “I don’t even believe in that signing shit,” he says. “I’m signed to Allah.”
Mo-G, who spends a significant portion of the early part of the day alone at home either asleep or lounging, often has long, spontaneous excursion-filled nights that start at one place — a hookah bar, the Rabba, a studio — and end up in another. He gets a second wind, maybe there’s some alcohol in his system, and he just finds himself in situations he didn’t foresee. It’s out of this lifestyle that two years ago Mo-G was born through his best-known song, “Still (by the Rabba).” An unofficial anthem of Downtown Toronto, the song speaks of “moving product” and the Rabba, among other things. The lyrics, aspirational and full of braggadocio, reference basketball, Gucci, getting money. “I knew it was going to be a hit,” Mo-G insists, sitting in the booth at Cloud 9 with Jibril. The full story behind the song was that Mo-G and some friends were downtown and Mo came into some ends -- he is coy about how, exactly. “Basically, I won the lotto,” he says by way of explanation. He went home and told his brother to turn on his phone and record him freestyling. Flush with the cash and excited, he then went to his friend’s house and roasted all of them one by one. As Mo remembers it: “I gave everyone a hot 16, making fun of them.” He looks at me like he could mercilessly cap on me, too, any minute now. Later that night, Mo-G wrote “Still” — based largely on the raps he freestyled with his brother and friends, using an instrumental he found on YouTube.
The video for “Still (by the Rabba)” racked up over 100,000 views before Mo-G took it down out of respect for his best friend Ano, who died not long after the video was released. Ano, whose real name is Yusuf Ali, was shot eight times on Shuter and Trefann Streets, in broad daylight, on October 6, 2014. “He is smoking in the video and drinking — I’m a spiritual nigga, you know, I don’t like his family seeing that,” explains Bahdon. “I was holding khamri [alcohol] in my hand, and if I die, I don’t want motherfuckers seeing that, you know what I’m saying? That shit is gonna burn me in hell.”
The video segues between shots of Downtown Toronto and Mo-G with his friends; they are joyous, rapping along to the lyrics and dancing. Everything from the gunshots heard at the beginning of the track to the location makes it obvious that the song is meant to showcase a street lifestyle. In the video, which has since been reuploaded on YouTube by fans, Mo-G can be seen doing a dance he innovated called the Ginobli. If the dance seems familiar, it’s because Drake does it in the videos for “Energy” and “Hotline Bling.” Drake also references it in the song “Jumpman.” Nearly a year ago, Drake posted about it on Instagram, and months after that he captioned a celebratory photo of OVO clinking champagne glasses on Instagram like “Ginobli'd all summer like I said I would … RIP Ano.”
The story of how Drake got wind of Mo-G is that Safe, who used to work at the OVO store, hit up OVO mastermind Oliver El-Khatib and shared “Still (by the Rabba)” with him. Oliver passed it to Drake, and then in no time Drake was shouting Mo-G out. Since then, OVO helped finance the recording of his EP, Ave Boy. He prefers not to have his stuff mastered — he prefers it unvarnished, raw. “Never mixed and mastered it. I’m just a raw nigga, you know what I’m saying?”
Even with all that’s begun to manifest for Mo-G, his life and his thoughts all seem to pivot on Ano, and more specifically on Ano’s death. “Ano was a good guy with a pure heart. Always laughing and smiling, always happy.” When he utters that standard-issue rapper line “Real niggas ain’t scared to die,” Mo-G says it with a look of detachment and a shrug. There is no bravado. When Mo-G talks about death, though, it’s not particularly morbid and dark. It’s realistic and casual, in line with the Islamic and Somali perspectives on death.
“Ever since I washed [Ano’s] body — I washed his body … he got shot a few times in the back of the head and he had braids, and I had to take out his braids and wash his body. I’m not gonna speak upon how it looked. From that day I was traumatized, but at the end of the day I didn’t cry. I only cried and broke down when his mom kissed his forehead. He messaged me to come out before he died,” he says, remembering. “Imagine if I was with him.” Mo-G takes a swig of chai and looks despondent. It was Ano that Mo-G skipped school with in Regent Park every day, it was Ano who bumped “Still” everywhere for weeks, it was Ano who told Mo to pursue his dream of rapping. In “Mind Symphony,” a track off of Ave Boy dedicated to Ano, Mo-G sings in a conversational tone over a dark, solemn instrumental, “No lie / man these nights how I cry thinking about why you had to die.” The song is a recounting of the night after Ano’s death, the days of anxiety and grief, the resentment and wishes for revenge that have come in the wake of it all.
Mo-G didn't manifest any of this by being prayerful; he never thought Drake would co-sign him or that his best friend would die. All of the variables in Mo-G’s life and career trajectory are out of his control. We've seen many rappers come before him — just as eccentric and dynamic — but their stars tend to dim and fade out. Perhaps what sets Mo-G apart is all his grief, all his heart. He tells of the night he wrote "Mind Symphony", and this crystalline moment around all of it. The uncertainty and fatedness of it all goes hand-in-hand for him — life, death, success, fame, the sacred and the profane. “I seen the sun kinda rise and it was kinda like red sky, bright ... it look like qiyamah [hereafter] coming,” recalls Mo-G. “ I never knew I would be making a track about my nigga. After that I shed one, two tears. That’s when I knew it would be a banger.”