by Nigel Webber
“The only man I hold weight for” – Ghostface Killah
Kairo is a student, but he’s also a teacher. The Winnipeg rapper is constantly learning about hip-hop history, cultural traditions from his homeland in Trinidad, and even lessons from his ancestors in Africa. But Kairo is also using that knowledge in his own music, to connect it to his past and to teach a younger generation that may have yet to discover the importance of figures like Haile Selassie. Kairo’s conscious style but street-savviness makes him one of the most interesting up and coming rappers in Winnipeg today.
Born and bred in Winnipeg’s Maples area, Kairo’s introduction to hip-hop came at an early age through classic cultural touchstones like the original Space Jam movie soundtrack, including the timeless posse cut “Hang ‘Em High.” By high school, Kairo was writing raps and discovering on his own the stories of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Marcus Garvey.
It was learning about the history of the African griot which really brought together the two worlds he found himself deeply invested in. Historically in West African cultures, a griot acted as a repository of knowledge and oral histories of their larger family, bringing with them their knowledge and traditions while being captured and enslaved. Kairo believes that as a descendant of those peoples, he is a modern day representation of a griot, saying, “I feel like it’s important for me to incorporate that into my music so the next generation has some sort of connection to that realm.”
Kairo stresses the importance of learning about and becoming familiar with his Trinidadian culture, noting, “that connection to my heritage really keeps me going on a lot of days.”
What keeps Kairo going musically is the Wu Tang Clan. While he cites a cavalcade of classic hip-hop artists as influences, from KRS One to Mos Def, Kairo keeps coming back to the significance of Wu Tang on his rap career. He notes that his first ever rap show was seeing Wu Tang’s the GZA at the Pyramid in 2011, conveniently also a nice introduction to some of Winnipeg’s local rap groups at the time.
While Kairo had been working on music previously, it was his meeting with producer Hoopaloop in 2018 that really sparked something in both artists. Hoopaloop, who was previously profiled in “Winnipeg State of Mind” in 2020, said of Kairo, “he’s got a lot to say in his music, that’s what I like, an artist who really focuses on the conscious side of stuff, with a bigger message.”
The collaboration of Hoop’s old school boom bap style beats with Kairo laid back conscious flow brought out the inner Wu Tang in Kairo. Since 2018, Kairo and Hoopaloop have put out a long list of singles, a five song EP, and the video for “Radiate,” a song that came out of their first session together.
Kairo makes sure it’s noted that while he and Hoop have only been making music together for a few years, much of the content that is now gracing our ears was a long time in the works for both of them, saying that some of the raps were written many years prior to the songs ultimately being released. An oral historian holding on to a story until it has the proper avenue to be told in, a modern day griot at heart Kairo is thoroughly dedicated to getting his message out there, knowing that he has generations of ancestors behind him as support. As Kairo says, “Being a voice to the voiceless is a big inspiration for me and a reason why I write the way I do.”
Buoyed by the support of a strong producer in Hoopaloop, Kairo has become one of Winnipeg’s more political rappers. Describing the writing of overtly political songs like “Never Back Down” or “Sound of the Police” as therapy, Kairo is quick to point to music as a way to feel connected to something larger when nothing else makes sense.
While quoting a line from 2Pac about planting seeds so the next generation can grow, Kairo also acknowledges the younger generation is an inspiration for him, specifically a younger cousin of his who is involved in organizing the Justice for Black Lives Winnipeg movement.
Kairo stakes a claim to his role defiantly, saying that, “there’s always gotta be some protest music,” ultimately bringing up the revolutionary music and life of Fela Kuti as yet another inspiration. Kairo writes music that connects the past, both recent and distant, with the present of modern day Winnipeg in a visceral way that leaves the listener reflecting on their own relationship to that history.
Kairo knows that despite all his research and readings, he is a product of Winnipeg, a city in which he sees a lot of promise but also celebrates the working class nature of. Critical of a lack of industry support, Kairo explains that Winnipeg can support the new generation of up and coming rappers but comments with a laugh, “Winnipeg’s just going to be a hustlin’-ass city.”