Mustafa the Poet—songs of pain and love
Exploring how the Toronto-based artist shares his grief through music and poetry.
Mustafa, also known as Mustafa the Poet, is a Sudanese-Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, and filmmaker from Toronto. At only twelve-years-old, he rose to fame after performing his poem “A Single Rose” at his middle school. His local recognition led him to national success, with multiple news outlets and media platforms sharing his story. His poetry and music, which are heavily inspired and influenced by the neighbourhood and community that raised him, highlight the complexities of love and loss.
Born to Sudanese immigrants, Mustafa lived in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. He made several close friends throughout his time there, but even they weren’t strangers to the systemic violence and gangs within the east-end community. In 2009, Mustafa wrote “A Single Rose” about his family and the struggles of poverty. Since then, he has co-written songs for many well-known artists, such as The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, and Camila Cabello.
Mustafa’s debut album, When Smoke Rises, highlights a collection of intimate ballads that commemorate his friends and community members who were lost to violence. The album heavily relies on Mustafa’s somber vocals mixed with simple piano and guitar melodies. Through his tranquil and whisper-like voice, Mustafa uses music to express grief, struggle, and hope. All of his tracks also feature vocal samples from his close friends—including laughter, quotes, short poems, and slang. The title, When Smoke Rises, is a tribute to Mustafa’s late friend Smoke Dawg, who passed away in a daylight shooting in 2018. The album came out last year in May and won the 2022 Juno Award for “Alternative Album of the Year.”
The longest and most powerful track on the album is “What About Heaven.” The song appears to sound like a conversation between Smoke Dawg and Mustafa and touches on the idea of death through all the “missing words” they didn’t say. In the chorus, Mustafa sings: “We forgot to talk about heaven, and leavin’, and what it would mean, and how I would grieve.” The song lyrics are authentic and capture the feelings of despair after a sudden loss. Through the incorporation of traditional Egyptian and Sudanese instrumental music, this track speaks to the life and culture that made Mustafa the artist he is today.
Mustafa is a storyteller. His music and poetry naturally reflect his stories of grief and loss. From a young age, he made communities aware of the poverty that exists in Toronto and acted as a social justice advocate. Now, he raises awareness for violence and discrimination. Through music, Mustafa transforms his pain into beautiful and thought-provoking ballads.