Kenyan native takes over Canadian’s top radio job


Seven seconds into my conversation with Canadian rapper Shad — poised to replace the disgraced Jian Ghomeshi as the new host of CBC Radio’s “Q” — it becomes clear a question about his stint studying business at Wilfrid Laurier University will result in something more than folksy reminiscences designed to curry favour with local readers.

“There was nothing in particular that grabbed me with school,” he notes, recalling his dissatisfaction with his chosen career path a decade ago. “My life was on a different track back then.

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“But I think it drove me harder into music — this getting closer and closer to graduation and being like ‘Oh man, I gotta figure something else out, ’cause I’m not really into this!’ “

It was 2003 or 2004 when the Kenyan native, who grew up in London, Ont., found himself on a Laurier work term at Canadian Tire’s head office in Toronto, going through Excel spreadsheets about hockey sticks.

“They assigned me to winter sporting goods, and I’d never played a winter sport, and I was in charge of purchasing for that department,” he notes with no trace of wistful reflection. “And I was just like ‘I don’t know if this makes a whole lotta sense.’ “

With a casual interest in music, he decided to enter the Rhythm of the Future contest sponsored by Kitchener’s 91.5 The Beat and, in 2004, won enough money to finance his first album, “When This Is Over.”

It not only kick-started his career as a rapper, it led to three Polaris Music Prize nominations and a Juno award in 2008.

Suddenly, the family-friendly musician, who raps about things like Aboriginal issues and feminism, was on his way.

“I met my DJ (in Waterloo) that I still tour with,” he notes, pressed for local connections. “I had my first experiences with music and wrote my first songs in my dorm room and the series of disgusting apartments I lived in. I found my voice.”

All of which is now on hold, as the personable 32-year-old prepares to take on the country’s top radio job April 20 while its original host is tried on multiple charges of sexual assault.

It’s a job everyone wants but — as five months of guest hosts have made abundantly clear — almost no one can do well.

Never mind. After months of online debate and in-house soul-searching, Shad — chosen from 200 applicants for his easygoing manner and musical background — is the victor, the man who would be king.

But five months without stability is a long time.

And as some U.S. syndicates drop “Q” from their lineup and A-list guests become rarer than a senator without a slush fund, the sharks are already circling the tank.

He’s too young, shout the yuppie hipsters who made up the bulk of “Q’s” loyal audience. Too untested. Too nice. Too hip. Too hip hop.

Most of all, he’s not Ghomeshi.

The best comparison is Justin Trudeau, the youthful Liberal leader who inherited a party decimated by scandal and impropriety, and was promptly attacked by hard-nosed veterans who figured he was a fancy boy who would never measure up.

“It just hasn’t bothered me that much, at least in theory,” says Shad of the online whining since his audition week in January was judged engaging but uneven.

“In guest hosting, I got this sense that radio is one of those things like sports: yelling at the TV is part of it. ‘Oh you idiot, you dropped that pass!’

“It’s part of that culture and fun around it.”

He has other things on his mind, he says.

• How to ask tough questions, but still have a sense of humour.

• How to derail the marketing spiels of message-tracked celebrities without coming off as strident or shrill. (“I’m not really interested in hosting a celebrity shmoozathon or a PR fest,” says Shad. “And I know the audience isn’t.”)

• How to discuss — with insight, enthusiasm and a touch of gravitas — topics like rape on campus, the decline of freak shows, Peeps-flavoured milk, speed-dating seniors, Afghan dating culture and Jason Segal’s new children’s book.

• And what if, God forbid, a pompous windbag like Billy Bob Thornton shows up, defiantly refuses to discuss his acting career and plays dumb to all your questions, as he did with Ghomeshi in 2009?

“Just watching that particular episode, I thought Jian was so gracious,” notes Shad, who doesn’t sweat his own shortcomings. “I don’t know if I would have hung in there with the guy. He was being totally ridiculous.

“But the fact Jian was so nice about it won over a lot of people, so there can be something beneficial to being nice in that chair, too.”

If there’s a flaw shared by most guest hosts, it’s a tendency to come across as if they’re reading from a script — which many likely are — missing cues that would lead the conversation in bold, uncharted directions.

“And then, my entire family was wiped out in the Rwandan genocide,” a guest might reveal, choking back tears.

“Excellent,” the oblivious host might retort, relentlessly checking notes. “And what other projects do you have coming up?”

Shad laughs at that one.

“That’s the art of it. How can you make a real human conversation?”

It’s something he tapped into quickly during his stint as guest host.

“I definitely felt right away, ‘OK, I’m in this chair and there’s a lot of moving parts. I gotta press mic ‘on’ and mic ‘off’ at the right time, keep an eye on the clock, stick to the script and make the show run smoothly.’ “

As one CBC vet after another offered advice — Trust yourself! Don’t be intimidated! Follow your gut! — he began to realize there was more to it.

“I’m gonna try to follow my instincts sooner,” he says with no trace of ego. “To not get scared and lean back on the script and end up in a situation where someone’s ready to tell you about the most pivotal moment in their life and you’re like ‘Oh cool. Well, I saw this one scene in your new show. Here’s a clip!’ “

It’s one reason, presumably, CBC opted for an artist neophyte — with charisma and potential for growth — over the seasoned vets whose journalism degrees are like licences to be boring.

“Entertainment is not a dirty word to me as a musician,” notes Shad, who comes off, on the phone, like a guy comfortable in his own skin, modest and unassuming, but willing to mix it up if necessary.

“I’m an artist. At the same time, I have no illusions. I’m an entertainer. That’s why I get paid. It’s not because my ideas are so compelling and life changing, but also because people laugh when they listen to my music or have fun when they go to my show.”

Ultimately, he figures, it’ll go the way it’s gonna go. And if it doesn’t work in his favour, well, he’ll always have those Polaris nominations.

“I’m trying not to think about it too much in terms of ‘I really wanna keep this job!’ ” he confides. “Because that’s just gonna lead to mistakes.

“It’s the kind of thing that is so broad in terms of listenership, there’s never gonna be a consensus. I’m just gonna try to do my best. Beyond that, we’ll see what happens.”

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