Photo: Spencer Edwards / Press

Introducing: Charmaine

Charmaine believes in divine intervention. As far as the Zimbabwe-born Canadian rapper is concerned, her blossoming stature in the hip-hop genre is a work of destiny, not purely the product of happenstance. Considering where she’s been versus where she’s headed, it’s hard to deny that that faith, fate, and hard work are all at play, making way for her to ascend as a formidable force in the music industry. 

The 25-year-old artist’s latest project — the deluxe edition of her debut EP, Hood Avant-Garde, which dropped on June 25 — is proof of her promise as it boasts seven high-energy tracks about sex, money, hustle, and power. The commonplace motifs are revivified by the voice behind them: a woman who’s been in a long-lasting battle to establish her place and power in the world with music as her weapon.

Performing arts became a part of Charmaine’s life at an early age. Her interest in writing and performing piqued when she was a preteen after her family moved from Zimbabwe and settled in Nashville. She would watch her father play church songs on his beloved keyboard, hoping that she’d eventually take a crack at it. But her father worried that she’d break the instrument, so she never got to play — until he left for work one day. 

An emboldened Charmaine, who was 8 years old at the time, made her way to the keyboard and started to play. Observational learning and auditory faculty guided her through the chords as she matched each note to her memory of the songs her father performed. Her mother, who was pregnant with Charmaine’s little brother, was asleep in the next room. 

“She woke up to the music I was playing and thought it was my dad,” Charmaine recalls. “So she came into the room yelling because she thought it was him disturbing her nap. When she walked in and saw me, she was shocked. She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what the hell?’ And then she told my dad about it, and he was super-duper proud.” (After sharing the endearing story, Charmaine admits that she hasn’t played the keyboard as of late. “My fingers start cramping now. It’s kind of sad,” she says with a laugh.)

Years later, when Charmaine was in high school, her family moved to Toronto where their lives took a bleak turn. Her father was laid off from his job, and they lost their house, which forced them into a shelter and, eventually, a motel. Charmaine shared the small space, which had a hot plate instead of a kitchen, with her parents and three brothers (two older and one younger). “It was definitely one of the hardest times of my life,” Charmaine says. 

She became responsible for taking her little brother to and from his elementary school, which required them to wake up around 6 a.m. to catch a bus and a train. The commute was about one hour and 20 minutes both ways, leaving Charmaine exhausted during her homeschooling hours. “I hated it so much,” she says. “It was the most frustrating experience ever. That’s why I was like, ‘I need to do something to get out of here because this can’t be my life.’”

So she prayed for a breakthrough. “I’m a huge believer in prayers being answered and having faith,” she says. “And I believe that the more I’m in tune with my spirituality, the more blessings I’ll receive.” Her blessing came in the form of a Facebook post that advertised a talent show taking place about an hour and a half away from her, prompting her and her mother to hop on a train and head to the event. Although Charmaine missed the sign-up deadline (and wasn’t old enough to enter the venue), she was allowed to perform after some convincing. She sang Beyoncé’s “1+1” and Alicia Keys’s “If I Ain’t Got You,” catching the attention of an A&R representative from Warner Music. 

Charmaine worked with the A&R scout for about two years then stepped away from music when she had trouble connecting with her creativity. But she circled back in 2018 after having her son, hoping to be an example of determination. She quit her job as a makeup artist at Sephora and hunkered down on writing songs before sending one to the A&R representative. He gave the track his stamp of approval, inspiring Charmaine’s musical revival.

“If that whole situation hadn’t happened with my dad and his job and us being in that terrible place, I probably wouldn’t have thought about doing music again,” Charmaine says, reflecting on her journey. “Or maybe I would have. I don’t know. All I know is, because of that, I ended up doing music, which got me here.” 

Charmaine officially burst onto the scene in 2020 with her debut single, “Bold,” an aptly titled hard-hitting ditty that was fortuitously born out of a recording session. Charmaine had always been a singer, believing that her older brothers were the only keen rappers of the family. But when her team urged her to record a rap song in the studio one day, she unexpectedly unleashed a lyrical knockout. “I was surprised,” she recalls. “I never even attempted to try [rapping]. I don’t think I was brave enough until somebody pushed me. But I was able to see my capabilities, and now I think I love rapping more than I love singing.”

It’s hard to believe that “Bold” is the first rap song Charmaine has ever recorded considering the sheer lack of discomfort. “Dior jeans / Walk out closet / Check your feed / I’m your topic,” she boasts on the track. “Big deposit / Let’s be honest / Bitch I’m ballin’.” The music video is just as spunky, showing Charmaine dropping bars in a hair salon, counting money, and swanking about in glitzy ensembles. 

Unflinching moxie is a steady theme in Charmaine’s music, which she describes as “bossy, fresh, and unpredictable.” She’s unapologetic in her forwardness that stems from years of working toward self-acceptance. “I struggled so much with my confidence in my early teen years and the early stages of my adulthood,” she says. “I went through a process of debunking what society deems as inaccessible for Black women. We’re always told our hair can’t be too bright, we can’t wear bright lipstick, we can’t be too colorful because it doesn’t suit our complexion.”  

Those notions, Charmaine asserts, are myths. “I want to show people that we can be just as bright, vibrant, colorful, and amazing as anybody else,” she says. “There’s no box you can put us in. So I love playing around with my looks. I love pushing myself outside of that box to show people I can do whatever I want, and you can’t tell me otherwise.”

Her music video for “Double Dutch” captures her authoritative spirit as she engages in a rap battle with a regal 18th century version of herself: Charmaine the feisty eccentric vs. Charmaine the pampered queen. The video presents her in two lights, but it’s still the same self-assured individualist donning ostentatious garb with dazzling embellishments. Any way you slice it, she comes out on top.

“That whole video was fun to make,” Charmaine says, citing “Double Dutch” as her favorite music video drop to date. “I had this vision in my head of what I wanted it to look like. I put my thoughts down on a video treatment and sent it in. By the end of it all, it was the most exciting video I’ve ever shot. And it was really fun because I got to work with my photographer, Spencer [Edwards]. That was the first video of mine that he directed. It was a blast.”

The world Charmaine is creating for herself is influenced by Canadian artists such as Golde London, Jully Black, and Haviah Mighty (who’s featured on Hood Avant-Garde’s deluxe track, “We Don’t Care”), as well as US artists such as Da Brat, Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliott. But, at its core, her artistry is rooted in idiosyncrasy. She’s methodical in the songwriting process and is heavily involved in the creative direction of her music videos to ensure that her vibrant personality shines through. 

Her thoughtfulness of craft has already earned her a handful of honors. In March, she was the only Canadian artist selected for SoundCloud’s “First On SoundCloud” accelerator program, and in April, she was recognized as Amazon Music’s “Breakthrough Canada” artist of the month, as well as Spotify Canada’s “Radar Artist.” 

“The beauty is in the details,” Charmaine says of Hood Avant-Garde, which she first started crafting in 2019. “Every song is carefully written, structured, and put together. It all tells a story. And if you listen to one after the other, some of them have a continuation. Like, at the end of the ‘WOO!,’ I talk about making a Latin song, right? And then we made a Latin song.” (Go ahead and queue up “A Mi Manera,” featuring Puerto Rican singer Valentino.) 

As Charmaine evolves as an artist, she plans on exploring sounds within the Afrobeat, trap, pop, soul, and R&B realms. She also has a catalog of artists she hopes to join forces with: Missy Elliott, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Anitta, Lady Leshurr, Bad Bunny, Flo Milli, J Balvin, Latto, City Girls, Wizkid, Davido, Stefflon Don, and Burna Boy. “There are so many people on my list, and I’m going to slowly cross them off one by one,” she affirms. So it’s safe to say that her latest features on “Quartz” by Vancouver rapper Boslen and “Fuckery” by Cuban-Norwegian singer Lauren are among the first of many collaborations to come.

Charmaine is particularly intent on making the music industry a more empowering place for women. She vehemently rejects the idea that there can only be one woman at the top of rap’s class of elites. “Everybody can eat at the same table,” she says. “It’s not that serious.” She relishes the wishful thought of rap’s most renowned women, including Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Nicki Minaj, going on tour together. “Women are killing the game right now, way more than the men, respectfully,” she says. “I would love to help create a future where we’re in a space where we can all collaborate with each other on one track or one tour, dominating the game together.” 

She has also set her sights on releasing a studio album that goes platinum, going on an international tour, winning a JUNO award, and receiving an honor at a US-based award show.

For now, the task at hand is to keep grinding and inspiring others along the way. “I want to help people be more secure and confident within themselves, especially Black women,” Charmaine says. “Everything I do now is to set an example and to encourage Black women to love themselves. We’ve been criticized and ridiculed for so long, but I want us to be who we are and not apologize for that.”

That mission, Charmaine says, is driven by an optimistic mindset that will help her succeed beyond her wildest dreams. “I always try to understand that what’s meant for me in this life is always going to be for me,” she says. “All I have to do is be ready to receive it.”