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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

How music helped lift blind Oji-Cree rapper Mattmac out of ‘dark place’

BY Andre Simoneau Oct 23, 2020

Matthew Monias is not one to let his disabilities keep him from reaching his goals.

Monias – who records rap music under the name Mattmac – has been blind since birth. But that hasn’t stopped the 20-year-old from the Oji-Cree community of Garden Hill, Manitoba, from making a name for himself in the music industry.

Mattmac recently released his first single, “Paradise”, onto streaming platforms, with an accompanying music video making the rounds on YouTube. The single charted on the Indigenous Music Countdown, a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by SiriusXM Canada. 

“It’s blowing up right now,” says Monias. “It’s doing crazy numbers that I could not imagine. I’ve absolutely been loving it so far.”

Monias – who began singing at local gospel jamborees at the age of four – attributes much of his success to his musical upbringing.

“As a kid I was surrounded with a lot of music,” he says, “from my mom’s gospel music, to my siblings who would play both rap and rock.”

By the time he reached his early teens, Monias had taught himself to play piano, drums and guitar. He credits his musical efforts with helping overcome a period of depression he experienced at a young age.

“Music helped me pull myself out of the dark place, and gave me a bit of hope,” he says. “It gave me something to do, and something to focus myself on.”

Then came a crucial moment in Monias’ musical career. In 2017, his school in Garden Hill participated in a recording project with N’we Jinan, a mobile production studio that offers Indigenous youth the chance to collaborate with professional musicians and producers. They learn the process and vocabulary of sound recording, as well as writing and performing songs.

N’we Jinan Executive Director David Hodges recalls his first meeting with Monias.

“The first thing that struck me about Matthew was his excitement around music production and the equipment,” Hodges says. “I knew right from the start that we were really going to get along.” 

For Monias, the timing could not have been better.

“At that time, I was really getting into music production,” he recalls. “And the first question I asked David was ‘What kind of gear do you have?’ That was our first connection.”

Over a span of one week, a group of students from Garden Hill wrote and recorded a song called “Help You See”, inspired by Monias’ life story.

“I realized how naturally musically gifted Matthew was,” says Hodges. “He was easy to work with – a natural singer, with great musical understanding, who performed well. I told him at the end of the week that he was destined for great things through music.”

“It was absolutely wonderful,” Monias says of his experience with N’we Jinan. “Recording the song, getting to know my peers in my school, and recording the video around the school and community.” 

Monias says this first recording experience helped him realize how he could connect with people through music.

“I want to get my music to somebody who will connect with my lyrics, or the subject matter that I cover, and for them to be like, ‘Hey, I’m not alone in this.’”

The success of “Help You See” eventually led Monias to perform with Nelly Furtado at Indigenous Day Live and We Day Canada Day on Parliament Hill.

From then on, Monias continued to hone his music production skills, by using assistive technologies to help him navigate recording software like Logic Pro. It was also around this time that Monias discovered an online collective of musicians called Blind N Famous, based out of Atlanta, Georgia.

“We’re all blind,” Monias says of the group. “We all contribute to each other’s ideas, we bounce ideas off each other, we record, we write, we rap, we sing, we produce, we mix and engineer our stuff.”

Monias says the group helped him define the sound he wanted to develop.

“They were getting me into different artists, and giving me pointers and production tips, and showing me how a certain genre like trap has evolved,” Monias says. “They updated my sound significantly, so I attribute a lot my success to them.”

Monias cites trap artists such as XXXtentacion and Juice Wrld as having an influence on his musical style.

“Ever since I was a kid, there was a part of me that always liked rap,” he says.

“I remember listening to my sister’s rap CDs, like a guilty pleasure, and hearing Winnipeg’s Most. They were one of the few Indigenous artists that I heard of as a kid.” 

As for how he came up with the name Mattmac, Monias says it’s a funny story.

“I use a voice-chat app, and for a time, my display name was ‘Matt on Mac’, because I had it on different platforms. So, every time I went on the server, one of my online friends from the blind community said, ‘Hey look, it’s Mattmac’. From there it just kind of stuck with me.”

Monias insists that no one should let adversity stand in the way of their musical dreams.

“You don’t need a whole lot to get started, or to be successful,” he says. “I’m a blind person, I grew up on the rez, in an isolated fly-in community. I don’t have a big production studio. I’m only working with what I have. It’s just how much talent you have, and how much work you’re willing to put in.”

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Andre Simoneau is a writer and filmmaker from the Eastern Townships of Québec. He studied English literature and creative writing at Concordia University. He currently lives in Montréal.