The Greatest Songwriter You've Never Heard Of
Calamine raps about rape culture and revolution, taking the genre to places it's never been.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a semi-regular series about Francophone popular culture in Quebec. With linguistic tensions simmering in the province, The Rover is committed to building bridges between our communities rather than exploiting divisions. If you’re into that sort of thing, consider subscribing!
Julie Gagnon was an unemployed barista, recording verses in the closet of her East End apartment when inspiration struck.
She’d never thought of herself as a rapper before. Gagnon was more of a starving artist, working odd jobs to support painting, photography and the odd jam session. But things came together during those countless hours recording and re-recording in her homemade studio.
It was like she went into the closet as Gagnon and re-emerged as her alter-ego, Calamine — a queer socialist who drinks “Labatt 50 mimosas” and calls out the industry’s chauvinist rappers by name. On the strength of Calamine’s debut album Boulette Proof, she became only the second rapper to win the Prix Félix Leclerc in its 26 year history.
The award, which comes with a $30,000 stipend, is given out to the best emerging songwriter in Quebec.
“I remember thinking this will either blow up in her face or it will be one of the biggest albums of the decade,” said Myriam Fehmiu, a Radio-Canada host who covers hip hop for the public broadcaster. “It is so unique, it is so specific to this moment in time, it is the polar opposite of everything we’ve come to expect from Quebec rap — a sort of sexist, hetero, macho culture.
“She’s a queer, feminist, anti capitalist ecologist. But she doesn’t beat you over the head with it. She’s taking on the biggest issues of our day but she’s doing it with a lot of humour and a lot of wit. She’s incorrigibly charming.”
It’s safe to say things didn't blow up in Gagnon’s face. After winning the Prix Félix Leclerc, Gagnon was one five artists named on Radio-Canada’s “Revelations” of 2022, she just returned from a tour in France and her latest album — the aptly named Lesbienne Woke sur l’Autotune — drops today.
The title track to the new record takes no prisoners. Over a speaker-rattling bass track, Calamine doesn’t navigate the minefield of Quebec politics so much as detonate the whole thing. Names are named, revolutions called for, and her feminist lyrics dare Quebec’s conservative columnists to run her ragged in the press.
This isn’t a changing of the guard. No one stepped aside to make space for the 30-year-old lyricist. She fought for a place at the table and, if the new album is any indication, Calamine won’t give it up so easily.
The only flashy thing about Julie Gagnon is her bicycle.
It’s basically the Hochelaga equivalent of those low-rider convertibles you see in Snoop Dogg videos. A banana seat rests across from chrome handlebars that wouldn’t look out of place on an old Harley Davidson. The bike has a fixed-gear drivetrain, no brakes, and an old school Peugeot emblem pressed into the frame like a hood ornament.
Aside from the suped up bike, Gagnon’s aesthetic is purely minimalist. When we met at a bar in Montreal’s Hochelaga district last week, she wore faded jeans, deck shoes and a button down shirt that hung off her torso like a burlap sack.
“This is my baby,” said Gagnon, locking her bike to a rusty pole. “I go everywhere with this bike.”
A classically-trained painter from Quebec City, Gagnon used to be more comfortable strumming a banjo or sitting behind a drum kit than spitting rhymes.
But the young artist was drawn to the storytelling and complex rhythm patterns of hip hop and she started playing around with the medium when she moved to Montreal before the pandemic. It wasn’t an easy scene to break into.
Quebec’s small but burgeoning rap scene is dominated by men with big personalities. On their single, Sentencé, rappers White-b and Shreez rhyme about prison, going straight, and not letting “the sons of bitches” break you. Fouki, one of the hottest young performers in Quebec, ventures into progressive politics on his record All Zay but just as quickly falls prey to the oldest tropes in the game: chasing fat stacks and clapping women’s asses.
The beats hit hard and the rhymes flow but we’ve heard that song before.
Calamine’s debut mixtape, Sessions 1420, takes listeners on a bike ride through working class Hochelaga, meandering past sex workers who argue with their clients and men with beer bellies sunbathing on their front porch. She watches beat-up cars being towed and waits for a city bus that never passes through when she needs it.
Whereas the beats used by Quebec rappers like Koriass channel young Kanye West — loud bass lines, drum machine claps and samples from classic soul records — Calamine’s early songs have a dreamlike quality to them. Picture the opening horns on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme over an 808 drum track.
It’s a style that draws you deeper into Calamine’s world. That music, composed by Gagnon’s roommate and producer Charles Gaudreau-Lehre, also takes some of the sting off her lyrics.
In the track Mona Lise, Calamine raps about rape culture: “Whether on cocaine or Sauvignon, from the library to Folichon (a strip club), if she said no, she said no.” On Mettre le Feu dans la Tinque, she compares the blood from a police shooting to Jackson Pollock paint splatters and implies that someone needs to pour a tank of gasoline over the system and strike a match. Calamine raps about “burning red lights with no remorse” and dodging pickup trucks on the track 4x4, which may be the most hardcore song ever written about cycling in Montreal.
Somehow, she makes it all so pleasing to the ear.
“We’re people who deal with radical ideas and that’s heavy enough as it is,” said Gagnon. “We needed to temper that a bit, we needed a way to say, ‘Yeah, we’re mad but we also like to chill.’
“If you listen to French rap, there’s a tendency to make these epic productions that force the listener to pay attention. After a few verses, it gets really heavy, it doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. And maybe that’s the point. It hits you hard because it needs to.
“But that’s not what we’re after. We just wanted to make a record that represented us.”
That record, Boulette Proof, is a love letter from the margins of our city. It’s both an anthem to Hochelaga and Calamine herself. And it all started with Gagnon rhyming alone in a closet as the first wave of COVID-19 brought life in Quebec to a standstill two years ago.
With everyone in lockdown and the café she worked at shuttered, Gagnon had nothing but time. She also had access to a steady source of income for the first time in years. Like thousands of Quebecers, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit helped pull Gagnon through the darkest days of the pandemic.
“Two thousand bucks a month was a big deal for me,” Gagnon said. “You have this rare moment in your life where you’ve got time on your hands, a bit of money in your pocket and an extremely talented roommate. So we got to work. We lined our closet with foam to try to soundproof it and we hustled until we had an album.”
If the mark of a classic album is its timelessness, Calamine flips the script, anchoring her work in the rapidly gentrifying East End.
Hochelaga is her muse — a place where people sleep in hidden encampments and laneways on streets with “Nordic inspired” housing developments with $75,000 Teslas dotting the landscape.
Just a few blocks from the brew pub where we met, there’s a chain link fence that’s become a memorial to those killed in Quebec’s drug overdose epidemic. The names Gerry, Marcel, Shana, Edith and so many others are etched into padlocks that dangle from the fence behind Dopamine — a safe-injection site and clinic on Sainte-Catherine Street.
Overdose deaths began piling up as Gagnon wrote her debut album, which is peppered with references to Hochelaga’s drug culture and the poverty that seems to go unaddressed from one election cycle to the next. And she doesn’t just rap about the poverty of others. Gagnon rhymes about wearing a winter coat with a busted zipper, shopping for clothes at Goodwill, and chilling outside a cheque cashing service.
Though she’s not from Hochelaga, Gagnon’s connection to the East End has deepened since she moved to Montreal five years ago. Her partner is a street worker who fights against overdose deaths and Gagnon is an anti-gentrification activist — attending protests and lending her platform to the struggle when she can.
“You can’t live and work in Hochelaga without being impacted by the overdose crisis,” says Martin Pagé, the executive director of Dopamine. “Our team of street workers live in a perpetual state of grief. We lose people all the time and it wears us down.
“I remember speaking to a mother from Gaspésie who had just lost her daughter to an overdose. She hadn’t seen her kid in 15 years and I had to help fill in that vast period of time for her. Her daughter was a drug user but she was heavily involved in our community, she helped a lot of people out. It’s hard not to feel powerless but you also have to remind people that the folks dying out here have value. Their lives matter.
“Not enough people talk about them. It’s a subject they’d rather avoid”
Gagnon grew up in Quebec City, but like a lot of expats from the capital, she fell in love with the East End shortly after arriving in Montreal five years ago. In a city where the price of rent has nearly doubled in the past 25 years, neighbourhoods like Hochelaga are where you can still get a two-bedroom apartment for under $1,000 a month or hole up in an anarchist flophouse on the cheap.
Whereas former working class hubs like Verdun, Pointe-Saint-Charles and St-Henri have mostly been lost to the condominium class, people in Hochelaga are still mobilizing against gentrification. For years, it was a hub for stevedores, garment industry workers and other folks who survived by forming unions and fighting The Man.
A mix of intergenerational poverty, trade unions and working class francophones who felt systematically excluded from power made Hochelaga a hotbed for radical politics. One of the founders of the Front de Libération du Québec, Gabriel Hudon, was born in the working class district. The son of a longshoreman who worked at the ports at the southern edge of Hochelaga, Hudon robbed banks to fund the revolutionary group.
When the FLQ kidnapped a British diplomat and Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte, soldiers and cops occupied the East End for weeks in their hunt for the culprits.
Intentional or not, when Gagnon raps about burning it all down, she’s participating in the neighbourhood’s tradition of political uprisings. Unsurprisingly, this has landed her in hot water with a few of her peers.
“Rap is inherently territorial; East Coast versus West Coast, Chicago style versus Atlanta style, so it makes sense that people would react to that,” Fehmiu said. “There were some Quebec City rappers who accused Calamine of disowning her roots or appropriating a new neighbourhood for personal gain. I really don’t see it that way but bickering over territory is a story as old as rap itself”
Gagnon says that, after releasing the first album, she was approached by a woman who accused her of being a “chauvinist” for rapping about the neighbourhood.
“They said, ‘You can’t claim this place if you’re not born here,’” Gagnon said. “I get that but I also never claimed to be the spokesperson for Hochelaga. I wrote a song called Hochelagurl and so, in interviews, I’m often stuck having to define this incredibly rich, complex place in just a few quick soundbytes.
“But I’m not the ambassador for Hochelaga, I’m not better than anyone here. I just write about what I see. I try to paint a picture of this place that I really care about.”
It may help her street cred that producer Gaudreau-Lehre worked in local politics as an aide to longtime Hochelaga-Maisonneuve MNA Carole Poirier.
“I remember a situation where (Poirier) knew the police were about to be called on some drug users and small-time drug dealers,” said Gaudreau-Lehre, whose producer name is Kethé Magané. “She knew that if the cops come, people will just get locked up or pushed further into the margins. So she dealt directly with these people to come up with a solution.
“Poirier was born and raised here and her approach to politics — helping the vulnerable, not calling the cops for every disturbance — that’s how people from here carry themselves. But that’s changing with more condos and wealthier people moving here.”
Pagé is less diplomatic about gentrification.
“It’s a catastrophe,” he said. “It’s violence. People who come here, people who built luxury housing here, they talk about coexisting with the folks who live on the street and struggle with addiction.
“But they’re not interested in coexistence, they want them gone, so they call 911 on someone who looks like a drug user, they get the police to kick homeless people out of parks, they push people further and further away until they’re all the way in the shadows.”
I asked Gagnon if there’s a difference between her and Calamine.
“Is Calamine just an amplified version of yourself or is she something else altogether? Is she setting the world on fire because it’s hard for you — a 30-year-old artist scraping by from one contract to the next — to say those things out loud?”
She took a sip of her pint and smiled.
“It’s a stage name. Nothing rhymes with Gagnon and imagine how corny it would sound if I rapped about ‘MC Julie Gagnon in the house,’” she said. “Calamine is a lotion we use to soothe something that itches. I want my music to soothe. I’m not playing a part, Calamine is me and I’m Calamine.”
There is no front to Gagnon. She can rap as herself because it’s a dangerous thing to be a woman, let alone a queer woman, in North America. There’s no need for a persona that runs the streets and gets by on a life of crime.
The lives of women on this continent are constantly under threat. Whether it’s the fear of having their bodies legislated or the knowledge that about 1 in 3 women over the age of 15 are sexually assaulted in Canada every year.
When you flip those stats on their head, that means there are millions of assailants roaming the streets, evading justice because our system repeatedly fails survivors of sexual violence.
“When I rap, I’m not trying to be mean, I’m not trying to start a fight, I just want to tell the truth,” Gagnon said. “And even in a society that doesn’t believe victims, the truth is a powerful weapon.”
Does a radical queer rapper belong in the pantheon of great Quebec songwriters?
Gagnon’s success as Calamine was hard fought and you could argue it happened in spite of the province’s music industry rather than because of it. For all the critical praise it garnered, Boulette Proof wasn’t released on a major Quebec record label.
Without a promotional machine backing their play, Gagnon and Gaudreau-Lehre got by on the strength of their art alone.
Of the half dozen québécois culture columnists I spoke to before writing this piece, one was vaguely familiar with the rapper and another two said her style is “too American” to be considered alongside Quebec greats like Félix Leclerc and Robert Charlebois. Another criticism was that her politics were far more marginal than those of her predecessors.
Let’s unpack that.
Before Félix Leclerc cemented himself as Quebec’s greatest troubadour, he wandered its wilderness and lived among its most downtrodden. Leclerc grew up on the banks of the Saint-Maurice River, often sharing a roof with lumberjacks and log drivers passing through his parents home during their perilous ride downstream.
And while it’s tempting to romanticize his apolitical work — he wrote elegantly about growing up in rural Quebec, travelling the land and longing for simpler times — Leclerc sang some of the most provocative material of his day. At a time when francophones were seen as cheap labour by Quebec’s anglo elite, Leclerc drew from that resentment to fuel his art.
In the 1975 record Chant d’un Patriote, Leclerc not only sides with the downtrodden, he advocates regicide:
With my big barking dog
A bandolier full of rocks
And at my left side, righteousness
I will kill her majesty
Who claims she waits on me, she loves me
One hundred times a day she betrays me
We must die when we betray
He wrote this in a Commonwealth country just after Canada’s centennial, a time when our country’s ties to the monarchy were central to Canadian identity. Leclerc’s 1972 release l’Alouette en Colère also delves into the politics of revolution.
I have a son who is stripped bare
Like his father was
Water carrier, wood sawyer
Tenant and pauper
In his own country
But a view of the river
And his mother tongue
Which no one recognizes
I have a rebellious son
A humiliated son
A son who tomorrow
Becomes a killer
On the question of Gagnon’s work sounding too American, it’s hard to look at someone like Robert Charlebois without hearing the influence of Chuck Berry’s guitar, Bob Dylan’s playful lyrics, or the emotional fire of Janis Joplin.
“Quebec musicians have always been influenced by their American counterparts,” said Fehmiu. “That’s just how art works. You get inspired and you draw from that inspiration. Good songwriters reach across linguistic boundaries.
“Actually, when I think of Calamine, I think of La Bolduc.”
This, I hadn’t considered.
La Bolduc — the stagename of Gaspésie-born artist Marie-Rose Anne Travers — was an accordion playing, half-French, half-Irish folk singer whose work influenced Leclerc and set the tone for popular music made by and for Quebecers. Like Calamine, her lyrics were cheeky but political. She also spent a good chunk of her adult life in Hochelaga.
“(La Bolduc) sang about poverty, she sang about living life outside what’s considered the norm, she was very much a spiritual predecessor to Calamine,” Fehmiu said. “When you think of the way they package themselves — as outsiders, as women — a lot of people are drawn to that.
“The way Calamine performs, a lot of people who might not otherwise relate to a ‘Woke Lesbian on Autotune’ suddenly they’re charmed by her wit and they walk away with a new perspective. That’s why it works. … Of course, it also helps that she’s white in a genre of music that’s historically been considered Black and [thus] perhaps too foreign to a white audience.”
On that point, Gagnon diverges slightly from her predecessors.
Whereas Leclerc wrote of Quebec being his country and highlighted the effects of colonialism on francophones in North America, Calamine adds more context to the discussion. In her latest album, she raps about living on stolen land and takes more than a few shots at the self-appointed vanguards of Quebec nationalism.
Gagnon, who considers herself a sovereigntist, alludes to the sexual assault allegations against Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet at a time where few other artists dare to weigh in on the matter. Blanchet, the former manager of Quebec rocker Éric Lapointe, has long been considered untouchable because of his friends in both the music and news business.
When I reported on the allegations two years ago, quite a few prominent sovereigntists suggested Blanchet’s alleged victim made the story up or that she was merely the fabrication of an anglo journalist working at the Montreal Gazette.
Gagnon says her willingness to take on a few of Quebec’s sacred cows comes from the knowledge that the columnists at Le Journal de Montréal or the power brokers in the music industry simply aren’t relevant to her audience.
“Whatever rejection of my music exists out there, it’s not coming from the people we see every day or the ones who share a stage with us,” Gagnon said. “I really don’t give a shit what some commentator thinks. We make music that’s grounded in a variety of influences and our politics are about speaking out for the vulnerable. I don’t see what’s so controversial about that.
“And if we got backing from a big label to make something more commercial, I wouldn’t want that either. We’re aliens in this Quebec rap scene, we’re trying hard to innovate our sound instead of following some path to stardom.
“Where’s the fun in that?”
Great article, I really enjoyed reading it.