[Interview + Podcast] Eternia talks gratitude, being present in the moment, and life after hip-hop

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Who’s the most underrated artist in Canadian hip-hop? There are many, but Eternia would have to be among the forerunners. Bar for bar, she can rap better than just about anyone and hold her own with the very best in the game. She’s earned respect from the likes of DJ Premier and Pete Rock, and her 2010 album At Last with MoSS earned a Juno nomination as Rap Recording of the Year.

The funny thing is, as soon as the Ottawa emcee started earning the praise and recognition she was due, she decided to take a step back from hip-hop. With the exception of a few rare guest appearances and “Final Offering,” it’s been four years since Eternia has released any substantial work. Instead, she’s opted to pursue other passions — at least for now.

Needing to know whether we’d ever hear another Eternia album again, we reached out to her and spoke about the importance of gratitude, learning to be present in the moment, what life after hip-hop brings, and much more. Listen to the podcast above and read the interview below.

TCUS: What was your first introduction to hip-hop?

Eternia: I tell this story a lot. My brother is two years older than me and so when I was a kid, way back when – probably around 8 years old – he was listening to what was popular at the time – like, what a kid in Canada could get his hands on. Keep in mind, the method for discovering new hip-hop in Canada in the eighties for a white kid in Ottawa was [very] different than it is now [laughs]. So he was listening to Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J, and later 2 Live Crew and Public Enemy… there were a couple different groups.

That’s how I was introduced to hip-hop, but I didn’t really formally take it on as my own love until I started copping my own records, and that would’ve been early nineties golden era stuff: Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, [Queen] Latifah, and Salt-n-Pepa. The eighties was kind of like I was on the edge, and then the nineties was basically when it became my first love.

TCUS: So what would have been that first album where you really claimed ownership of hip-hop as something that you loved?

Eternia: [Laughs] Man, that is a good question. There are a number [of them], but one that comes to the top of my mind immediately would be A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. Not People’s Instinctive Travels… I was actually introduced to Low End Theory first, and then I went back. That would be one of the first albums, [but] it wouldn’t be the first.

Actually, Salt-n-Pepa [were a big influence]. Now, when I look back, they were kinda pop hip-hop at the time. I wasn’t listening to Organized Konfusion yet, you know what I mean? But at the time, for a young girl – I was probably thirteen when Very Necessary came out – that’s something that definitely resonated with me. I once saw them in concert.

Eternia Interview on The Come Up Show

TCUS: How formative would it have been for you to see women like Salt-n-Pepa in hip-hop at such a young age?

Eternia: Oh man [laughs]. Well, there’s a line that I have – it’s true – I lied to my mom to go see them in the front row. She didn’t know that they had a song called “Push It” and let me go [laughs]. I saw them at Canada’s Wonderland and snuck up to the front, and I’ll never forget that experience. I can tell you about that concert like it’s yesterday, and that was over 20 years ago. It was very empowering and very exciting. For the longest time, I could probably think of nothing else other than doing hip-hop and being on the stage. For me, it wasn’t about fame, and it wasn’t about money, but it was kind of about being recognized and accepted by my peers and the industry. For the longest time, that’s what I felt I was fighting for.

TCUS: One of the ways you’ve described yourself and your music is as a “walking anti-stereotype.” How come?

Eternia: At the time that I was really doing my thing – mid-late nineties, early 2000s – there weren’t a lot of people that, for lack of a better word, looked like me – whether it be gender, race, nationality – that were doing [hip-hop]. It’s not that they didn’t exist at all – I’m not the only one – but when I would go out to jams, I was definitely one of very few that looked like I did, if not the only one. Now it’s different. I just think that there were a lot of assumptions that were made about me, and I didn’t take offense, but I did really relish the idea of proving them wrong. Then I would grab the mic and actually be good, to the point where, at one point, I think it was undeniable. People couldn’t say “oh, she sucks.”

At that point, I think that I relished the idea of shattering the stereotype of what other people thought I was before I got on the mic, but when I walked in the room. There were assumptions about people like me that were at hip-hop jams: either they were groupies, or someone’s girlfriend, or we don’t know [anything] about the culture and we’re just tagging along. There were a lot less girls involved. So yeah, in some ways, I was a walking anti-stereotype.

The Come Up Show.com Presents- Eternia

TCUS: Do you think standing out as much as you did helped you or hindered you more than anything?

Eternia: Long term, I think it helped, because it was easier to be remembered. If I went to an open mic and there were 20 or 30 people that got on the mic, I promise you that I would be remembered. It’s hard to stand out when you look and sound like everyone else. Not to say that I played up on this or took it for granted, but for me, it was easier to stand out, just by virtue of the fact that nobody saw it coming. And that’s another thing too: when people really underestimate you and assume you’re going to suck, it’s really easy to impress them [laughs]. You know what I mean? They already think that you’re not going to be good at all. I think in the nineties and early 2000s, that was my experience a lot. It was easy for me.

But then at the same time, of course, you get into [certain] systemic barriers, and those are not easy to break. I think those impact any artist a lot greater than just being remembered at a show. There’s pros and cons: it’s easy to wow people, but at the same time, there are certain barriers that are just impenetrable.

TCUS: Tell me about those barriers. What do you think it’s going to take to eliminate those systemic barriers for future generations?

Eternia: I hope it’s changing. I think on a business level – well, it’s not just on a business level, it’s also when it comes to creating the music – but I experienced more [barriers] on the industry level. You could be a really established artist with a lot of experience under your belt and know what you’re doing, what kind of sounds you what to hear, where you want to go with your music, and have really good ideas of promoting and marketing it… you can have all these great ideas, but I found that my ideas were best conveyed if a man said them.

Trust me when I say I said them, but I feel like they were not received or viewed as professional or good ideas, whereas when I had someone else convey [my ideas], all of a sudden, it’s like, “oh yeah! That’s a great idea.” I have many specific examples; I’m not just going off one example. Time and time again, it would be like the male intern who has way less experience, or my manager, saying what I [want to say]. It was rare that my ideas were received as kind of expert ideas or even professional ideas, once we started producing music and really being in business.

At first, I was bashing my head against the wall, and that was frustrating, but then after awhile you just learn the tricks. So I [learned], oh, I need someone else to say this for [it] to be received well. Okay, well let me send in this dude to this meeting. It got to the point where I couldn’t really do things without my manager – who’s lovely and does respect me – not because I couldn’t do things without him, but because I didn’t feel heard. And I have it easy. I actually have it good. I’m not complaining. Compared to women that are more pop or mainstream, or signed to a major label, their experience is much more ‘pat on the head; you’re a Coke bottle; we’re going to tell you what to wear, and what to say, and how to do your show.’

For me, I still had a lot of control. You’re talking to someone who was quite independent, and I still experienced that on certain levels in [different] ways: what label to sign to, how the album was mixed, what it sounded like, what would be great ideas for promo, who to hire as a publicist… the little minute details were just things that I felt as if my opinion didn’t matter, you know? But at the same time, I don’t think [I take it too personally]; I just keep it moving. My whole view when it comes to systemic barriers is how do we problem-solve this? How do we get around it? I know there’s a way around this, so how do we do that? And I think oftentimes, that’s what we did, you know? Thanks be to God.

TCUS: A door closes and you look for the window that’s open, I guess, right?

Eternia: Yeah, like, it was never a point where I was like, ahh man, I want to stop. I never felt the thump of the glass ceiling. I have a line like that too: “Close a door on me, I’m climbin’ through that window grinnin’.” So yeah, it wasn’t depressing; it was just a reality.

TCUS: You said something earlier that I want to bring up. You said that in the past, what mattered to you musically was getting the respect and attention of people, but it seems like you hinted that it doesn’t matter so much anymore to you. What does matter at this point?

Eternia: [Laughs] That’s a good question, because I ask myself that. I think the fire that was under my butt to do everything I did was due to [my desire to] prove something. There was a moment where we kind of reached this apex – I say ‘we’ because there were team members that helped me along the journey – and it was kind of like where everything aligned: the image, the sound, the artwork, the music – the most important part – the shows, the press… when everything just all of a sudden started to make sense and click, you know? And I would say that was [when] At Last [came out] – that was around 2010.

Before that, I could see people listening to my music, and then [when they] saw me, it was a little confusing. It was like, oh, she can rap, but everything wasn’t aligned yet, you know? Then At Last happened, and everything aligned, and then to be honest with you, I was kind of like, okay, I’ve done what I wanted to do now; I’m done. It was really weird. It was something that I saw coming, because I used to rap about it even before. I used to say, “yo, I’mma break out. I’mma be done; I’m gonna go back to school and do something else.” So I was rapping about it before At Last, but after At Last was received as well as I could have ever hoped it to be received – it got as much press as I possibly could have hoped for it to get, and it did exactly what we wanted it to do and more – I was kind of like, okay, I’ve done my bit now; I’ve made my little mark – it’s not huge, but I’ve made it – and I’m good.

So to answer your question, if there are different seasons in an artist’s life, right now I’m kind of in a gathering season. I’m just here experiencing sensory things; I’m not really putting out [anything] right now or creating music.

TCUS: It’s interesting you point out At Last, because it definitely seems like after it came out, everything musically was going so well for you: you had a 2011 Juno Nomination for Rap Recording of the Year, and you had DJ Premier saying the album was one of his favourite albums from that year. Granted, it all depends on what stage you’re at, but normally, you’d think a lot of artists would respond to that success by saying, “okay, I’m going 120% into the next year.” Instead, you decided to take a step back. What has become more important to you at this point, then?

Eternia: [Laughs] That’s another very good question. There were a whole bunch of intersecting factors that led for me to take a step back, but the desires of my heart and the priorities of my mind were changing – and are changing. To answer your question, I really felt self-promotion – having a job basically based on promoting myself and what I think – became really empty for me. When I [say] self-promotion, I don’t just mean promoting a product, I mean the fact that my art, my music itself is very self-reflective in a way too. That became really empty for me.

I wanted to be involved in something that would be serving others. And yeah, I know that artists say that once they make it big then they can go do charities and non-profits and be a voice for people, and I was doing that at the time, but it wasn’t enough. I felt like the payoff wasn’t enough, you know? So I wanted to serve others more, I also didn’t [find myself agreeing with] the music industry at all. I felt like what’s wrong was right, and what’s up is down. I think on an ethical or moral level, I was often just feeling the pinch a bit. Living the life I wanted to live, ethically and spiritually, and yet still operating in the music industry was… not impossible – I think people like Shad do it well – but I think it’s very difficult. That’s why I admire people like that.

And then also, I just didn’t want to be a starving artist in my thirties. I kind of saw the reality of where hip-hop takes you, and it’s not to say that I couldn’t make money out of it – I was – but I thought about things like family and kids, you know? Owning a home. And when you start to think about that kind of stuff – now, that’s not the main reason I left music, trust me – but it was just like, I can’t see myself doing this for the next ten or twenty years. I really can’t. I know that there are a lot of artists that do, and I respect that – I really do. Artists that are still doing it like Masta Ace, you know? [Ones that] have a great live show, and [keep] putting out records. That’s awesome, but I was done, man.

You know how I knew I was done? You listen to your heart when you’re somewhere at a show. I [would] get ready to go to a hip-hop show, maybe to perform, or be in the audience and network or whatever, and it was like I was dragging my heels and it was the last place on Earth I wanted to be. So it got to the point where I was really resenting what I had to do for my art and for my craft, and I didn’t want that to start to leak out in my music or on stage.

I’m not sure if I answered your question [of] what became more important, but I guess the pursuit of another career – which I am doing now – and at the end of the day, it’s not that I’m not hip-hop anymore, it’s just that there are more dynamic sides to me. It’s almost like I didn’t want all of me to just be about hip-hop; I wanted there to be all these slices of the pie. If my identity is a round piece of pie, I want that in twenty different slices, not just one [laughs]. You know what I’m saying?

So I really wanted to pursue some other stuff, and that’s what I’m doing and enjoying. And if ever I have an album in me, trust me, it’ll come out.

TCUS: I think the other added benefit you have is now, whenever you do release a new song – like when “Final Offering” came out or you hopped on “Love Means” with Shad – you’re able to capture everybody’s attention and make these individual statements whenever you have something to say.

Eternia Interview on The Come Up Show

Eternia: That’s really cool. You know what? I never thought of that, but you’re right. I guess there is that too, which is great. “Love Means” was probably one of my favourite songs I’ve ever collaborated on. That was so special when that came out.

TCUS: I want to ask about a couple tweets of yours. Here’s the first: “The best protection against the indulgence of rage and self pity is thanksgiving.” Tell me about that.

Eternia: That’s a quote from one of my devotionals; I don’t remember which one. I read different scriptures and interpretations of scriptures in the morning, and that was one of them. [Recites line]. It’s what I understand, in my faith, that God asks us to do. In everything, be grateful. With prayer and supplication, make your requests known to God, but in everything, be grateful. This is the secret that people don’t really know: usually when I think I tweet things, it’s not me pointing fingers at other people, it’s me reminding myself of something. So most of my tweets are things that I need to remember, that I’m writing down in my journal and sharing.

I think there are times where we can all fall into these dark places, and bitter places, and angry places, and it really consumes us. [We] feel sorry for ourselves. And we have good reason – a lot of us have some pretty tragic or traumatic things that have happened to us or our loved ones, so we have an excuse if we want one. But I guess that’s why I tweeted that, because I was like, man, I feel like we need tools and a toolkit to be able to rise up out of that.

TCUS: Speaking of your collaboration with Shad, when I spoke to him, that was the one thing he said too: the greatest path for him to sustained happiness was gratitude and giving thanks. It’s interesting to have that connection.

Eternia: That’s really cool! He said it much simpler than me. But yeah, that’s basically it [laughs]. I’ll say this: my grandma is the wisest woman I ever knew – she’s my best friend – and I remember her telling me that she used to lie in bed, and as she was falling asleep, she would try and [count] twenty blessings or twenty things that she was grateful for. And she said she usually fell asleep before she got to number twenty, but that was her process. And in a lot of ways, that can be used as a meditative process, you know? I think that when she was 95, 96, 97 in a longterm care facility where she really didn’t have control over a lot, that was something that she really needed to do to exercise her thanksgiving and stay in that spirit.

TCUS: Here’s another tweet of yours, also relating to happiness. You wrote: “Being Present = Joy! … in moments that others would bypass as mundane.” Tell me about that.

Eternia: It was the idea that we kind of steal from ourselves these amazing, magical experiences, when we’re not present in the moment. And then the reverse is true: if we are present in the moment, the most normal and mundane experience – for example, walking to work, or taking the train, or making breakfast – can become something of awe and something of wonder. It’s basically what kids are like. Kids are so present in the moment, [whereas] we’re worried about stuff; we’re running late, and we’re like, “come on, let’s go,” and kids are like, “mom, look at that bird!” Everything to them is like “wow,” you know? I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. It can be that way for us if we really learn to be present.

It’s really hard as adults; we have so many pressures, and so many things on our mind, and so many worries and unknowns. I think we like to control everything, so all of that bears down on us. So that was just a reminder to myself, once again, that joy is very accessible. Another tool for reaching that joy is being present, and a lot of that involves unplugging. I’m really big on digital detoxing right now. I’m not as good as some people; I haven’t shut off my phone or Internet completely, but I find that our devices are not only time stealers, but they’re [also often] joy stealers when it comes to being present. I’m really big on putting down the phone when I’m around people, [and] I’m learning now to [do it] even when I’m at home by myself. Alone time is not truly alone time if you’re on your phone.

TCUS: What do you think the biggest thing that you’ve learned from unplugging is?

Eternia: I have to think about that for a moment. I have never felt so refreshed and at peace [as when] my phone was stolen. I had really good phone insurance, so within 48 hours, they mailed me a new phone. But I had one night alone with myself – no calls, no texts, [nothing] – between when I got the new phone and when I had my own phone stolen, and I felt literally like I had just been to some meditative place or a spa. I’m sure if you were to hook up my brain to some sort of reading device, scientifically, this would be true. I was so calm, so relaxed, and so happy. I learned from that experience that I was forced into that I need to do this for the sake of my well-being. People talk a lot about self-care, and I think a huge part of self-care is unplugging, for sure.

TCUS: There’s one more tweet I want to bring up: “Life’s necessities are not the same as ultimate life purpose.” Can you tell me about that?

Eternia: [Laughs] Thanks for bringing it up! That’s actually a quote from my step-father – I get wisdom from all these people – and when he first [told] it to me, he said, “necessities are not ultimate.” I didn’t understand where he was going with it, and I was like, “what do you mean?” He was like, “well, what we need in life – food, clothing, shelter, work, love, partnership, whatever it is – yes, these are things that we need, but they shouldn’t become our reason for living. And once they become our reason for living, our life purpose, it’s very easy for us to not want to live.” You lose a job? ‘Oh my gosh, I want to kill myself.’ You lose your boyfriend? ‘Oh my gosh, I want to die.’

It’s when necessities become ultimate that we’re screwing ourselves over, and we’re setting ourselves up for major calamity, really. It’s almost like keeping things in perspective when it comes to what’s important and what isn’t important. Yes, we need to eat, [and] we all need clothing [and] shelter. But that shouldn’t be our reason for living. Our reason for living is much higher than that.

I think we all can get caught in this trap. At one point, I probably did. For many people, either extras or necessities become [life’s] purpose, and that’s when your foundation is really easily shaken: when you build it on this sandcastle. We do that a lot, and it’s to our own detriment. I’m just learning, you know? And as I learn, I share, but most of the things that I tweet are just things that I need to hear.

TCUS: You mentioned earlier that you were considering going back to school. What do you think that you would go back to school for?

Eternia: I actually was studying for – I forget the name of the examination – when you’re about to do a PhD or Masters in the States, because it’s not the SATs. But that was awhile ago. I was looking at a program at NYU for awhile, and it was a PhD program. It’s sociology, in a nutshell, which they call American Studies – which I find funny. But it would’ve been something to do with gender and hip-hop – which has been done before, but I was excited about that. To be honest with you, I would go back to school for anything, but for me, cultural studies and sociology are where my passions lie. The funny thing is, I probably wouldn’t become a professor, because I really don’t want to teach, so it’s like, “why do you go back to school for something where you will not make money, at all, unless you teach?” It’s kinda counterproductive.

But yeah, I could have gone to school. I was accepted at George Brown for the fast track program [to be a] social service worker, and then I ultimately ended up accepting a full-time job that enabled me to kind of skip that program and still do what I was hoping to do ultimately. So yeah, I think if I was to go back to school, it would be for recreational purposes. It would literally be a luxury. It wouldn’t be “I need to upgrade my skills to get a job,” you know? I’m also interested in death and bereaving – gerontology – because I work in elder-care right now, and I’d like to learn a lot more about how to be a better elder-care professional. I’m honestly interested in everything [laughs]. I’m just one of those people who like to learn, so if I can go back to school for free and not incur debt, there’s many things I would do.

TCUS: What does life’s next chapter hold for you?

Eternia: I realized this not that long ago: everything that I wanted to do in life – my main bucket list – has been done. It’s probably because my bucket list was really realistic. Because of that, I feel that where I’m at right now in life – early thirties – is kind of like the icing on the cake. So I’m quite open to wherever God wants me to go, because it’s almost like, “okay God, I did what I wanted to do.” I literally did what my dreams were. So now, it’s almost like all of this life that I’m living is a bonus; it’s an addendum; it’s kind of like the sequel, you know? And so I’m really open to almost anything.

I’m really kind of at a free place in that way, and if I was to die tomorrow, I always tell everyone that I love that I’ve done everything I [wanted] to do, and I’m happy. I know it sounds crazy – and that’s not to say there aren’t more things that I could experience, because there are many things that I haven’t experienced – but I’ve done what I wanted to do. So I guess the answer to your question is only God knows, and I’m open to it [laughs].

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