The most recent project of Winnipeg-based rapper, singer and producer Anthony OKS (aka Anthony Sannie), the In the Garden EP, defies easy categorization. It shifts from soulful, head-nodding hip-hop (“Clearly Now”) into shadowy Afrobeat-inspired numbers (“Boy from Freetown”) and even breezy pop sweetness (“Fortified Bond,” featuring the ever-smooth vocals of Begonia). Throughout, Sannie switches up his vocal stylings to suit the moment, nailing staccato raps one minute and stretching out his syllables to slow things down to a more R&B pace the next. It’s all melodic, and rhythmic, and flows naturally into a melange of stirring sounds.
Garden imagery—blossoms, growth, blooming—makes for some apt metaphors regarding OKS’ personal life. His new EP addresses big changes, including his introduction to about 50 family members in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, the latter being where his father is from, a journey Sannie raps about on “Boy From Freetown.” But his garden is also a musical one—he’s been honing his vocal skills for a long time now, and the EP finds him hitting a major stride in his solo work. Early in our conversation, I asked him whether being the youngest of three brothers (the other two, and their cousin, make up hip-hop group The Lytics) affected the way he uses his voice. And a “maybe” gave way to the real reason he’s been working on more of a solo push lately, as well as always seeking out new musical territory: “I wouldn’t be a happy person if I wasn’t working on stuff,” he says.
In the last few years, Sannie has been diving more and more into poetry—especially writers like Bob Kaufman, Elizabeth Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes—which he says has been affecting the way he writes and uses his voice. Reggae artists like Chronixx and Stephen Marley, too, have made a big impact on the lyrics he’s been penning. “Some of my favourite poems are in song,” Sannie says. “I love poetry in reggae—it’s subtle and sweet. The word choice is somewhat spiritual and poignant.”
Below, Sannie speaks about how his voice has developed musically, and how he’s gone about crafting the sound he arrived at for In the Garden.
Tell me about how you first started using your voice musically.
I started using it to record raps. For which you’re projecting your voice a little bit differently than singing. With singing, your notes are a little more elongated; with rapping it’s more quick, jabby syllables. So I tried to master that. And then once I got better at it I started figuring out a way to do a little bit of both at the same time, which then helped me open up to more production styles. So now, on “Boy from Freetown,” for example, I can go from singing over a sax to rapping over an Afrobeat drumbeat, but still have the rap feel melodic with how I project my vocals.
What’s the learning process like getting to the point where you’re really comfortable making those transitions from rapping to singing?
I feel like listening to lots of Afrobeat helped because in Afrobeat, they’re literally singing but also rapping at the same time. So if you listen to lots of Fela Kuti, he’s hitting these short notes. But he’s jumping from bar to bar at the same time. So I think listening to that kind of stuff helped me figure out how to do it. You can relate it specifically to that track, but I kind of do that all over In the Garden. With R&B, you’re usually stuck in one or two registers. And then with raps, you’re usually stuck in one register. But then with Afrobeat, you’re able to move all over the place. Some syllables can be super short, and then some can be super long. And then you can come back on the one with like, a semi-long syllable, and then rap a little bit and then come back to singing. So it’s a super unconventional type of sound.
As the youngest of three brothers, did you ever feel like you struggled to be heard growing up?
I think in general, in our culture, the youngest just isn’t really seen as much. That’s just our culture. But for me, you know, I guess I didn’t really feel like that. Or maybe at points actually, I did. Yeah, I’ll say at points I did. But I don’t know if that affects my actual sound. I think if anything—and I guess now I’m saying it affects my sound—it makes me, a bit more assertive with my voice. And as a person. I think I’m a pretty assertive person. I’m a say what I mean, mean what I say type of person. So I think being a person in my culture, there are lots of times where my dad, especially, would be like, “Stop it.” Or, you know, they would treat me a little differently. They would get mad because I would speak up and maybe not say the thing that they were expecting me to say, go against the grain there a little bit. But if any of that relates to sound, I think there’s an assertion, which is cool, in my vocal.
Were there artists you looked to for inspiration when you were learning to use your voice?
I’ll say Fela, again. There’s a Ghanaian singer I really like named Ebo Taylor who’s really great. And then I really love Saukrates. Saukrates is like, O.G. or whatever. He’s a rapper from Toronto. But I grew up listening to him and his band Big Black Lincoln, which was… I don’t know what you would call that—like a new wave, funk, rap band. They were making really dope stuff in Canada. Lauryn Hill has always been a big inspiration. Current artists that I’m digging, I really like Noname. I like the way she raps and uses her voice in such a delicate but forceful way. If you listen to her raps, she’s always rapping in one tone, but she’s doing so much with her voice at the same time. So just seeing how people use their voice was really crucial to understand how to make my own music. Because you don’t always need to be yelling, you know? You could be talking. You could be softly singing. But it’s how you put that into song. And how you use those lyrics to create a bigger impact from verse to verse.
How does the message you want to send or the thing you want to say affect the way you use your voice?
It totally depends. Every song is going to need different tools to build it, so it just depends on what song I’m working on. For example, on “Boy from Freetown,” when I get to the verse, the drums sound very intense. And that was purposeful. They’re a bit darker. I wanted to mimic that feeling not only with the lyrics, but the way I’m using my voice. So they’re sharper, quicker syllables where I’m just bouncing between bars. And I kind of feel like that verse is trying to penetrate an object or a wall, and then at the end of it all, there’s that release. And then you break through. And I tried to use my voice in that type of way that would make the listener feel like that.
It makes for a lot of dynamism in your music.
I heard someone say that the other day. I also think discovering poetry a few years ago helped me figure out how to use my voice. Because when you’re writing poetry, you’re paying very close attention to your spacing. And not only what every single word does, but what every letter does. So when I learned that and adopted it over to my rap side, I felt like my music started to blossom in a different way. How you write it is how you’re going to sing it. So I started writing how I would write poetry, and it just kind of improved my work quite a bit.
How does the actual act of projecting your voice—singing, rapping, performing—make you feel?
Before I do it, it’s kind of nerve-wracking thinking about doing it. But in the moment, I get lost all the time. I’m like a hamster—I forget it’ll happen before every single set, but then it happens and I’m like, “Oh, yeah.” I guess that says something about… I don’t know, spirituality or whatever you want to call it—playing live and the gift of playing music for people. The wonder of playing music to people is a pretty intense, beautiful thing—I think special things happen. It’s like watching a fire or seeing a plane land, seeing amazing things. It’s one of those things we can’t really explain that we all have in us. It’s a part of our DNA and I think for myself, when I’m doing my thing—rapping, singing—I just get lost in that human side.