Montreal Character Series: Strange Froots

On Inspiring the Marginalized and Staying Froot

  • Photo Brandon Johnston

There aren’t many all-female R&B groups in Montreal. Strange Froots, made up of Naïka Champaïgne, Mags Mbow, and Sage Stewart-La Bonte, is one of the few.

I met the boisterous group at a downtown café on an unseasonably hot September day, just toward the end of summer. The group is merry, boisterous, and unabashed, joking and talking over each other. The trio operated as swimmingly as a well-oiled joke machine, anticipating answers and punctuating each other’s sentences, all the while smiling and laughing, clearly enjoying each other’s company as much as the day they all met.

Strange Froots spoke to me on the ground the three walk, the message they’re trying to convey, and most, about trying to encourage other young women and POC to get into music and follow their passions.

Sage Stewart-La Bonte a.k.a. StarFroot
Age 19
Born and Raised in Montreal

Mags Mbow a.k.a. PassionFroot
Age 23
Five years in Montreal

Naïka Champaïgne a.k.a. DragonFroot
Age 20
Born and Raised in Montreal

When did you all meet?
Sage: (Laughs) Over a year ago, now.
Mags: We met in June 11 of 2014 at No Bad Sound studio, this studio where kids can record for free. It’s affiliated with Maison des Jeunes de Côte-Des-Neiges. They were looking for girls to be involved in a series of workshops more oriented toward girls because most of the kids coming there are boys. So, that was the first meeting…actually, I met [Naïka] a few weeks before at a jam session in mid-may, where we both heard about this workshop. A few weeks later, we were the only girls there. So, we were like, screw this, let’s start a girl group project instead.
Sage: And that turned into our band.
(All nod their heads, looking mad nostalgic)
Naïka: The rest is history.

Were ya’ll involved in music prior?
N: I’ve been involved in music since maybe 12 or 13. I went to a musical high school, I had like everyday music classes for those years. I was playing in an orchestra, playing clarinet, and then I transferred to saxophone. Then I realized I wanted to learn guitar and start writing my own songs, so that’s when I started performing for my friends, putting up youtube videos. Played talent shows at my high school, then bars and lounges, then showed up at NBS and met these girls.
M: As for me, I’ve been writing songs as long as I can remember. I’d always be writing random songs in my head but never had the way to put them down. When I was 11, my dad introduced me to FL studio because he had a coworker with the program. After school, I would go to his work, and while he was working I would be on the computer, learning how to make beats. Then he signed me up for guitar lessons when I was like 13, we would go to those together. At the school that I went to, Lycée Rochambeau, you had to put on a performance every year for the school fair, and those were mostly musical, involving singing and dancing. So, I’ve always been pretty well-rounded regarding music.
S: I’ve always been really into music, but what did it for me was going to the AMC forum for a kids lego contest, where you had to build a tower. I was one of the finalists, so I got a prize – my first beat-making software. From there I graduated to MixCraft and now FL Studio. I just keep trying to improve and make music that speaks to me.

How do ya’ll collaborate?
M: Sage and I are producers. I make most of the beats, Sage also makes beats…Naïka…
N: I know nothing about producing, I’m the one that plays instruments.
M: She’s our acoustics.
N: I’m a multiinstrumentalist.
M: I can come up with a riff on a guitar, but let her do it.
N: Our first full-length has a lot of my instrumentation. Anything having to do with producing, I let these girls handle it, because me and computers don’t get along.

Where do ya’ll take influence from?
(All groan “Everything!” in perfect unison)
S: It’s really hard to pin down a genre with us.
M: Until we came up with..what was it?
All: Alternative-chill-soul. (all laugh)
N: My voice is very soulful. What I listen to and mostly write are acoustic, soul, folk…but I listen to anything. Metal music, hip hop, classical sometimes, ambient…whatever, I listen to everything. And then you have Mags-
M: I’m definitely more of the arrangement/choreography part of the group. I come up with most of the harmonies, the arrangements and beats, timing and stuff. Singing-wise, I’m maybe the Posh Spice of the group – I don’t have a very wide range. I can sing on key, but I can’t sing very loud. Apparently I can rap.
All: Yes you can.
N: She’s the chill one. And Sage is the alternative one, because…
S: I get inspiration from everything. I love rock and pop, I can be very theatrical. I get inspiration from jazz and bossanova-
N: High School Musical…
S: Film scores!
(All start singing a classic High School Musical track. I join them.)

Those are catchy songs, I can’t lie.
What’s been your experience in the R&B hip-hop scene here?
M: We’re doing really well…I just wish we could break out a little more into the R&B urban scene. Because we don’t have a very set genre, we relate to a lot of people, find ourselves doing a lot of shows with fewer people that are like us. We’re popular in the “Hippy” scene, where it’s all peace and love, and we love that, but we really need to put out for-
M&N: Our people.
M: In the hip hop scene, in the R&B scene…even the R&B scene here is very small. I don’t know as many R&B musicians trying to get heard as there are in the trap and EDM scenes. It’s difficult. Whereas for us, we’re three girls, we’re black, we do a lot of stuff, it’s easier for us to pick and choose where we’re involved.

Who do you feel like your music is for?
M: At first, it started as a mixing and matching of things we took from our backgrounds. But then you realize there are other teens and young girls who were like us once, and they don’t feel like they can put their stuff out there because they don’t think they’re mainstream material. It actually made us think, even a few months back when we played Rock Camp for Girls, and you got a lot of smart girls who want to be able to express themselves musically and not just talk about their typical stuff. I guess that’s who we’re trying to reach – girls that feel ostracized artistically and personally, and they want to feel like it’s okay that they don’t fit in a box.
S: We’re all very passionate about that demographic in general because we came together for that soul purpose of inspiring young women.
M: We were born out of a lack, so now we feel obliged to carry out that mission.

“I guess that’s who we’re trying to reach—girls that feel ostracized artistically and personally, and they want to feel like it’s okay that they don’t fit in a box.” —Mags Mbow

What is the message you think people need to hear?
All: Stay cute, stay froot!
N: That’s our motto.
M: Our friend Sara C. came up with it after our first release. The whole sentiment of it is that, as long as you’re not problematic, as long as you’re not a bigot, and as long as you understand how certain things in the world work-
N: We good.
M: We good. Be yourself, but be respectful. Respect who you are and respect other people, don’t worry so much about how other people are trying to define you.
N: Do you. Stay cute, stay froot. Self acceptance. Love yourself.
M: Live your life, follow your dreams. Getting into the political side of things, talking about systematic racism, sexism, stigmatization of mental illness…it’s very important for people to know that whether you’re black, you’re queer, you’re depressed, you’re anxious, it’s okay. No one needs to try and fix you, as long as you try to be the best version of yourself.
N: We’re all humans, we all have flaws. Everyone has their own issues and their ways of dealing with them. You just have to embrace both your issues and your good qualities and deal with them accordingly. Respect other people’s ways of dealing with their stuff.
S: We can all love eachother.

Maybe that’s why ya’ll fit so nicely into the Hippy Scene, eh?
(All laugh)
N: Maybe!
M: Yeah, but then they all get uncomfortable when we play songs like ‘The Wanderer’, which is our song about racism and fighting white supremacy.
N: It goes real deep.
M: Real deep, with an African sample and lyrics like, “Dreaming about the motherland, dreaming about the motherland.” Some of the white folks are like, “I wanna sing along, but I don’t know if I should.”

How do you feel about that? White people entering hip-hop in a huge way, like white critics trying to direct the conversation about hip hop? How do you feel about white presence at your shows?
M: The funny thing is…you mention white presence at our shows, but really, we’re just performing at white shows. It’s not like they have a presence – we’re a POC presence at their show.
N: Hashtag Tommy Cafe.
S: Oof, yeah.
M: We had this one show, yeah…
N: We were literally the five POC there, including my mom, Sage’s mom, and three of our friends.
M: We knew every POC there, out of the maybe 80 or 100 people there. I’d say a good 90% of them, and 75% of those white people had dreadlocks. It was one of those things where we have songs like ‘Green Apple’, where we’re like, “Oh, we’re cute, we’re froot, whatever,” and then we go into ‘The Wanderer’, and we’re like fuck white supremacy, and everyone is suddenly standing still, except for our POC friends at the very front, fists up and mobbing. There was one old white dude in the front trying to put his fist up…
N: Stuff like that gets a little uncomfortable. I don’t think they really get it, you know?
M: One of the many reasons we feel like we need to branch out into the urban hip-hop scene. We feel like we need more shows for people in our age group. We find ourselves doing shows for a more adult crowd lately.

Where do you want to see Strange Froots go?
All: Everywhere…
M: Short term goals, we’re trying to travel to West Africa in March, planning to do some workshops there, possibly perform at the Francofolies Festival there. Meet with a few artists…
N: Finish our first full length. But long-term, I’d like for us to travel everywhere and have workshops. Musical workshops, writing workshops, beat-making workshops, everything, for young kids. Just to be there for the community.
M: Basically, what NBS provided for us, we should be able to provide for other kids elsewhere. Because, you know, they tried to bring more girls to their program. Not that many showed up, but we came out of it, and now we’re representing them and trying to get more girls involved. Eventually, we’ll move outside of Montreal, outside of Quebec.
S: We’re trying to keep the ball rolling.

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