Pierre Kwenders has won the 2022 Polaris Music Prize for his album “José Louis and the Paradox Of Love.”
The Congolese-Canadian’s third album, which blends the dancefloor energy of Congolese rumba, R&B and pop, was selected by an 11-member grand jury as best Canadian album of the year based on its artistic merit.
At the ceremony in Toronto on Monday night, Kwenders beat nine other contenders for the $50,000 prize, including rapper Shad, Vancouver rock band Destroyer, Quebec pop provocateur Hubert Lenoir and Rosaireville, N.B.-raised Lisa LeBlanc.
Kwenders accepted the honour after dropping to his knees on the stage, which he later explained was out of nervousness.
“This means a lot to me, and a lot of people that have been around me, and helped me to be the man that I am today,” he said.
He went on to explain that over the past couple of months he’s lost several people close to him, including cousins and most recently his godfather.
“I felt a little bit like (in) life something was going wrong,” he said. “But then I remembered the reason why I do what I do… to tell the story of the people that inspired me.”
Kwenders was born José Louis Modabi, in Kinshasa, Congo, and immigrated to Canada in 2001. His stage name is drawn from his late grandfather, a local businessman and community leader.
“José Louis and the Paradox Of Love” was recorded over four years and Kwenders describes it as a reflection on romantic love, family and personal growth sung in English, French, Lingala, Tshiluba, and Kikongo. It features musical collaborators King Britt, Michael Brun and Arcade Fire‘s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne.
In a press conference after his win, he considered how he’d spend the $50,000 prize.
“The first thing I’m doing with the money is giving my mom the per cent that she deserves,” he said.
“(She’s) a single mom, she made a lot of sacrifices. She didn’t believe that I could do it in music but still trusted that I got the guts to do it. She’s still out there supporting me.”
“Ten or 20 per cent goes first to my mom. And then the rest? We’ll figure it out,” he added.
Kwenders has been celebrated by the Polaris jury in the past. He previously landed a spot on the 2018 shortlist with his album “Makanda at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time.”
The Polaris Music Prize is considered one of the country’s most prestigious music awards with past winners that include Haviah Mighty, Jeremy Dutcher and Kaytranada.
Attended by Canadian talent and industry players, the evening proved to be a lengthy celebration that stretched on for more than four hours as each nominee took the stage to perform, many of them playing at least two of their songs.
Last year’s winner Cadence Weapon opened the show with a performance of “On Me” and “Senna,” two tracks from his Polaris-winning album “Parallel World.”
He was followed by this year’s nominees, including Toronto singer-songwriter Charlotte Day Wilson and Haisla Nation hip-hop act Snotty Nose Rez Kids.
Kwenders said being among the multi-genre “melting pot” of his fellow nominees felt right and was “a good representation of Canada.”
“I don’t like to put myself into any kind of boxes,” he said. “But finding myself in this box, I kind of feel like it’s the right box.”
—David Friend, The Canadian Press