Manitoba Music Launches Hip Hop / R&B Edition of Canadian Songwriter Challenge

Posted on

Local Songwriters Make Creative Connections with Peers and Industry Mentors, Record Demos in Winnipeg Studios

Manitoba Music is bringing together nine local songwriters and producers working in hip hop and R&B for the latest Manitoba edition of the songwriter development series, the Canadian Songwriter Challenge.

Running throughout September, the Challenge includes creative mentorship and songwriter development to strengthen skills and opportunities for a career in songwriting, composition, and production. Produced with the support of a Bell Media national songwriter initiative, the project is now in its seventh year.

This year’s Challenge brought together creatives working in hip hop and R&B genres, including BeatoxBLUEBLØØDS, Derek Benjamin, Diaphanie, Jana Jacobs, Len Bowen, Muzo, KOZII, and Reynalyne Gacilan. The participants have been hard at work in a hybrid space of virtual mentorship and in-person studio days at No Fun Club, Private Ear Recording, and Stereobus Recording.

While public health restrictions placed roadblocks in the way of traditional co-writing programming, it also offered the chance to think of creative approaches that offer connections with mentors from across Canada and the US. This year songwriters will be working one-on-one with mentors in songwriting, production, publishing, music supervision, and A&R, including rapper DijahSB, music supervisor Jasmine Flott, eOne Music Canada’s Director of A&R Marketing Jay Devonish, producer / artist Junia-T, songwriter Liz Rodrigues,  SOCAN A&R rep Michael Asante, sync agent Mike Jansen of The Greater Goods Co., vocal producer Simone Torres, and Warner Chappell Music Canada’s General Manager Vivian Barclay.

Past participants have made important connections through their work in the Challenge, including 2021 participants Cassidy Mann, who was the first artist signed to End Times Music, a new label launched by mentor Donovan Woods and Michelle Szeto, and Lana Winterhalt, who signed with High Priestess Publishing after meeting mentor Kim Temple.

This event is part of a national project, the Bell Media Canadian Songwriter Challenge. As a multi-year partnership between the Canadian Council of Music Industry Associations (CCMIA) and Bell Media, the CCMIA's member music industry associations will be organizing songwriter-focused events across the country. The 2021 hip hop / R&B edition is supported by Manitoba Film & Music.


Reynalyne Gacilan

Reynalyne Gacilan is a 24 year old authentic artist born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. She has won many singing/talent competitions at a young age leading to a dream come true performing at Universal Studio’s in LA. Reynalyne Gacilan is a powerful raw vocalist and have been training at the age of 3 with ranging genres including: musical theatre, hip hop/rap, R&B, pop, and gospel. Reynalyne Gacilan can also dance, play the piano and guitar, and discovered her enjoyment with song writing in June 2019. As an upcoming artist she plans to continue releasing music with different styles to showcase her abilities as a singer.



Evans “MUZO” Musonda Jr was born in the rural parts of Kabwe, Zambia, Africa on October 4th, 1991. Unlike most of us, Muzo since an early age has dealt with the unfortunate tragedies that life can bring. Six months prior to his birth his father passed away, and at the age of 7 his mother also passed away. Both deaths brought shock, depression and instability to his family. However amidst this time of confusion, Sandra Musonda (Muzo's mother) was a pillar of stability for him. In the absence of his father she acted as his provider, protector, role model and source of inspiration that would follow him throughout his life.

After the passing of his mother, life changed dramatically as he moved into a 10+ member household, supported by his grandparents who did not earn enough income to support everyone. It was at this time that Muzo’s affinity for music began.

In an attempt to relieve the stress he felt, Muzo began to keep a diary of his life. Even though he was young in age, his diaries reflected traits of a more mature mind as he wrote about the unfairness of life and what could be improved. As time passed Muzo began to translate his writing into songs, and fell in love with the dream of entertaining and performing. Regularly ‘performing’ behind his house in Mufurila, Kankoyo, Muzo honed his young skills and envisioned his future in music and entertainment.

Around the age of 12, Muzo’s dream took a step towards reality as he immigrated to Canada to live with his uncle. With a fresh start and a new environment, Muzo quickly adapted to his surroundings and gained a passion for rap and r&b music.

“I had to learn how to rap, because I really liked the way it sounded...I always told myself I have to learn how to do that...It’s not to say there was no rap music in Zambia, but I was never exposed to it...I lived in a house with six girls and all they listened to was Backstreet Boys, Craig David, Celine Dion, etc... so there was no rap in the house at all” – MUZO

As he continued to meticulously study the big names in rap and r&b such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and Eminem, his song writing, rapping and singing abilities became stronger.

In 2008, Muzo released his first project, and in 2010 released his official debut album: Making Momma Proud. This album would act as a symbolic dedication to his deceased mother, and put Muzo’s talents on full display as the album was full of catchy melodies, groovy tunes and lyrics that touched every aspect of life. In 2011 Muzo released his 3rd studio project called Departure To Success City which generated buzz around the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He started off 2012 with a bang, he released his 4th studio project called The Detour, a follow up to his previous project. In 2015, he released an EP called The Album On The Way. In 2017, he

released Thoughts In My Nitro which was followed up with an album called Life Goes On released in January of 2020. December of 2020 came the release of an EP called Celebrate Life. In 2021, Muzo has released his new EP My Better Self.

Muzo is a creative musical talent whose unique sound will continue to impress the ears of listeners. Inspired by the modern legends of R&B, Rap & Pop, Muzo has bridged the gap between his Zambian roots and the modern style of music. His life and music are based on the simple philosophy that with “hard work and patience you can do amazing things”.

Len Bowen

Listening back through the Len Bowen catalogue, you become familiar with a few concepts: struggle is synonymous with perseveranc,ehip hop is life andthe reality of the unrelenting movement of time. Bowen's projects read like journals, but less like a man in reflection and more like a man in motion. Bowen's no longer in a state of growth, instead he's implementing the knowledge base he's acquired.

Often described as a " new throwback", Bowen's music is halfway between the boombap sounds of the mid nineties East Coast hip hop boom - think Common and Nas - and the earnest, honest content of more contemporary artists on the hip hop charts today (YNB Cordae , H.E.R, Drake). Through his music, you can feel the contemplative, negotiation he's having with the listener, defining his place in the landscape as the narrator of his own epic, all the while determined to remain sincere.

For those counting, Bowen is approaching 25 years in the craft. Under his list of accomplishments sits a few Muchmusic, Rap City top tens, a Western Canadian Music Award nomination and a number one slot on the campus radio charts. That's also two records as a member of the legendary hip hop outfit Shadez Ov Black - often referred to as The Shadez - and two solo projects, Long Story Short and Going Away Party.

Released in 2016, his most recent project, Going Away Party is what Bowen describes as a "closing of a chapter and moving on to bigger and better things" . The record itself is a retrospective - from detailing the journey of a single mother raising two children, a letter to lost love or a lighthearted ado to the craft he loves, the project is a ballad to a life enveloped in hip hop.

25 years is a lot of time. When you make the kind of music Bowen makes, that's a lot of reflection - or more accurately, motion. Despite all that's been written, rapped and recorded, all you need is one conversation with him to realize his journal still has a lot of empty pages. If you asked him to describe this stage of his music career in one sentence, he'd say, "my life is a script not yet finished - and a movie not yet shot.”


Kozii is a 22 year old Hip-Hop/Rap artist. He was born and bred in Lagos, Nigeria and is currently based in Canada. The young artist first started rapping in grade 7 with his friends, which soon turned into a serious career when he discovered his strong passion for music. He would write lyrics of his own and perform them in church and social events. The support he received from those around him encouraged him to nurture his gift over time. Kozii has both African and American hip hop influences. He raps in multiple styles and flows, truly showing his talent – he can be melodic, he can be lyrical, and he is never afraid to flaunt his artistry. 
 Kozii emerged with his debut EP titled "Yin Yang" in the summer of 2020, with "Shomo" being the lead single. This project amassed thousands of streams across several platforms and he soon gained some recognition which led to him getting featured on The Game's official playlist "Head Games" in January 2021 with his single "Better Days." 
 Kozii is currently working on a body of work projected to be released in the second half of the year. As he takes his career to the next level, he aims to stay true to his craft and connect with his listeners through his art by telling his story and inspiring others to do the same.

Jana Jacobs

The stage is my happy place. I feel more like myself when I’m expressing myself through music,” says Winnipeg R&B artist Jana Jacobs. With her voice soaring at the highs and creating intimate moments in the lows, Jana effortlessly commands the stage. Her passion is evident in the authenticity of her delivery, filling the room with emotion. Her notable influences include Destiny’s Child, Amy Winehouse and Mahalia, as well as hard rock bands such as I The Mighty, Sleep Token, and Paramore.  Drawing from personal experience and using her hard rock influences, she fuses her gospel, soul and R&B roots with a dark ambience. She writes lyrics that are clever yet relatable to detail her struggles in love, loss and growth. You can find her performing at various locations around the city as she continues to write and collaborate with other musicians to fulfill her vision. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram at @janajanajacobs


Heather Thomas released her introspective debut single 'Something Better' with solo project Diaphanie in the summer of 2020. The word Diaphanie means "the art of recreating stained glass on fine paper", and it couldn't be more apt. Thomas' diverse range of influences and history of collaborations shows a sense of wonder and exploration in the creative realm. Her early project, ATLAAS, marked an exploration of electro-pop and R&B, but Thomas' influences don't end there.

"I grew up listening to jazz, folk, blues, roots and alternative pop and rock, and I have a background in classical singing. I've always been torn by my influences, but with Diaphanie I'm finally in a place where I understand how to bring them all together. All I want to do is tell stories, and make people feel something, no matter the medium."

Collaborations with such artists as The Lytics (Hold On), and 8/uebloods (Past Perfect) have helped hone Thomas' songwriting and interpretation skills, and as the background vocalist for indie-pop powerhouse Begonia, Thomas has had the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business.

Isabelle Soares of Stylus Magazine wrote "Fearless of sticking to a particular sound and expressing feelings in a way that is relatable no matter the way you perceive it, Diaphanie is ground-breaking... "

That fearlessness has been hard-won over the years, and 2021 is finally bearing the fruits of Thomas' labour. With a number of live-off-the-floor online performances and a debut live show that sold out in 48 hours, folks are taking note of Diaphanie, and beginning to understand that Thomas' ethereal voice and expressive songwriting are just the beginning of a long story yet to be told.

Derek Benjamin

Derek Benjamin is the definition of a modern day producer: A masterful engineer, musician, songwriter, vocalist and more.  His ability to combine creativity, advanced knowledge and versatility truly opens the door for any artist or project.

From just a small child, music had already implanted itself in Derek’s life.  His Grandmother Lillian and her sisters sang together as The Gudmundson Sisters.  Lillian played many different instruments throughout her life.  Following suit, Derek’s mother Dianne and her four sisters, sang in a 5 piece harmony outfit known as The Fridfinnson Sisters.  They performed throughout the Interlake from a young age, and some say they still yodel to this day.

At the age of 10, Derek’s family moved to Clandeboye, Manitoba.  It was shortly after that he decided to pick up the guitar and start taking lessons.  A few new friends converged and shortly after, “The Clandeboyz” was born.  With the youngest member at 4 years old, and the oldest at 12, it was nothing short of entertaining.  They performed everything from Elvis, to Steppenwolf, to ‘N sync.  After disbanding in 2004, Derek moved on to play in a few other bands before graduating high school.

As a drafting and design major in high school, Derek planned to attend university for mechanical engineering.  After a year off, the thought of an office job became less and less appealing.  He decided to continue to work until the right career would come along.  Shortly after, while working in the northern Alberta oil sands, Derek received the gift of a lifetime.  The microphone that started it all.  Just a simple USB mic, but it allowed Derek to realize his lifelong dream of creating music was not just possible, but inevitable.  The love of recording and experimenting musically grew quickly, as did the belief that a future in music was attainable.  From then on, Derek spent countless hours writing, producing and recording all genres of music.

A few short years later, back in Manitoba, Derek spent time in local recording studios and working with new found friends in the hip hop and electronic scene.  In the winter of 2011/12, Derek met Marc Herve.  The shared interest in creative and fun music, led them to write, produce and record the single #AllDayParty.  Upon its release, the single immediately caught the attention of friends and fans alike.  Within one month, #AllDayParty had entered regular rotation on both 104.7 Streetz FM and 103.1 Virgin Radio.  Shortly after, the single made its way into a commercial on TSN, also playing regularly during the Winnipeg Jets games at the MTS Center.  With the success of the single, Marc and Derek released an self title EP under the duo of “6Sigma”.  They went on to release 5 more radio singles, including a fund raising effort titled “Stay Strong & Carry On” featuring local artists Rup Monsta and Saint Kris and a music video which raised money for suicide prevention.  6Sigma performed upwards of 15 shows, including opening gigs for acts such as Moka Only and Kid Ink, as well as headlining gigs like the Labour Of Love Block Party with 3000 in attendance.  In Streetz 104.7’s top 12 local songs of 2012, 6Sigma took the 4th, 7th, and 12th spots.

With the success of 6Sigma, Derek finally knew for certain that a career in music is not only possible, but It was happening before his eyes.  He decided to move out to Vancouver, BC and enroll in the audio engineering and advanced production program at Nimbus School Of Media.  He learnt from some of the best in the business and solidified the skills he had been building for years.  Derek graduated top of the class, receiving a letter of recommendation and a Nimbus gold record for most outstanding student.

Soon after, he moved back to Winnipeg to rebrand and manage Blackli$t Studios for over three years. Working with a multitude of artist’s and genres, Derek expanded his network and repertoire, which propelled him to his next venture. In February of 2016, Derek moved on to a new studio space in downtown Winnipeg. He would continue to work out of this space for almost two years before the building was purchased.

Currently, Derek and his partner have purchased a home in Winnipeg and renovated the basement into a fully functional, accredited recording studio and production suite. Over the past 5 years since moving back to Winnipeg, Derek has been writing songs for his biggest project yet. The untitled debut LP will be released by spring 2020, featuring 10 songs that speak on his experiences with love, loss, and overcoming obstacles. The sound is an indie rock/pop foundation with elements of a multitude of different influences, and showcases the broad range that Derek can command.


Bluebloods is a collaboration between songwriter / producer / guitarist Conrad Sweatman and musical friends especially singer Courtney (Devon) Fox. Lyrically, Bluebloods’ music is decidedly provincial. It evokes the fringe subcultures of the ‘fly-over’ country that extends roughly from Michigan to Saskatchewan: clandestine dances in Mennonite Manitoba, dust bowls dominatrixes, rustbelt rebels. Musically, the sound is more cosmopolitan, channelling the jazz songbook as well as lofi house and R&B styles.

In 2019, Bluebloods released a debut EP, Make It Rain, a mixture of ballads and dance tracks. It earned a four star review in the Winnipeg Free Press, which called it “a profound statement of intent from an artist whose work will soon be sought after.” Stylus Magazine described the Make It Rain EP as a “one of the most, if not the most, ambitiously creative pieces of art to ambush the ears of the city.”

Creating video work to accompany his music is a growing part of Sweatman’s practice. His most complex piece to date is a music video for Bluebloods’ bittersweet track Postcard from a Quarantined Miner in Flin Flon, which combines elements of animation, dance, and theatre. As of August 2021, the Postcard track and video have 100K+ streams across all platforms. The Canada Council for the Arts, FACTOR, Manitoba Film and Music, and Winnipeg Arts Council have all supported his work over 2020-21. Sweatman is releasing a second EP in 2022, with a new dance single (and music video) Burn Me Down from that EP dropping autumn 2021. Check out Bluebloods’ website:



Groove beats meets smooth speech. Beatox is a virtuosic beatboxer, producer, and emcee from Canada who mixes beatboxing, rhythm, and poetry in collaboration with highly-skilled musicians from every continent. The outcome: Beatox Experiment - laid-back and high-energy, a funky, satisfaction-guaranteed performance for hip-hop heads and music lovers alike.

Drawing inspiration from artists like Tom Misch, FKJ, Mac Miller, Anderson Paak, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Kendrick Lamar, Beatox has made notable performances at the International Winnipeg Jazz Festival (Canada), Festival Lent (Slovenia), Cluster Digital Festival (2020), and Winnipeg New Music Festival. He is known in the music scene for being prolific and creative while consistently debunking the scatterbrained artist myth - doing everything from booking international tours, to producing visuals, to marketing and collaborating with other artists around the world.


DijahSB, Rapper

It’s no longer a secret that Toronto, Canada continues to be an incubator of raw, unique talent and rapper/songwriter DijahSB is the latest artist taking their brand and story to the world. Inspirational without being preachy, their music is a glimpse into the mind of a Black non-binary artist rapping their way through hope, heartbreak, and breakthroughs. Their fascination with the unguarded creative processes of their influences Kid Cudi and Lupe Fiasco birthed a desire to express themselves freely and unapologetically unique.

It was Dijah’s self-assured confidence that encouraged their decision to quit their job and take on music full time. Without any plan or guarantee, only intuition that if they remained consistent to their voice, support and collaborators would come and they did; from Brazil, Australia, the US and the UK, they amassed a cult following of creatives and fans who religiously followed their Twitter account, and when it came time to support a gofundme their fans gladly gave what they could to help release their debut album 2020.

The following year, Dijah released their critically acclaimed album Head Above the Waters, a Kaleidoscope of lyricism, honesty, and a clear vision of the successes to come, earning them increased attention from the industry, their peers and the 2021 Shortlist of the Polaris Prize, Internationally recognized and one of the top coveted awards for songwriters in Canada.

With no intention of slowing down the rapper is set to release their EP Tasty Raps Vol.1, a name coined after Kid Cudi replied to a tweet that Dijahs’ flow was “Tasty”. On the project, Dijah brought in new collaborators including one of their favourite artists right now, Mick Jenkins on the single Here to Dance, along with their core production team of Harrison, Cheap Limousine and Reon Vanger. With every release, Dijah moves closer to their dream of living comfortably, happily and being a voice for the LGBTQ+ community.

Jasmine Flott, Music Supervisor


Jay Devonish, Director of A&R Marketing / eOne Music 

With over 18 years of experience at eOne Music Canada, Jay currently holds the title of Director of A&R Marketing. Jay is responsible for recruiting and marketing artists for eOne Music and is based in their Toronto office. Over the years Jay has worked on projects from artists such as DJ Khaled, Jim Jones, The Diplomats, Wu-Tang, J Dilla, Madlib, Aloe Blacc, Snoop Dogg, Wyclef Jean, Sizzla, Gyptian and more. Recent signings include Keys N Krates, Rhye, David Strickland, Charlotte Day Wilson, River Tiber, Prime Boys, Dudley Perkins & Georgia Anne Muldrow.

Jay also teaches the Business of Music program at the non-profit organization; The Remix Project.

In addition, Jay runs a grant administration company called DMC Grants who aid artists, entrepreneurs, and businesses secure funding for the development. Lastly, Jay runs a boutique record label and publishing company FORESEEN Entertainment which is home to artists such as Moonshine, GodsConnect Once A Tree, beat sampras, J.u.D., Charles Freeman and Laser. 

Junia-T, Producer/artist


Liz Rodrigues, Songwriter

Born and raised in Toronto, Liz Rodrigues is a versatile topline writer. Her songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as Celine Dion, to Pitbull to Pink and most notably on numerous projects with Eminem, including tracks on his record breaking Recovery album and Marshal Mathers LP 2, both of which won Rap Album of the Year. More on Liz at


Michael Asante, SOCAN

Mike Jansen, The Greater Goods Co.


Simone Torres, Vocal Producer & Engineer

Simone Torres is a Multi-Platinum, Grammy Nominated, engineer, vocal producer, and vocalist from New York. She has worked with artists such as Normani, Jessie J, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Monsta X, Sia, Kane Brown, Usher, Superfruit, The Backstreet Boys, Dua Lipa, and more.

Some notable accomplishments include Vocal Producing Normani’s “Motivation” and engineering Cardi B’s “I Like It” and “Be Careful.” Outside of the studio, Simone also is passionate about working alongside organizations such as Women’s Audio Mission to help educate and encourage young women to take on careers in the music industry.

As a vocalist herself, Simone understands how stressful it can be to perform in the studio and thus aims to bring comfort and ease to her artists. Vocalists are their instrument and in turn, when something goes wrong it can be extremely personal. The trust between a vocalist and their producer is of the utmost importance. It is because of this that Simone became a vocal producer. She wants to help her artists create music they can be proud of.

Photographer: Cody Burdett


Vivian Barclay, GM, Warner Chappell Music Canada

Vivian is the General Manager of Warner/Chappell Music Canada. She is a classically-trained musician with a degree in Radio & Television from Ryerson University. Experienced in radio, artist management, publicity, and promotion, she has composed music for television commercials and won awards for her film sound production and digital audio editing talents.

At Warner/Chappell, she works with a diverse roster of songwriters, including Jully Black, Patoranking, Brad Rempel (High Valley), Maurice Moore, Machel Montano, Classified, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald and is also responsible for the administration of the over 200-year-old company’s global catalogue, which includes  Lizzo, Quincy Jones, Summer Walker, The Grateful Dead,  Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Gamble & Huff, Radiohead, Stephen Sondheim, Chris Stapleton, Green Day, Michael Bublé, Murda Beatz and PARTYNEXTDOOR. 

Vivian sits on the Boards of: Music Publishers Canada, SOCAN, the Toronto Music Advisory Committee, ADVANCE -Canada’s Black Music Collective, as well as Phemphat Entertainment Group, producers of the all-female Honey Jam Showcase, a non-profit organization which provides mentoring opportunities for artists. Vivian is also active in community development projects Habitat for Humanity and Food for the Poor.

Read more news