Zach Zoya Learned English to Be Like His Rap Idols — Now He's Coming for Their Spot

"French people won't fuck with you if you're giving up on your people and switching to English. So I needed to be undeniable."
Zach Zoya Learned English to Be Like His Rap Idols — Now He's Coming for Their Spot
Photo: Drowster
Zach Zoya's love of hip-hop, like many suburban kids born in the '90s, starts with the 8 Mile soundtrack, especially its biggest hit. "His palms are sweaty / Knees weak, arms are heavy" — you know the rest. You probably just rapped those lines in perfect cadence. No matter who you are, you must hit the first verse when the guitars kick in.

When Zoya first heard "Lose Yourself" as a kid growing up in small-town Quebec, he didn't "understand shit." He only spoke French. But the up-and-coming pop-rapper tells Exclaim! that it was the moment he decided to transcend his own boundaries and make music in English.

"At that point, I didn't really understand it, I didn't speak English like that, so it was really melodies and tempo and sounds," he says. "But I found it interesting, and I really fell in love and wanted to do it."

Now, he's living his dream. In 2021, YouTube named him a Trending Artist on the Rise, his hella catchy "Start Over" is all over the radio, and he'll be performing at his second consecutive Osheaga later this summer. He's one degree of separation away from Drake, both having worked with producers Boi-1da and Matthew Burnett.

Zoya fought hard for those accomplishments. The youngest of four siblings born to a South African father and French-Canadian mother, he credits the 8 Mile soundtrack for teaching him English and introducing him to the likes of Eminem, JAY-Z, 50 Cent, D12 and many more.

He compares his sound to Post Malone or Bryson Tiller, but may be a better comparison, given Zoya is a stringent lyricist with a natural knack for making pop bangers. His latest EP, No Love Is Ever Wasted, is a collection of eight radio-ready pop rap songs, all of them memorable from the jump

"This feels like my vision now," says Zoya, speaking with Exclaim! the day before releasing No Love Is Ever Wasted on 7ième Ciel and Universal Music Canada. "I feel like my previous EP did its job and did what it had to do. But you only got a taste. There's definitely more where that came from. I got a lot more to offer than just that. I don't want to be diminished to just that."

During our chat at the Universal Music Canada office in Toronto, Zoya is charismatic and charming as he asserts that his latest release is his most fun, emotionally driven and representative of who he is as an artist thus far. On previous EPs Misstape and Spectrum, he says he had something to prove as an English-speaking rapper from Quebec.

Put simply, anglophone rappers have a hard time finding acceptance in Quebec's hip-hop scene. "There's a weird language dynamic back in Quebec where you have to be all in or all out. You need a texture to your voice, and there's a certain aesthetic to it that I don't really have," says Zoya about "Queb" rappers.

For the same reasons Quebec's road signs are only in French, the rap Queb scene is a proud, tight-knit community that is eager to promote and sustain French music. According to Zoya, that leaves very little room for an English-speaking artist. 

"I didn't really identify as a Quebecer growing up because the media and the culture, in general, didn't make me feel like one," he said. "You're a Quebecer if you're white and French. I was French, but I was not white, so I was not [seen as] a Quebecer, so [I figured] I might as well go all out and do what I like." 

During his final year of high school, Zoya moved to Montreal and, as a teenager, became the first-ever English-speaking artist to sign to 7ième Ciel, one of the province's most prominent hip-hop labels.

It wasn't the most surprising decision for the label, all things considered: both Zoya and label founder Steve Jolin (a.k.a. Queb rapper Anodajay) grew up in Rouyn-Noranda, a mining town seven hours northwest of Montreal, so "we could relate on other levels" beyond language, says Zoya, including a shared affinity for thoughtful lyricism: "I was trying to be Kendrick; I was trying to have that kind of delivery, that conscious rap type of thing." 

He chalks up Jolin's belief in him to his lyrical showing on his 2018 debut EP Misstape, a collab with producer High Klassified. "If [Jolin] wouldn't respect the fact that I was doing it in another language, then he would at least respect the work I put into it," says Zoya. "English people don't really fuck with French people like that, and French people won't fuck with you if you're giving up on your people and switching to English. So I needed to be undeniable." 

After the success of Misstape, he signed with Universal Music Canada in 2020. From there, he released his second EP, Spectrum, a more ranged focus record filled with melodic vocals, catchy pop hooks and melodies.
As he puts it, it was his first step towards conquering the rest of Canada.

"I always had grand ambitions, even before music," Zoya explains. "I was playing hockey, but I didn't want to be just a hockey player; I wanted to be the best player. So, as soon as the music got into the equation, it was the same thing. If I'm going to get into music, I'm going to be the best; I'm going to beat everybody; I'll be number one wherever I go."

To that end, Zoya is ready to truly arrive on the main stage with No Love Is Ever Wasted, featuring tracks like "All Alone in the Universe," a moody R&B track reminiscent of There's Really a Wolf-era Russ, with solid vocals, precise lyrical delivery and a fantastic beat, and uptempo second single "Smoke & Dance," now an anthem for the Toronto Blue Jays during broadcasts on Sportsnet.

Maybe Zoya's tenacity comes from overcoming the initial language barrier, or the fact his hip-hop love affair started with one of the greatest motivational songs ever written. No matter the reason, he's taking the lessons he learned while clawing for recognition in Quebec's small hip-hop scene to the mainstream. Like B-Rabbit, Zach Zoya is on a mission to make it big, and he truly understands that "You only get one shot."