Kairo McLean, the youngest JUNO reggae nominee to date, draws inspiration from the genre’s lasting themes of love and peace — then puts his own spin on it. But, even as he’s being recognized on Canada’s biggest stage, Kairo still manages to be a Toronto kid.
By Meghan Yuri Young
Photography By Max Power
Kairo McLean quickly corrects himself: “I don’t wanna say I’m raised in Toronto because I’m still being raised.” At the tender age of 13, this local reggae sensation might be up for a JUNO Award, but there is a humbleness to him that says as much about his music as it does about Kairo.
It also speaks to his old soul, which is very present in Kairo’s debut EP, Easy Now. The youngest JUNO nominee for Reggae Recording of the Year, Kairo is influenced by artists from the 1970s and early 1980s. For him, it’s all about continuing to spread the message of love, peace and justice, which generation after generation of reggae artists have highlighted.
His conscientiousness — and height! — makes it easy to forget that Kairo’s just about to enter high school. Yet, that is top of mind for his parents. As much as they support his talent, they also encourage him to just be a kid. Being around them, you quickly sense the light-hearted innocence they help to foster in spite of the important topics Kairo touches on in his music.
Meghan Yuri Young: First of all, when I saw you walk through the door, my first thought was, “No way Kairo is 13!” How tall are you?
Kairo McLean: Actually, I measured not too long ago. I’m 5 ft. 10 with shoes on.
MYY: And you’re still growing! Not only that, you’re nominated for your first JUNO.
KM: That’s right.
MYY: I read on your JUNOs profile that you’ve been dabbling in music since you were five years old. When we’re children, most of us explore our creative side. But how did you know, at such a young age, that this was something you wanted to dedicate a lot of your time to doing?
KM: I started out listening to, like, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and watching new videos. I’ve been fascinated with it ever since. This is just something that I’ve chosen to do, you know, because I want to emulate them as much as possible.
MYY: I hear that you have four siblings and they all dabbled in music, but you’re the only one who decided to create a career out of it. Do you know what differentiates you from your siblings? Is it just the pure love of reggae and music, or is there something else there?
KM: Well, a lot of them decided to start music when they were a little bit older. So, they had a little bit more responsibility. I guess because I’m so young, I can focus on music and school, whereas they have to focus on jobs and bills on top of the music. So, it was a little bit harder for them in that sense.
“[With the JUNOs], we’re on the highest platform I can get on in Canada. So, the message of peace and love, it’s being broadcasted all over Canada. I think, in these times, we really need it…”
MYY: How is it balancing school with a career that is taking off?
KM: It’s a little bit difficult, but it’s fun. It’s fun because, you know, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I get to hang out with all my friends. Then from 3:30 on, I get to do what I love outside of school. So, it’s, like, just fun all day for me, really.
MYY: It feels like you and your music really started to get noticed last year. You were 12. You’re officially a teenager now. I remember when I was your age, everything felt slower and longer. So, I feel like in one year, a lot has probably happened for you. Has that year evolved your relationship with music in any way?
KM: It’s really deepened it. In 2021, this was something we were trying out. I’ve come to a point over a year where I can now say this is my life, you know, and this is my parents’ life. Now, this is something. I don’t know how else to explain it.
MYY: You don’t have to. It can be hard to explain sometimes. Because it’s just…it.
KM: Exactly. It’s it.
“On [my EP] Easy Now, I actually talk about bullying … I think that’s one of the major issues that needs to be tackled, especially here in Canada.”
MYY: Let’s fast forward a little bit. How does it feel being recognized on a stage like the JUNOs? You’re a first-time nominee.
KM: It feels great really. I know the message I’m singing about has gotten to people. Right now, we’re on the highest platform I can get on in Canada. So, the message of peace and love, it’s being broadcasted all over Canada. I think, in these times, we really need it, you know?
MYY: Oh, for sure. A lot of your music is influenced by your Jamaican roots. More than that, you have such an old soul to your music. How did that come about?
KM: Once again, it’s the message of love that’s relevant to this day. Things like singing about clout and all those things, those come and go, but we need love every day, you know? That’s what really draws me to it. It’s a very powerful message — one that we need all the time.
MYY: It’s very pure and universal. Even though your music is inspired by Jamaican legends, does Toronto inspire your music?
KM: Of course! There are artists like Kirk Diamond, who I’ve met, who’ve been really inspiring. Not only that, but the landscape, where I’m from, you know? I’m from Scarborough. There’s a lot of basketball, a lot of friendly people.
MYY: Everything touches on your relationship with Jamaica. Have you been to the island?
KM: I have. In 2018.
MYY: What did it feel like finally going to Jamaica, experiencing the culture, the community? How did that affect your relationship with reggae?
KM: Honestly, it strengthened it. But it was a little bit sad because we only went for a week. It wasn’t enough time. Not only do I study reggae, I study the places and the people, so there wasn’t enough time to see everything that I wanted to see. I wanted to go to Trench Town and see Bob Marley’s house. I wanted to see all those landmarks. So, when we go back, I’m definitely gonna adventure all around.
MYY: What did you bring back with you to Toronto?
KM: I brought the energy that the people give up. Jamaica’s very communal and everything’s very brotherly. I feel like I brought that back to Canada. That’s just something that really inspires me and my music.
NOW YOU KNOW: “I’m a reggae musician, but I don’t only listen to reggae! My favourite artist outside of reggae is actually Ray Charles. I draw influence from him into my music.”
MYY: Does your school life also influence your music, or is it very much what you’ve learned through your family, your research, all the history?
KM: School inspires me somewhat. On Easy Now, I actually talk about bullying. It’s a major problem, especially now with xenophobia, those kind things. It’s become like another type of outbreak. I think that’s one of the major issues that needs to be tackled, especially here in Canada.
MYY: Especially when your message is love and peace, to witness that within your community, your peers, that must be so hard.
KM: It really is.
MYY: Even though people are still getting to know you, is there something that might surprise them?
KM: Well, I’m a reggae musician, but I don’t only listen to reggae! My favourite artist outside of reggae is actually Ray Charles. I draw influence from him into my music. I also really like blues and country, but a lot of reggae’s actually drawn from country music.
MYY: Who’s your favourite country artist?
KM: Garth Brooks.
MYY: One thing that’s stuck out to me about you is how you’re described as a prodigy when it comes to knowing the history of reggae. Why is it so important for you to not only know the craft, but to understand the history?
KM: Well, they say history repeats itself, you know? So, I feel like if I know the history, especially with things they were saying from those times, you can kind of get a sense for what’s going to happen. Their message is still relevant. If I know the history, like, where they’re coming from, then I can figure out where I’m going.
MYY: Do you think you’ll always be performing reggae, or do you think you’re gonna follow the footsteps of Ray Charles or Garth Brooks next?
KM: Actually, I’ve always had an idea for an album where I do a song from every genre. I don’t know if I’m going to do other genres full time. Reggae’s my life, but I’ll definitely try out different genres.
MYY: We can’t wait to hear it when you do! What advice would you give your peers who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
KM: Do things that I think are important for every artist. First, find a message you think is very important and strike on it every time. Second, find someone who, no matter what happens, won’t leave. For me, it’s my parents. Even if things go wrong, like, if you have a bad show or anything, they’re always there for me. Even when I’m feeling bad, they put me back up again.
MYY: Keeping in mind that you’re growing up while pursuing your passion, are you still trying to enjoy your childhood, being young and carefree, or do you have a different childhood than others?
KM: I’m definitely still having a childhood. Although I’m doing this, my parents always make sure that the things that I want to do outside of music come first.
MYY: What’s the first thing you want to do outside of music?
“…Singing about clout and all those things, those come and go, but we need love every day, you know? That’s what really draws me to it. It’s a very powerful message — one that we need all the time.”
MYY: I want to take a moment to ask your parents something. How does it feel, having your son be nominated for a JUNO?
Mom: I’m nervous because he’s starting Grade 9, and it’s almost as if his childhood is going to be different, you know? I think it’s important that he makes his crew in Grade 9 and has that core group of friends. No matter what happens from here, if you don’t have that core friendship that you’ve made, you’re not gonna have a grounding. So, in Grade 9, that’s what we’re pushing for.
That said, I’m excited for him. He’s my baby. I never thought I’d have to share him, you know what I mean? It almost feels like I’m sharing him with the world.
MYY: You are sharing him!
Mom: At times, I become protective, but there are more times where I’m just in awe. I’m in awe at what he creates and what’s in his mind. I think we’re all in awe. I look at my husband all the time and say, “We did this.”
MYY: You’re so right. We’re all in awe. Kairo, you’re going to the JUNOs! Who are you looking forward to seeing?
KM: Honestly? Avril Lavigne, Shawn Mendes. Is Justin Bieber performing?
MYY: I don’t actually know. We’ll have to check the site for that! Summer break is almost here. What’s the first thing you’re gonna do?
KM: I think I’m going to chill.
MYY: Is there anywhere in Toronto you want to go with your friends? Where do you want to visit?
KM: I want to go back to Rasta Pasta in Kensington [Market]. My summer’s going to be pretty busy because I’m performing. So, summer’s going to be partly touring and partly having fun with friends.
MYY: That sounds like the perfect balance.
This year, the JUNO Awards are back — and in-person — in Toronto at the Budweiser Stage. Don’t miss Kairo at the festivities on May 15.