Written by Maxwell Aka

Growing up in Toronto meant growing up around diversity. My own family is biracial, and my church community made it very normal for me to find myself around people of varying cultures.

When my teenage self really discovered the love of music and began taking guitar seriously, I found myself being pulled in every direction. I was a metalhead, a rocker at heart, but I found myself swept up in musician circles where I learned how to play along with R&B, gospel, hip- hop, reggae, and so many more styles of music.

But diversity was also a struggle. Growing up in a strict and somewhat isolationist denomination of Christianity, I found it difficult at times to reconcile my love of the arts and music with a restrictive version of the faith. I fled from the reach of my denomination for a time and studied theology and philosophy at Tyndale University, where I could re-construct my own faith in the context of multiple expressions of Christianity. It was in this environment that I learned new dimensions to diversity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging in a wider group of believers.

It still took a long time, however, for me to reconcile my love of modern music and my sense of calling to ministry with the often dogmatic views within my church on that topic. Even after graduating with a theology degree, it seemed that my prospects for work would be slim: I had a degree from outside of my own faith tradition, and my true passions were screamingly contrary to the sensibilities of the community I would be serving. It was, as it turns out, an excellent way to be unhirable.

Over the course of a few years, I took what work I could. I spent some time abroad on the mission field (in Kenya), and worked locally in youth ministry with my denomination in some experimental and informal roles. But in all of this I failed to accept some of the truest things about myself – that I am ultimately a songwriter, a performer, and an artist, and that denying or undervaluing these parts of myself would only lead to more and more frustration.

In 2014, I started reaching out to the musicians I knew around me. I fired off a few song demos to a drummer friend I had met at Tyndale, and before I knew it we were in the process of recording an album. Over the next two years I honed my craft as a producer and recording engineer in the time I could find between work, and a band slowly began to take shape. I met new people. I played in new churches across the denominational spectrum and built new relationships.

And in 2016, we launched our music as KOZEN – a band built on years of frustration and hope, from a humble solo project to a full five-piece band. It turned out to be the strangest band I could have ever imagined: me, a singer-songwriter type, joined by a guitarist and drummer schooled in the Metal tradition, and a keyboardist and bass player steeped in gospel, R&B, funk, and jazz. “Singer-songwriter jazz metal?” While we were never able to quite put a label on what we do, we embraced the inherent diversity of being a multicultural, multi-denominational band from Toronto and began to get involved in our local music scene.

And then, almost as quickly as the band had begun to get off the ground, circumstances pulled me away to attend seminary in southwestern Michigan.

For the last three years I’ve been in a long distance relationship with my dream band. We’ve somehow made it work. I’ve made the long drives home to rehearse and play shows whenever possible. We’ve leveraged the miracle of the internet to write, record, and produce an entire new
album (which will be released on June 7, 2019!) and we have managed to continue building relationships in our local scene even in the least ideal circumstances. Through this journey, I’ve come to accept certain things about myself: that I am ultimately a songwriter, a performer, and an artist, and that nothing will ultimately get in the way of me fulfilling those parts of my calling.

I’m on the cusp of finishing my degree, finding my way back to Canada, and pouring myself into my local music scene. I’m ready to accept the gifting I’ve been given, regardless of where it leads me or what practical troubles it might present me with. I’ve accepted the diversity and versatility that my life experience has been shaped by, and I’m ready to throw a curveball in the face of all expectations.