The youngest JUNO reggae nominee to date shares where he draws inspiration, the performers he’s excited to see at the JUNO Awards, and the Toronto restaurant he can’t wait to go back to.

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.

2022 JUNO Award Nominee Kairo McLean
2022 JUNO Award Nominee Kairo McLean

Meghan Yuri Young: 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?

Kairo McLean: 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: 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.

2022 JUNO Award Nominee Kairo McLean
2022 JUNO Award Nominee Kairo McLean

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: 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: 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. 

 

This is an excerpt from an interview originally published on Now Playing Toronto. See An Old Soul With a Timeless Message for the full interview with Kairo McLean.

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.