IN JULY, CANADIAN singer-songwriter Fefe Dobson delivered a frenzied performance live from an Edmonton, Alberta Pride festival, playing hits from her two-decade-spanning career. After the raucous set, she rushed out of the outdoor venue with her leather jacket covering her face and signature shaggy tresses, preventing her from making eye contact with the adoring, screaming crowd behind the barricades. Yes, even 20 years after Dobson launched into the pop-punk scene, the fans are still clamoring for her.

Much of Dobson’s appeal is pop-punk nostalgia. She counts Selena Gomez, Jordin Sparks and Miley Cyrus among her publishing credits, each of them borrowing from her style to create theirs. Dobson, of course, was one of the few Black artists who epitomized the sound and feel of the pop-punk genre, with her 2003 self-titled debut rising to the top of the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart in Canada. 

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / BELT: UNCUFFED, SWEATER: RYAN LI, PANTS: AMINA MUADDI AVAILABLE AT HUDSON’S BAY]

Basically, there can be no pop-punk revival without Dobson, yet she still occupies a blind spot in the collective reimagining of the genre. She came after Avril Lavigne, another Canadian pop-punk princess, but right before many of the mainstays of the movement like Panic! At The Disco. As one of the only Black women, she was relegated to the sidelines — an afterthought for gatekeepers and consumers alike. But for young Black women, she was — like the second single from her debut album — “everything.” Willow Smith, whom Dobson has in many ways passed the torch to and considers “culturally important,” even cites her as one of her direct influences. 

IN OCTOBER, OVER ZOOM from her family home in Nashville, Dobson explains that the way she was whisked away after her set in Canada must have made it appear like she delusionally believed she was Beyonc-level famous, but the deeply 2000s singer-songwriter’s hurried exit was for more practical reasons: She was late for a flight due to the concert's delayed start, and her handlers knew she'd never get where she needed to go next without obscuring her fans from her line of sight. If left to her own devices, she would have stopped to take photographs she didn’t have time to take or jumped over the barricade, soaking in her fans’ energy — energy she’s had such limited access to over the pandemic. 

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / HAT: FEFE’S OWN, JACKET: HOUSE OF ETIQUETTE]

Speaking of energy, Dobson is teeming with it, but in true rock star fashion is equally sleepy and effervescent. The musician, now 37, is clearly excited about the next chapter of her story; it has, after all, been over a decade since the release of her 2010 album Joy. Currently, she is riding the high of the release of her most recent singles "FCKN IN LOVE" and "Recharge My Heart." (The "give me your energy" refrain of the latter song feels appropriate to highlight here.)

Since the release of her debut single “Bye Bye Boyfriend” in 2003 — an angsty, guitar-driven farewell song for a less-than-ideal lover — her confessional vibe has remained. “Honestly, I always try to explain my heart in most of my albums, and it's hard to do that at times because you don't wanna hurt anybody. But I feel it's my time to tell my story,” she confesses. “I’m not bending to radio or streaming, but instead just focusing on rock ‘n’ roll and honest music.”

Dobson considers Nashville, Tennessee — one of the rock capitals of the United States — where she lives with her Peletons, record collection and her partner, the rapper Yelawolf, her adopted home. Even though her story began in her birthplace of Scarborough, Canada, today, Dobson seems as American as she is Canadian. But geographical and cultural differences are of little significance to the singer who is of Jamaican and European descent. 

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / NECKLACE: ETAH LOVE, RINGS: ETAH LOVE, SWEATER: KILLSTAR, JEANS: FEFE’S OWN]

In Canada, ethnicities coalesce more seamlessly. In America, however, segregation still thrives, with Black having a more limited definition: descendants of Africans brought here as slaves. In an interview with The Village Voice back in 2011, Drake — a huge Dobson fan, and arguably the biggest global superstar — put it like this: “Canada's like a cultural melting pot, especially Toronto. America, I come here sometimes, and I witness real segregation. Like when you go to LA and it's like, ‘This area's Mexican, and this area's white.’ That's crazy to me because in Toronto we have cultural areas — ‘OK, this is Little India, this is Chinatown, this is where the Greek people are’ — but it's not segregated. It's not like you can't go there and participate in the culture. So it's a bit different. I think Canada's very accepting.” 

Fittingly, Dobson recently reunited with Drake and Lavigne, after a sequence of serendipitous events. 

“It started with my manager [Danny Reiner] and I going to a Lady Gaga concert in Toronto. My manager also works with Nelly Furtado, so we were all in a box watching the show. We went to another box to visit some friends, and Avril was there. I hadn’t seen her in years! We got right into catching up, and before we knew it, the concert was over. The night was young, so I took Avril and our crew out for some drinks to one of my favorite spots in Toronto, and then Drake hit us up about an OVO afterparty.”

Upon arriving at the party, Dobson gave Drake, whom she hadn’t seen in ages, a big, warm hug. And then, a photo of the three — Drake, Dobson and Lavigne — was snapped. Drake shared their group photo to his Instagram, and the rest is internet history.

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / JACKET: KILLSTAR, T-SHIRT: ELLIE MAE VINTAGE, RINGS: ETAH LOVE, PANTS: FEFE’S OWN]

No matter where she is, Dobson intimately understands that people make a place great, so she has always tried to surround herself with great people — like Reiner, Drake, Lavigne. This is how she continues to vibrate high, leaving little room for others’ doubts — even her own — to creep into her life.

Her stance is philosophical: “It’s only when doubt gets involved that it prevents that manifestation from happening as quickly as you’d like it to. The problem is as humans, we doubt: It's natural. We’re instilled with fear the minute we are born, really. Doubt is so natural, and it prevents manifestation [from working] as fast as we want. [It] still happens, just takes a little longer.”

According to her best friend Anastasia Gordon, Dobson has manifested her entire life. 

“One of the first conversations I ended up having with her, I introduced myself like, ‘I’m Stacey, nice to meet you.’ And someone said, ‘Fe said she’s gonna go on tour with Justin Timberlake. She’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do it.’ It's not like anything had happened yet, but I later found out she was manifesting her destiny,” Gordon says over the phone. “I think that was my first encounter with the power of manifestation because fast-forward a year-and-a-half later, she was getting ready to go on tour with Justin Timberlake.”  

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / JACKET: KILLSTAR, T-SHIRT: ELLIE MAE VINTAGE, RINGS: ETAH LOVE, PANTS: FEFE’S OWN]

Gordon, who met Dobson in high school, also remembers her as a nonconformist: the daughter of a single mother finding her own way to do everything — whether music or fashion — often out of survival. Dobson’s early life was so under-resourced, with her mother struggling to provide adequately for her and her brothers, and her father simply not being in the picture. She wasn’t like other kids: She was scrappy and resourceful, relying on both her mother’s closet and thrift stores like Value Village. 

Dobson’s unique clothing choices highlighted a lack, of course, but also a wound. 

“She showed up to high school one day and was wearing a wedding gown. Everything that is cool now, she was rocking then. She was literally rocking her uncle’s clothes because her parents, her mom, didn’t have the funds to get clothes,” Gordon recalls. Dobson’s exterior was a distraction for others. “The reality was there were some very hard and painful things that were going on internally, and music was her way,” Gordon adds.

There was nothing else Dobson could do. “The clothes that I wore were a reflection of how I felt, and although we didn’t have much money, my mom had a lot of clothes that are classified as vintage,” the singer explains.

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / JACKET: KILLSTAR, T-SHIRT: ELLIE MAE VINTAGE, RINGS: ETAH LOVE, PANTS: FEFE’S OWN]

In addition to providing her with old clothes, Dobson’s mother influenced her love of music. 

“My mom played so much music in the household every single day, and she played it loud. You could not get away from it if you tried,” she laughs. That included Bob Marley, Depeche Mode and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. “[She] definitely pushed [and] encouraged me to sing,” she adds.

Up until recently, Dobson and her Jamaican father were estranged. Dobson finds it difficult to say she missed something she had never known. Therefore, her father's absence never felt like a phantom limb but rather like someone that had been misplaced. That’s why she can’t say she was “abandoned,” either. 

But where did her father go? In her youth, she didn't know the answer, but everyone else could see him etched on her face. That's the toll of being “other” — it’s written all over one’s face, especially if you’re a biracial Black girl who grew up visibly different from her contemporaries. 

“I’m just thankful that I can have that other part of me more in my life,” Dobson says of her dad. “That’s very important to me.”

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[Photo by Jimmy Fontaine / JACKET: FEFE’S OWN, NECKLACES AND RINGS: ETAH LOVE, TANK TOP: FEFE’S OWN]

She’s chosen forgiveness, above all else, just as she’s chosen to live a doubt-free life. Her father, once ill-equipped to be one, is willing to play his role today, so she wants to meet him where he’s at — where she’s at. For Dobson, greatness is measured in one’s constant striving in the present. She’s never going to stop striving, so she’s not going to put any limitations on others’ efforts for growth. 

The work never stops for Dobson: “I give myself more goals, strive harder.”

And she has: Since those harrowing high school days, Dobson has gone on to leave an indelible mark in the music industry, whether or not she was in the public eye.

Lately, those goals are piling up. For Dobson, a new album is on the horizon. She’s headed to Toronto next week to cut the final vocals and finish the LP. Dobson says her next project will be a combination of all of her previous albums, albeit the best parts. 

“It will be rock-driven but with some pop melodies and always pulled together with my lyrics from the heart,” she explains. “I’m really digging into rock at the moment. My first two singles were very pop-driven, but the album will have that rock edge I love.”

All of that perseverance has paid off: She’s ready to give us her “everything” once again.