Canada’s music history is as diverse as its population, but Black music history in Canada hasn’t always been the best documented. As we continue learning more about the contributions to the music industry by Black Canadian artists, let’s celebrate ten defining moments and contributions to Canada’s musical legacy.
Like many American artists in the 1960s, Jackie Shane, Canada’s first Black transgender artist, found peace in our music scene. She immigrated to Cornwall, ON, and then Montreal, QC in 1960 before being asked to frontline Frank Motley’s R&B/Soul band Motley Crew. After releasing a cover of William Bell’s “Any Other Way,” Shane would chart at No. 2 on Toronto’s CHUM Chart, as well as No. 124 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart in 1963, marking a milestone moment for R&B/Soul music in Canada.
Originally born in Detroit, Liberty Silver found herself opening for Bob Marley in New York City before taking the Canadian music industry by storm in the mid-80s. Silver would become a 5x JUNO nominee and 2x winner between 1985 and 1989 and would become the first Black recipient in history to win a JUNO Award, as well as the first-ever recipient of the ‘Best R&B/Soul Recording of the Year’ for her single “Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love.”
Following a move to Toronto from New Jersey during the early 60s, Salome Bey started playing the existing Toronto jazz circuit, and by 1964, she would soon be named ‘Canada’s First Lady of the Blues.’ Bey was nominated for a Grammy for her work on Broadway’s Your Arms Too Short to Box with God and created a cabaret show about the history of Black Music (Indigo) that later aired on national television.
As a first-generation Jamaican who grew up in Montreal, QC, Oscar Peterson spent his childhood in a predominantly Black neighbourhood surrounded by jazz music. Peterson meticulously studied the piano under various teachers, and in 1949, at the age of 24, he went on to play a show at the revered Carnegie Hall concert. Throughout his career, Peterson played both solo and in groups (Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Edmund Thigpen, Louis Hayes and Sam Jones), often traditional techniques with soulful improvisation. Peterson’s artistry was admired by other jazz legends, including Miles Davis, and he would become known as one of the greatest jazz artists of all time.
Considered one of the best classical voices of the 20th century, Portia White, who grew up in a Black Loyalists family in Nova Scotia, grew up in a world of competitions before formally training at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in the 1930s. Following her musical debut in Toronto in 1941, White received critical acclaim for her three-octane range and would tour Canada despite the racial barriers she faced. In 1944, White made her international debut at New York City’s Town Hall performance venue, which lead to international tours. White is considered the first Black Canadian concert singer to achieve international fame and recognized by the Government of Canada as a person of national significance for her contributions.
Born and raised in Edmonton, AB, in a community of Black homesteaders from Oklahoma who settled in the prairies, Eleanor Collins grew up singing in a Baptist church before moving to Vancouver in the late 1930s, where she started singing with the gospel group Swing Low Quartet. By the 1950s, Collins cemented her place in Vancouver’s music scene, which included a performance at Stanley Park, and became known as the ‘First Lady of Jazz’. In 1954, Collins made her television debut in the mixed-race casted CBC show, A Day in the West Indies. She made history once more by becoming the first Black woman in North America and the first Canadian singer to host a television variety show: CBC’s The Eleanor Show (later known as just Eleanor).
As hip-hop culture started to emerge in Toronto in the 1980s, Maestro Fresh Wes’s interest peaked, and he started recording demos. After connecting with New York-based label LeFrak-Moelis Records (LMR), he would release his debut album Symphony in Effect in 1989, which included lead single “Let Your Backbone Slide.” The single sold over 50,000 units, and Maestro, now credited as the ‘Godfather of Canadian Hip-Hop,’ became the first Canadian rapper to have a Billboard Top 40 hit and the first Canadian rapper to have a Gold single. Wes is also the first recipient of the JUNO’s ‘Best Rap Recording’ award, which got introduced at the 1991 ceremony.
Born in Jamaica and raised in Toronto, Michie Mee started professionally rapping at the age of 14 and quickly aligned herself with New York’s well-known Boogie Down Productions (BDP) group. Alongside DJ L.A. Luv, Michie appeared on BDP’s 1987 compilation Breakin’ Out, and would catch the eye of First Priority/Atlantic Records with the duo’s first single, “Elements of Style.” Michie Mee would become the first Canadian rapper to sign a record deal with an American label and released her critically acclaimed album, Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style, in 1991.
Starting her career as a backup vocalist for Celine Dion, Deborah Cox’s career was ready for greatness. After gaining the attention of Clive Davis in 1994, Cox signed a label deal with Arista Records and re-located to America. The following year, Cox released her debut self-titled album, which gained Platinum status in Canada and reached the top five on Billboard’sHot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs with “Sentimental.” Alongside the release of her second album, One Wish, in 1998, Cox’s hit single “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” which would spend 14-weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and become one of the longest staying No. 2 records in Billboard history.
Born and raised in Niagara Falls until the age of 11, Robert Nathaniel Dett studied piano from an early age. His family would move to America in 1893, and he would continue his studies to become the first black director of music at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Between 1924-1926, he would serve as the president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, and Dett became of the first Black composers involved in ASCAP. As a pianist-composer, Dett would become known for incorporating African-American spirituals into his traditionally based classical ‘European Romantic’ pieces and would become well revered as a composer of African descent.
Photo Credit: Liberty Silver performs “Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love” at The 1985 JUNO Awards (CARAS/CBC)