Black music in Canada exists, thrives and survives — but it's not because of the mainstream music industry

For decades, Black recording artists in Canada struggled for commercial recognition and success. But Black-led infrastructural entities, dating as far back as the 1960s and 70s, ensured stages, pages and airwaves were filled with a plethora of Black music, countering the mainstream’s financial disinterest.

Black radio shows, promoters, DJs and artists ‘ensured stages, pages and airwaves were filled'

A man talks sitting down.
Mark V. Campbell is featured in the documentary ‘Northern Beats’. (Studio 112/Northwood Entertainment/Ugly Duck Productions)

Black Life: Untold Stories reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada, dispelling commonly accepted myths and celebrating the contributions of both famous and lesser-known individuals. The eight-part series spans more than 400 years with an eye toward contemporary issues, culture, politics, music, art and sports.

This article is by assistant professor of music and culture Mark V. Campbell, who is featured in the episode "Northern Beats."

It's a welcome change to see Canadians expressing euphoric pride around the global successes of recording artists like PartyNextDoor, Daniel Caesar, Haviah Mighty, Jessie Reyez, Drake, the Weeknd and so many others.  

For decades, Canadian popular music hasn't received the same love in this country as the megastars pumped out by the media machine south of the border. 

But when it comes to the names of the artists who paved the way, those who cheer on today's pop stars might draw a blank. And we shouldn't be surprised.  

In "Northern Beats," the music episode of the new CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories, Canadian hip-hop pioneers like Maestro Fresh Wes and Michie Mee examine how artists struggled for recognition from major labels and mainstream radio in the 80s and 90s. 

WATCH | Campbell reflefts on Michie Mee in Queen Latifa's 1989 anthem "Ladies First:"

Musicologist reflects on Canadian hip-hop pioneer's feature in Queen Latifa feminist anthem "Ladies First." | Black Life: Untold Stories

4 months ago
Duration 0:25
Mark V. Campbell says Michie Mee's inclusion in "Ladies First" showed there is no difference between the talent in Canada and the U.S.

The episode delves into the origins of Canadian hip-hop, its evolution, and how a strong community of artists, DJs, radio shows and grassroots organizations built a thriving Black music scene — despite the fact that many failed to see its commercial value.

'The major force Black music in Canada needed'

In 1980, a headline in Variety magazine rightfully read, "Canada's Black Music Biz Keeps Balance, Despite Majors' Retreat." 

While major record labels might have seen an investment in Black music as risky at the time, community-led, collaborative efforts had indeed found ways to keep the scene moving forward and build new audiences for Black musicians.

Record pools — which enlisted DJs to test out emerging dance mixes and records on the public — had emerged in the 1970s. And Cheer Music Pool in particular, originally named the West Indian DJ Pool, became the major force Black music in Canada needed in the face of a withering disco music scene.

Founders DJ Maceo, Daniel Caudeiron, Len Crooks, Al Allen and Cornell Campbell had started the West Indian DJ Pool in 1977 to properly promote Canadian reggae, calypso and funk records. 

"The group boosts the morale of the local Black industry, keeps the dance scene alive, and prods record companies to market Black product more actively," wrote journalist Kirk LaPointe in a 1986 issue of Billboard magazine. 

The Toronto chapter of the Black Music Association also kept up the momentum. Shortly after being formed in 1984, the group supported advocacy efforts to get the Juno Awards to create new categories for Black music. The hard-fought creation of the reggae/calypso category in 1985 was one big win (though this did not usher in mainstream support from major labels and other gatekeepers).  

In his 1986 article, LaPointe mentions the lack of commercial radio support for Black club music. And it wasn't until 2000, after multiple rejections from the CRTC, that radio spectrum was finally awarded to Milestone Radio Inc., which created the first commercial radio station to focus on Black communities in Toronto.

Yet even as mainstream radio refused to fully support and promote Black music, community radio shows such as the Radio Dubplate Show, Butcher T's Noon Time Cuts, ReggaeMania, Reggae Riddims, West Indian Rhythms and too many more to list here provided more infrastructure needed to keep Black music in Canada thriving. 

Meanwhile, artists joined in the advocacy for a mainstream radio station, combining their efforts on tracks like Dance Appeal's "Can't Repress the Cause."

The work continues

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop music, and it's receiving more positive media attention than ever before — and rightfully so. But despite the concerts, the hall of fame inductions and the awards, the leaders who made all this possible are not easily unearthed from our undigitized histories.  

Still, there are many groups and individuals who continue to do the work of excavating and analyzing Black music in Canada, and they should be larged up for their tireless efforts. 

Look no further than the recent exhibition Rewind/Forward by Alanna Stuart; Klive Walker and Nicholas Jennings's exhibition on Reggae in Toronto, Rhythms and Resistance; DJ Gramera's film on Stranger Cole, Ruff & Tuff; and Salome Bey's family reissuing the artist's self-titled album as a musical complement to her Canada Post commemorative stamp

Not to be outdone, sound systems and crews such as Power House, Kill-o-watt, King Turbo, TKO, Sunshine Sound, Barry Culture, Little Thunder, Soul Controllers, Tippertone Sound System, Rebel Tone and Baby Blue Soundcrew trend-set in clubs, halls and on the radio. 

Ensuring Black music in Canada 'exists, thrives and survives'

Black-led groups, coalitions and organizations, dating as far back as the 1960s and 70s, have ensured stages, pages and airwaves are filled with a plethora of Black music, countering the mainstream's financial disinterest. 

And beyond the aforementioned groups, there's a lengthy list of non-corporate (read: Black) entities that have ensured Black music in Canada exists, thrives and survives. 

In Toronto, the Canadian Reggae Music Awards, the Stylus DJ Awards, the Toronto Urban Music Festival, Afrofest, the Urban Music Association of Canada, Word magazine and the Honey Jam are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the soft infrastructure at the centre of a vibrant Black music scene.

In cities like Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax and Montréal, there are similarly thick layers of soft infrastructure where radio shows, promoters, DJs and artists build the Black musical cultures that find their way onto world stages.  

Entities like these have made Black music — not just hip-hop — happen in Canada. And along with artists, DJs and grassroots organizers, many of them continue to do the important cultural work of suturing the gaping hole left by anti-Blackness and the corporate notion that Black music is simply too "risky" to invest in.

"Northern Beats" is streaming now on CBC Gem.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from features on anti-Black racism to success stories from within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.


Mark V. Campbell

Freelance contributor

Mark V. Campbell is a DJ, curator, and assistant professor of music and culture at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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