By Guest Contributor Cheryl Thompson
Just before this year’s Grammy Awards, I stumbled across a national Canadian news channel that was highlighting what Canadians to watch for at the year’s biggest music show. They pointed out hip-hop superstar Drake, indie rockers Tegan and Sara and Arcade Fire, and crooner Michael Bublé. They said nothing of R&B singers Tamia and Melanie Fiona, who were nominated for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Album (“Beautiful Surprise”) and Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Wrong Side of a Love Song”), respectively. Unfortunately, both of them came up empty-handed but it still made me wonder: why does R&B not get any love in Canada? Sure, Canada is most known for its indie-rock, country, and pop singers, but we’ve produced our fair share of R&B singers, too.
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Tamia made her debut as a solo singer in 2000 but, before that, she collaborated on several hit songs, such as “Missing You” (1996), featuring Gladys Knight, Brandy, and Chaka Khan, as well as Eric Benét’s “Spend My Life with You” (1998). Toronto-born Melanie Fiona, who made her debut in 2009, won at last year’s Grammy’s for Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song for “Fool for You” with Cee Lo Green.
And it’s not like they were the first Canadian R&B artists to make their mark. Back in 1998, Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” was a chart-topping single and, in 2001, Glenn Lewis’s “Don’t You Forget It” was consistently played on the radio (even mainstream stations), netting him a Juno Award–the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy–for Best R&B/Soul Recording, not to mention comparisons to Stevie Wonder. While the likes of Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, or Rhianna consistently find their way onto the country’s mainstream radio, “traditional R&B” singers who happen to be Canadian get very little love north of the border.
For years, scholars and critics alike have been criticizing the Canadian music industry’s bias toward black music. Most recently, music writer and author Dalton Higgins, in promotion for his book, Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake, gave a talk at York University in Toronto in which he spoke about the challenges of getting black music heard on the radio in Canada, and the fact that Canadian commercial radio does very little to support black music.
“If Drake were signed to a Canadian label, he wouldn’t have the same support and success he does today,” Higgins said. “The harsh reality is that the Canadian music industry is not willing to dish out the cash for urban artists.”
But in a Exclaim! Magazine feature way back in 2006, Ryan Patrick pointed out that black music doesn’t get much love in Canada because of our cultural points of reference. “The industry has always been white–there’s no other way to describe its infrastructure,” he writes, “Canadian labels, who often operate as franchises of their American counterparts, look to the U.S. market as a model in most of their operations, but the Canadian market doesn’t share the same cultural experiences–in black or white communities or music markets–as the U.S.” Stated otherwise, instead of trying to understand the nuances of the Canadian market for black music, the industry often tries the same tactics that are used in the US–and they just don’t work here.
There are, however, a few black Canadian R&B artists like Jully Black, Keisha Chanté, and Divine Brown who have managed to achieve moderate levels of success in Canada, performing across the country and in places you don’t really associate with “urban music,” like Saskatchewan. But having said that, Black’s music has become slightly more pop over the years, and Brown’s sound feels more like jazz than R&B at times and, as a result, they get mainstream radio play. Most people probably know who they are while traditional R&B artists, like Tamia and Fiona, singing slow songs and love ballads with a few “baby, baby, baby” lines thrown in for good measure are consistently ignored by these same stations.
For over a year now, the only radio station in the country that seems willing, able, and ready to play R&B music is Toronto’s CKFG-FM G.987. While there are other stations across the country that play “urban music” such as Calgary’s CIBK-FM Vibe 98.5 and Vancouver’s CFBT-FM The Beat 94.5, both still follow a Top-40 format. Founded by broadcaster Fitzroy Gordon, who spent more than six years fighting both the government regulator for Canadian radio, TV, film, and telecom, the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), as well as the country’s public-service broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which challenged the station because its frequency was too close to its 99.1-FM in Toronto. G.987 eventually got its license and, since then, has been devoted to what it calls a “black music format,” which, in addition to R&B, includes Soul, Reggae, Soca, Hip-Hop, Gospel, African, and Smooth Jazz.
Because G.987 is still in its infancy, it’s too early to say what will happen (i.e. if it will go the way of the previous “urban station” CFXJ-FM a.k.a. FLOW which eventually turned into a pop station), but from the outside looking in, the “black music format” appears to be appealing to a diverse listening demographic, not just black people. But that raises another question: why should Canadian R&B only be heard on a black-owned station?
Above everything else, people like talented singers. The recent kerfuffle over Beyoncé lip-syncing the U.S. national anthem at Obama’s Inauguration is testament to that fact. And when it comes to talent, Canada’s R&B singers can throw down with the best of them. So, now that we have artists being nominated for Grammys on a regular basis–and a list of talent to draw from–it’s about time the Tamias and the Melanie Fionas of the country get some love from all outlets, not just the “urban” one.
Cheryl Thompson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University. Her dissertation is an historical analysis of Canada’s black beauty culture and the politics of race and representation. She has previously published articles in the Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette, and Chart Magazine.
Bonus: Five Canadian R&B Songs You Should Check Out
Melanie Fiona, “Ay Yo”
Jully Black, “I Travelled”
Divine Brown, “Lay It on the Line”
Deborah Cox, “Sentimental”
Ivana Santilli & Glenn Lewis, “If Ever I Fall Pt. 2″