The Black Canadian Artists Who Have Shaped the Nation’s Sound

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve asked some of our favourite Black Canadian artists to share the Black Canadian musicians who have inspired them.

Complex Original

Image via Complex Original/Corbin Portillo

Black Canadian artists who have shaped the nation's sound

It’s no secret that there are a number of Black Canadians who have had a historic impact on Canada’s music scene over the years. Canada has been home to talent that spans all genres, from jazz to hip-hop. A number of those musicians paved the way by opening doors for other racialized artists, bringing the sounds of the north to the rest of the world.

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve asked some of our favourite Black Canadian artists to share the Black Canadian musicians who have uplifted them and inspired them throughout their careers. From Shad to TOBi to Naya Ali, these 10 musicians reveal who they feel has helped shape and transform Canadian music.

Hunnah on Kaytranada

Hunnah in pink

There’s an abundance of amazing Black Canadian artists, but I am consistently inspired by Kaytranada, both his music and his journey. I think being able to cement an identifiable, sought-after unique sound is really vital as an artist, whether as a producer or a singer, and he has definitely done that to an incredible extent. Paving a path forward in this industry while staying true to yourself, incorporating cultural influences, [and] collaborating with other artists who complement and further your art, these are all things I admire in him as an artist. From the first time I heard a Kaytranada remix on SoundCloud to the first time I heard Bubba, my days are always a little bit better when a Kaytranada song comes on, and that’s a real, inspiring gift.

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Shad on The Fabulous Bohee Brothers

Shad in a black hoodie stretching his arms

So there’s obviously many Black Canadian artists that I personally enjoy, but I’d like to highlight this great bit of Black Canadian music history I learned from George Elliott Clarke just a few months ago. I’ll quote directly from what he wrote. On the history of banjo music: “The banjo (...) was globally popularized by an African-Canadian duo, the Fabulous Bohee Brothers—James and George—of Saint John, New Brunswick, in the later Victorian era. The Bohee Brothers took the banjo to England and counted royalty as their pupils, and became the first ‘African Americans’ to be recorded by Thomas Alva Edison for his brand-new invention, the phonograph, circa 1890–92.” Especially given the work of Black Canadian artists like k-os, Kaia Kater, Mustafa, and others around folk music, it’s interesting to learn about the African roots of these instruments and the impact of Black Canadians specifically not just on banjo/folk music, but on the very history of recorded music as well.


Charmaine on Jully Black

Charmaine with a pink jacket and rainbow nails

My favourite Black Canadian musician is Jully Black. I first came across her on Da Kink In My Hair. I loved watching that show and one day I Googled the cast to learn more and I found my way to her music! It hits different being able to see someone who’s from where you’re from and looks like YOU doing it big. My all-time favourite Jully Black track will always be a classic for me, “Seven Day Fool.” I can’t help but slap the hell out of my thighs when that joint comes on! From songwriting to giving vocals AND linking with my favourite girl group, Destiny’s Child, Jully has shown me that I should always remember that I’m capable in all my melanin-filled skin. If I put in the work, passion and time, I can reach beyond what I ever imagined.

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TOBi on Drake

A closeup of Tobi with a blue background

What he’s done for Canadian artists will be talked about forever. It’s historical, the impact he’s had on [Toronto]. His albums were part of our soundtracks growing up. He made our street names and slang popular across the world. He told stories of the city and took it to new heights.

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Jon Vinyl on Kardinal Offishall, Jully Black, and Oscar Peterson

Jon Vinyl in a white sweater in front of a fire

There are so many Canadian artists and musicians that have inspired my artistry over the years. The first Canadian artist I witnessed that crossed over and had major mainstream success growing up is Kardinal Offishall. It meant a lot to me to know that a Black Canadian artist could collaborate with some of the most prominent names in the game like Keri Hilson, Rihanna, and Akon, followed by his successful transition from artist to executive. Another Canadian artist that inspires my work is R&B mogul Jully Black. Her music brings me back to my childhood when my mom used to play “Seven Day Fool” on the radio as we drove around the city or cleaned the house. And last but not least, one of my favourite musicians of all time is Oscar Peterson, a legendary jazz pianist from Montreal whose soothing music evokes a calming aura. I truly aspire to have a catalogue as powerful and moving as his.

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Naya Ali on Mustafa

Naya Ali

I’m giving my flowers to my fellow Canadian rising artist, Mustafa. I love to see how he is changing the R&B paradigm—unapologetically humble and spiritual. It’s inspiring to see a peer stay grounded in their values and have them as the center of their prodigious artistry.

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Nate Husser on Oscar Peterson

Nate Husser in a white visor

To be honest, I’ve never really listened to his music. But I fuck with Oscar Peterson because he has a whole park named after him in my hood. Wait, this just in….. listened to his work… he’s fire! The fact that he can play piano the way he can is crazy impressive. Reminds me of The Cosby Show. Not sure if I can even say that….but yeah. They would always play crazy jazz on that show and his music reminds me of that specifically. Cliff Huxtable's character [on] the show would always play jazz and listening to this–maybe he was playing some Oscar.

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Sage Harris on Savannah Ré

Sage Harris in dark black sunglasses

Savannah Ré is a dear friend and fellow Scarborough native that inspires me through her songwriting and talent. Both being from Scarborough, we mutually understand what it’s like to be underserved and not having [the] resources that we need to execute all of our ideas and creativity. She’s already achieved such great accolades and continues to invite me into her world so that I may experience what I presumed to be unobtainable when I was in doubt.

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Yolanda Sargeant on Master T

yolanda sargeant

I remember watching MuchMusic and seeing Master T for the first time. I was captivated because I had never seen anyone that looked like me aside from Oprah hosting a TV show. And yes, this was in Canada. Rap City was the conduit for all Canadian hip-hop music at the time. Master T put not only Canada on the map, but has inspired generations of television/radio personalities, music promoters, artists, and music enthusiasts alike. Thank you for your contributions.

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k-os on Michee Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes, and Saukrates

k os mstrkrft supernovas

Michie Mee taught me the importance of keeping West Indian roots in Canadian music. America enthusiastically embraced her and her street banger “On This Mic” in 1988. Her appearance in the video “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah blew all our minds back home. All rap crews did indeed sweat Michelle. She shapeshifted from crisp streetwear to dancehall goth in her alternative rock band Raggadeath. During her reign, this Jane and Finch kid kept her culture at the forefront and repped Jamaica to the fullest. Michie Mee is the queen who earned maximum royal respect.

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No one changed the music industry rap game like Maestro Fresh Wes. When I snuck out to see his show solo at the club illusions in Oshawa during the summer of 1990, he was in full effect mode! With two dancers and a stage presence larger than life while rockin’ a black tuxedo, Maestro was the chosen one that made me believe I could make a living at music in Canada. He is the Canadian rap king godfather.

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Saukrates is a musical genius that plays the violin. Urban legend has him battling chumps in the basement for hours wearing a black ski mask. You better believe it! His voice... a golden baritone, his beats I call funky pop underground sludge. If you haven’t heard his record The Underground Tapes then you don’t know where postmodern Canadian gangster rap came from. At some point, I literally wanted to be Saukrates but I just made him my rap partner instead. I feel very blessed that happened. Sauks is a prince among mere mortal music men. All praises due my brother.

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