It’s been about 36 years since members of the Black Music Association, Black music professionals, and allies stood outside of the Juno Awards show lobbying for the inclusion of Black music categories. The Black Music Association formed in 1984 and advocated for international recognition for African-Canadian music. Today, the Junos are celebrating Black music to an extent that’s never been seen in its history.

On its 50th anniversary, the awards show—taking place this Sunday—is honouring Black music through a series of events, including the Junos Stories from the Studio panel (featuring Jordon Manswell, YogiTheProducer, and Savannah Ré), a tribute to the awards show’s rap category (which is celebrating its 30th anniversary), CBC’s Music in Studio The Block Session, and ADVANCE x Juno Talks, a virtual conversation series about the influence of Black music in Canada.

This year’s Junos programming was “very much” influenced by the members of ADVANCE—Canada’s Black music business collective—according to its executive director Keziah Carter. 

“100 percent of their programming started with conversations with ADVANCE,” says the 13-year music industry veteran. “A lot of the conversations we had was (us) saying to the Junos (board), ‘We understand that this is not only a big deal, but the community itself doesn’t feel like they’re connected to the Junos.’” 

The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), the not-for-profit organization that oversees the Junos, has faced backlash before for a lack of gender diversity and BIPOC nominees across categories. The hashtags #JunosSoMale and #JunosSoWhite first started trending after the show’s 2016 nominations were revealed.

This year, it tapped ADVANCE to help with the Junos’ planning, and perhaps ensure previous years’ missteps weren’t repeated. ADVANCE’s conversations with CARAS led to the aforementioned Black music-focused events. They also inspired the revamp of what used to be the R&B Recording of the Year category. The category is now divided into two: Contemporary R&B Recording of the Year and Traditional R&B/Soul Recording of the Year, the latter of which ADVANCE will be presenting at the show.

The ongoing talks also guided the curation of the tribute to the 30th anniversary of the Junos’ Rap Recording the Year award, which will feature a special performance by its inaugural winner Maestro Fresh Wes alongside fellow Canadian hip-hop pioneer Michie Mee, as well as Kardinal Offishall, Jully BlackNav, and Haviah Mighty. What’s more, as Complex reported this week, there’s a push underway to split the rap category into two in order to highlight more of the diversity in Canada’s hip-hop landscape.

“We understand that systemic racism and the systems of inequality have created what we’re seeing right now,” Carter says. “In order for us to be able to change, in order for us to be able to influence that…. we (choose) to collaborate.” 

This racial reckoning all started last year with the killing of George Floyd.

“For my entire tenure in the music industry there has been anti-Black and systemic racism,” says Ian Andre Espinet, a Canadian music industry entrepreneur and community advocate, and co-founder of Breaking Down Racial Barriers (BDRB).

“I’ve had club owners tell me, in a club that holds 200 or 300 people, ‘Only 100 Black people because you guys are big,’” Espinet said. “I’ve had demands for more security on a party that would normally have 15 security guards. I had to add an extra 15, pay duty police, or pay a ridiculous safety deposit. This goes on and on—in 20 years, I’ve heard it all.”

These collaborations for change do not stop with CARAS. ADVANCE has also been in conversations with the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC), Music Manager Forum, and a variety of other Canadian music organizations to provide a lens of equity.

Since its launch in July of 2020, ADVANCE has been able to develop government partnerships and advise the curation of a nationwide survey for music professionals. With its continuous efforts to have equity-based conversations at all levels of the music industry, the organization hopes to create a systematic change with its push for quantitative data.

“We are the creators of the culture, we are the culture, nothing moves without us, and we have very little faith in the development, in the acts that are signed, (and) the way we are portrayed in media.” -Ian Andre Espinet

Through their efforts and a partnership with Breaking Down Racial Barriers, they are providing a blueprint for how Canadian music institutions can eradicate anti-Black racism in the music industry.

One of the most prominent ways ADVANCE and BDRB have been doing this took place Wednesday, when they hosted a declaration signing event for Canadian music industry leaders in order to promote their commitment to ending anti-Black racism. The non-binding declaration has seven calls to action. Among them are proposals for equity pay and treatment, collection of race-based data, representation across the music ecosystem, and investments in the Black community. The event had an estimated 400 people in attendance and around 200 organizations signed the declaration.

“We’re trying to give people all the tools they need to be able to fix the workspaces to make diverse decisions and choices on who they hire, what artists they put on bills, what artists they put on the radio,” says David “Click” Cox, co-founder of BDRB and a former Universal A&R rep.

jully-black
Jully Black performs at “The Declaration to End Anti-Black Racism in the Canadian Music Industry” event/Image via Publicist

Throughout this process, ADVANCE will be hosting quarterly, bi-weekly, and annual meetings with partnering organizations to hold them accountable, according to Carter. 

ADVANCE initially teamed with Cox and Espinet to bring awareness to the industry’s disparities with a roundtable event held mid-last year called “Breaking Down Racial Barriers.” In the 10-week series, they invited 60 Black professionals from across Canada to speak candidly about their experiences being Black in the music industry. The event was in partnership with CIMA.

Andrew Cash, the president of CIMA, shared a story expressed by one of the panelists at the virtual event. They said they have a non-European first name and a European middle name and when they sent out applications using their non-European name, they got no callbacks. However, after sending applications using their European middle name, they received 12 callbacks.

“I’m outraged by that,” the former Member of Parliament and Juno Award-winning Canadian independent artist says. 

“But I think it’s too easy for me as a white guy to just say it’s outrageous.” 

The organizations are encouraging cautious decision-making to dismantle the racial systemic challenges that have been disproportionately impacting Black music professionals. 

“Just make yourself aware of the problem and try to understand and empathize with what it is that Black professionals are going through,” Espinet says. “Because we are the creators of the culture, we are the culture, nothing moves without us, and we have very little faith in the development, in the acts that are signed, (and) the way we are portrayed in media.”

Although some Black music professionals feel unappreciated, underrepresented, and undervalued, music styles that originate from Black culture rank high across all national and global charts.

Currently, The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” and Justin Bieber’s Daniel Caesar-assisted “Peaches,” which all share a Canadian connection and musicality that stems from Black culture, are ranked in the Top 10 in the Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart.

In a recent study from The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), The Weeknd, Drake, and Justin Bieber all ranked in the top 10 for most popular global artists and best global sellers of 2020.

As Drake, The Weeknd, and Bieber consistently produce top-charting records, their music genres are also highly ranked. According to a study by entertainment industry data collector MRC Data and Billboard, R&B, hip-hop, and pop ranked as the top three most-streamed genres of 2020. 

The influence of Black music is a force to be reckoned with—even Bieber admitted that he, too, profits from the culture

As ADVANCE continues to advocate for a shift in the Canadian music scene, Allen Reid, current president and CEO of CARAS, shares that the events at this year’s Junos are just a part of the organization’s M.O.

“I would encourage people to learn more about us, especially from the artist community, to understand what we do as a whole,” he says. “The celebration of the 30-year anniversary of rap at the Junos, we see as a wonderful extension of what we do, and that’s celebrate and honour.”

CARAS is also the leading organization behind MusiCounts, the Allan Slaight Music Juno Master Class, and a content series called Rising

These efforts for change are only the beginning for ADVANCE. It will take some time and “calling it out as it is,” says Carter, but she is grateful that the organization now exists to advocate for Black music professionals.  

“Now, I get to call directly when I see something that (doesn’t accurately represent the Black community) in the Junos marketing and say, ‘Can we switch this? Can we look at that again? How can we support? Can you swing that by me? FYI, that is not really going to reach the Black audience, so maybe you should try something else.’”

The Juno Awards show will be airing this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on CBC.