Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Divine Brown at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto on Feb. 9.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

“My opinion is that the Grammys should be burned to the ground and rebuilt.”

Oh? Tell us what you really think, Divine Brown.

Asked about Beyoncé being shut out of the major awards at this year’s Grammys, the Juno-winning R&B singer doesn’t hold back. “It’s frustrating to watch this happen over and over and over again.”

Beyoncé did take home four golden gramophones, giving her a career total of 32 awards, the most in history. She lost out in the marquee categories, though, including best album (to Harry Styles). Nominated for the award four times now, Beyoncé has never won. It’s continuation of a trend that sees racialized artists under-represented at the podium in the biggest moments.

Spike Lee spoke out about the snubbing in a recent interview with the Guardian. “We know what the deal is,” said the director of BlacKkKlansman and White Men Can’t Jump. “It’s straight-up shenanigans, skulduggery, subterfuge.”

The race issue in the music business is a story as old as the industry itself. For Brown, it was an unavoidable subject in her new stage production about the Black female icons Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald which she wrote and developed for Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company.

The documentative concert is called Billie, Sarah, and Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz. What was revolutionary about those stars was, simply, their success.

Open this photo in gallery:

Divine Brown is one of a group of Slaight Music Residents at Soulpepper.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

“The time period that these three women made an impact in was an incredibly difficult era for melanated people in America,” says Brown, speaking in a Soulpepper rehearsal studio ahead of the production’s premiere on Feb. 22. “Anyone African American at that time who was able to make an impact globally is revolutionary.”

She’s referring to the segregated regions of the U.S. in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. During the Eisenhower era, for example, Fitzgerald was arrested in her dressing room at an integrated concert in Texas. At the police station, an officer asked for her autograph.

Did the president of the Recording Academy ask Beyoncé for her signature after this year’s Grammy Awards?

Brown is one of a group of Slaight Music Residents at Soulpepper. For the narrated concert she will sing the music of Holiday, the troubled crooner who wore her melancholy on her sleeve as visibly as she did the white gardenias in her hair. Brown will not imitate Holiday’s singing. “I will represent her essence,” she explains.

Rounding out the cast, Renée Rowe does Vaughan, Shakura Dickson sings Fitzgerald and Akosua Amo-Adem delivers the narration written by Brown.

While generations of singers were inspired by the groundbreaking holy trinity, Brown, 48, points to someone more recent as her heroine. Billie, Sarah, and Ella came to be in part because of the late Salome Bey, the Canadian-American singer-actress whose 1978 musical revue Indigo was revolutionary in its effect on Toronto’s Black artists. As a child, seeing Bey’s face in an ad for Indigo was aspirational for Brown. “Here’s someone who looks like me!” she remembers thinking. “I want to be like her.”

In the 1980s, she was cast in Bey’s Rainboworld, a children’s musical that questioned injustice and disharmony. “Salome was a creative powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with,” says Brown. “I think Rainboworld implanted something significant within me.”

Brown recorded three albums between 2005 and 2013. She then toured Canada in Life, Death and the Blues, a theatre/concert hybrid written by actor-musician Raoul Bhaneja. It was that experience and the history with Bey that got her thinking about a contextual, narrated concert, rather than a traditional stage musical.

“There was nothing conventional about Salome.”

Bey stood out. Her career (and Beyoncé's) represents the same thing that high-achievers Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughan beaconed by example. It’s about possibilities – all the best revolutions are.

Billie, Sarah, and Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz runs Feb. 22 to March 12 at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts (information at

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe