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Wes Maestro Williams, the Toronto-born son of Afro-Guyanese parents released his debut album in 1989. Symphony in Effect was at the forefront of Canada’s early hip-hop movement.Andrew Craft/Handout

In 1991, Wes Williams was among the contributors to the supergroup protest single Can’t Repress the Cause, a call for increased inclusion of hip-hop music in the Canadian music scene. Now, 33 years later, the artist known professionally as Maestro Fresh Wes is the first rapper to receive Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts.

Williams is one of the five laureates of the 2024 Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, which recognizes Canadians who have made a lasting contribution to cultural life in the country and internationally.

“I was honoured to be part of the collective movement involved with Can’t Repress the Cause and to be one of the pillars of Black music in Canada,” Williams, who has been dubbed the godfather of Canadian hip hop, told The Globe and Mail. “And I’m proud of the artists who came after me that took it to the next level.”

The Toronto-born son of Afro-Guyanese parents released his debut album in 1989. Symphony in Effect was at the forefront of Canada’s early hip-hop movement. The album’s groundbreaking party anthem Let Your Backbone Slide was the first Canadian rap record ever to chart on the Billboard Top 40 and, in 2019, the first rap song to be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

On Let Your Backbone Slide, the irrepressible Williams rhymed “throw down” with “can’t slow down.” Earlier this month, at 55, he received a Juno Award nomination for the children’s album Maestro Fresh Wes Presents: Young Maestro Stick To Your Vision For Young Athletes.

This year’s other laureates are:

  • Alberta-born puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2019.
  • Tony Award-winning American-Canadian comedic actor Andrea Martin , to be inducted this weekend into the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame with the cast of SCTV.
  • Montreal singer-songwriter/pianist Diane Juster, named as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016.
  • Operettic soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee, a Fredericton native now based in Nova Scotia.

Brueggergosman-Lee is the first Black artist to receive the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award in the classical music field. Her voice and presence have taken her to concert halls around the world, and she has sung at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill and a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth.

“I pray that this honour serves as an encouragement to anyone who, like me, has believed the lie that what they are doing doesn’t matter,” Brueggergosman-Lee told The Globe. “Your best option is always to keep going. Your best investment is to bet on yourself and to never, ever give up because you are dearly loved and your life is important.”

On March 1, Brueggergosman-Lee will release Zombie Blizzard, an album of jazzy concert arias based on poems by Margaret Atwood, with songs composed by Aaron Davis and performed with the Hannaford Street Silver Band.

The Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award was created in 1992 by Peter Herrndorf and Brian Robertson, under the patronage of the Ray Hnatyshyn, then-governor-general of Canada, and his wife, Gerda Hnatyshyn.

This year’s recipient of the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts is Jenny Belzberg, a community builder and philanthropist involved in a range of cultural and social action organizations, particularly the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. With her late husband, Hyman Belzberg, she has been a prominent force in her hometown of Calgary for more than 50 years.

The National Arts Centre Award, which recognizes work by an individual artist or company in the past performance year, goes to Mélanie Demers. The multidisciplinary artist founded her Montreal dance company, MAYDAY, in 2007.

It was also announced that the participants in the 2024 mentorship program will be Inuk singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark (a Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award recipient in 2016) and her protégée Angela Amarualik, a musician from Igloolik, Nunavut.

The 2024 GGPAA Gala takes place on June 8, at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall in Ottawa.

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