In honour of Black History Month, The Globe and Mail asked a number of significant Black Canadian musicians to talk about their influences. They all chose to discuss hugely talented artists, but they focused as much on community, positive messages and mentorial inspiration as they did on music.
Singer-actress Shakura S’Aida talks about her mentorship by Salome Bey, the late American-born singer, songwriter, composer and Canada’s First Lady of the Blues.
Salome Bey and others in Toronto took me under their wings. Mentorships in the Black artistic community are casual, but deliberate. There’s not a lot of us in the business who can help people coming up. We don’t have the luxury of official connections.
Here was Salome, a dark-skinned woman with unstraightened hair, without conventional European features, being strong, opinionated and talented.
It taught me to be who I was and who I am, and to move forward regardless of how many times people told me “no.”
The number one rule Salome had was “Do not dim your light.” When you stand on stage, you shine as bright as you’re supposed to. You don’t dim your light for anyone.
Hip hop artist, author and former Edmonton poet laureate Cadence Weapon cites the influence of Jamaican-born, London-based dub poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson.
He was the Gil Scott-Heron of the U.K. I got into his music 10 years or so ago, specifically 1978′s Dread Beat an’ Blood and 1980′s Bass Culture. It’s hard for an artist like me to have examples of artists who have had similar career touchstones. Linton Kwesi Johnson was a music journalist. He’s a poet. He’s a musician. Our careers matched up – here was someone I could look up to.
He was an early rapper, in a way. Using poetry to advance a social cause was very inspiring to me. He’s also of his own community, which is also inspiring. He was able to balance a socio-political message with funky music. Not in a hectoring or preachy way, he was letting the world know about the experiences of Black people in England.
Influenced by soul and jazz icons such as Billie Holiday, Etta James, and Nina Simone, the Juno-winning Montreal singer Dominique Fils-Aimé chose to speak about Aretha Franklin.
Throughout my life, I’ve discovered Aretha Franklin over and over. As a kid, I heard I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. It’s one of the first songs I learned by heart, even though I didn’t speak English. I understood what the words meant just by what they made me feel. Later, I discovered Respect as an anthem for the feminist movement. It showed me how music could be a tool for change. It gave me hope.
Reading about her, I learned the goal isn’t to be famous. It’s to be authentic – to share who you are and let them know what drives you. It’s crucial. It benefits the listener, and it benefits the artist.
Jazz pianist Andy Milne looks back at his formative stay in Montreal and his mentorship there by the singer-actress Ranee Lee.
I was introduced to Montreal and Ranee Lee when Ranee was doing an extended run of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a play about the last days of Billie Holiday’s life. It would have been late 1989 or early 1990. Coming out of York University in Toronto, with the exception of Joe Sealy and Archie Alleyne, most of my mentors were white males, who were York faculty.
It’s different in Toronto now, but as a guy breaking out of the school scene and trying to fit in, it was hard. Toronto was less hospitable back then. So, Montreal was a revelation. The community there embraced me.
Ranee is a consummate performer. She’s a storyteller, and an amazing improvisor. As a mentor, she was direct, as far as getting what she wanted, but nurturing. She also introduced me to people as an equal. I recognized she believed in what I was doing, which is important. You’re getting confidence right at the moment that you’re questioning what you’re doing.
Trinidadian-Canadian Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, founder of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, explains how he came to honour the Canadian-born early 20th-century composer Robert Nathaniel Dett.
After having lived in Toronto for several years, I had been asked by different organizations to do workshops on spirituals and gospel music. It didn’t seem to matter what else I was doing musically. I was a person of African-American descent. It seemed like it was assumed that I could help people’s understanding of spirituals and gospel.
I had been looking around Canada, and while there were other professional choirs, there wasn’t one specifically dedicated to Afro-centric choral music. In the formation of that, I decided that Nathaniel Dett would be the perfect person to name my ensemble after.
He was born in Drummondville, Ont., in 1882. His maternal grandmother had moved here through the Underground Railroad. Nathaniel Dett went to college in the United States. He was the first Black man, as far as we know, to graduate from Oberlin College in Ohio with first class honours in piano, organ and composition.
After he graduated, he taught in historically Black universities. He influenced a lot of people’s understanding and appreciation of Black choral music, particularly taking spirituals as foundational material for creating other forms of music. He uses spirituals in anthem form, in cantata form and oratorio form. His piano compositions and his poetry – it will all stand the test of time.
Toronto-based singer-songwriter Julian Taylor, who last year released his debut solo album The Ridge, discusses Sly Stone, the pioneering frontman and mastermind of Sly and the Family Stone
The Sly and the Family Stone album that stands out for me is Stand!, from 1969. It has a distinct character of rock ’n’ roll meets R&B. And there’s gospel in there. It’s ferocious.
Stand! is his most successful album. But it also talks to the time: “Stand in the place where you live.” Everyday People is an anthem. I Want to Take You Higher is another huge anthem. He melds all these things in a really clever package that makes you want to groove and dance, but his message is so important and political.
I’m in the radio business now, working for ELMNT-FM. Sly was a DJ before he put his band together. He’s talked about playing Jimi Hendrix next to Dolly Parton, followed by Bob Dylan. He was focused on really great songs. He believed music was transcendent, that it could speak to people. He was right. And I think his music did that as well as anyone’s.
Densil McFarlane is the guitar-playing frontman of the OBGMs, a Toronto-based trio who make punk rock from a Black perspective. He speaks about the genius pop musician Prince.
If you ever want a leading example to follow as an independent musician, Prince is the best you’re going to find – as a musician and as a person. I think he’s who many of us are striving to be. Outside of being a musical genius and basically owning an era of music, he was a philanthropist.
On the business side, a lot of the things he fought for are taken for granted now. He took on streaming services. He took on the music industry in terms of record contracts being not only to artists of his level, but artists of my level. He’s a transcendent figure.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.