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Throughout her 25-years-plus in music, Deborah Cox’s tenacity has helped her create five studio albums and a diverse repertoire that glides through genres of soul, jazz, house, pop and hip hop.Keith Major/Handout

Deborah Cox didn’t wait for the music industry to define her. Instead, the Toronto-born, Miami-based R&B singer went out of her way to distinguish herself by the songs she chose. Case in point? Cox’s Billboard-topping track of 1998, Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here.

When she first heard the demo, Cox fought hard to record it. Originally written for Patti Labelle – she sang the song a cappella and won over the songwriters, Montell Jordan and Shep Crawford, and Arista Records impresario Clive Davis. In fact, Cox insisted she heard her life story in lyrics such as “How did you get here? Nobody’s supposed to be here” – words which reflected her experience as a Black artist trying to get noticed in a mainly white Canadian music industry, which was starting to work through its own prejudicial issues with embracing R&B during the nineties.

Throughout her 25-years-plus in music, Cox’s tenacity has helped her create five studio albums and a diverse repertoire that glides through genres of soul, jazz, house, pop and hip hop. She also landed on Broadway in productions ranging from Aida to The Bodyguard, along with numerous acting jobs in films and on TV. In July, the Soul Train- and Juno-winning artist became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. On Sept. 23 she was given a key to the city of Toronto – which proclaimed its own Deborah Cox Day.

What does being inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame mean for you?

These awards have the power to move the needle in a big way. Walk of Fame is an acknowledgment of the dedication and the hard work and the passion that I’ve had all these years – because there’s something to be said about continuing to be in a business that doesn’t recognize you. It also gives me a platform for me to speak on a humanitarian tip – to put a spotlight on discussing issues that I’ve wanted to touch on for a long time while partnering with changemakers like Révolutionnaire [a not-for-profit social network which takes action on causes such as racial equity and criminal-justice reform].

If you had to record a cover album from the repertoire of another Canada Walk of Fame inductee, who would it be?

Joni Mitchell. Her music, her words and her poetry resonate with me. Artists like her are a vessel and her work is so vulnerable and conveys so many messages – her songs are on another level.

Your hits are always getting remixed and resurrected in queer clubs. Why has this connection to the community endured?

Well, you have to earn your place with the LGBTQ+ community. In the early days, you were vetted so everyone knew if you were a real ally and you could actually sing well. You had to take it seriously. When I released “Who Do You Love” – I made that conscious decision that the respect the community had for me had to go both ways. I thought of the connection as a serious marriage. Love is not just supporting from the sidelines and giving money – love is really being at the circuit party or HIV/AIDS benefit when called.

A Whitney Houston biopic is coming this December. Having worked with her directly, what are your hopes for this film?

I revere her talent. If hadn’t heard her sing You Give Good Love, I would be a different artist. I hope that the movie isn’t digging for dirt and is told in a way that just amplifies her greatness as a singer who could sing any style of music. She grips your heart with her voice – she was a born storyteller. I’d love to see scenes which speak to her experiences in the studio. I do want to champion the fact that they’re doing this movie for a new generation – some have no idea who this woman was. People are starting to forget the icons.

Is there a film or TV series that has changed your life?

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If Deborah Cox had to perform the repertoire of another Canada Walk of Fame member, she said she would opt for Joni Mitchell.George Pimentel/Handout

Fame was huge for me. Now we are inundated with social media for inspiration but when I was a teenager, that series was so impactful. I identified with the ingenue character of Coco so much. She was so vulnerable and shy but she was a triple threat. I dreamed of being taught by Debbie Allen, who, when I met her, told me I have a dancer’s body – which I’m still beaming over. When Janet Jackson was on the show, I lost it. Oh my god, I was living for Janet! I still am.

The most surprising place you’ve visited in Canada?

While filming [Cox’s latest TV series], Station Eleven, I discovered Caledon. I would never have thought that there was such beautiful natural landscape so close to the city. I’m blown away by it.

Has a headline ever inspired a performance?

Yes. When the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting happened, I was in Philly and they gave me the Liberty Bell on Pride day. There was a lot of security and people were afraid I’d get hurt if I stepped on stage. I said, “If I don’t perform, we’re allowing fear to dictate what all of us here at Pride are celebrating – the spirit of being strong together and we’d be disrespecting the people who have fought for so many years for equality.” If I did not go on and give it my all, the haters would win. I performed like I faced them and shut them down.

You’re getting ready to launch a rosé of your own. What led you to winemaking?

When I was on tour with Céline Dion, we’d go through these vineyards and in Leon, Marseille and Toulouse so I learned about winemaking history and I fell in love with it. During the pandemic, winemaking became my pet project. I found an organic vineyard in Provence and named the wine Kazaisu – a combination of my children’s names, Kaila, Isaiah and Sumayah. For singers like me, red wine can cause acid reflux but rosé is easier to drink and gives you the best kind of buzz. Everything is being harvested now so I’m start doing wine tastings soon.

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