The Black Lives Matter movement had an impact, all the way to Québec, including its music industry. Less than two years ago, ADVANCE Music, Canada’s Black Music Business Collective, was born, with the objective of uniting Black people working in the Canadian music industry, encouraging their integration into key positions in the industry, and promoting cultural diversity on the music scene.

Recently, the Toronto-based association created a satellite office in Québec to better reflect the realities of that market, and to more accurately represent the Francophone Black communities in the country. We offer you an introduction to ADVANCE Québec and its Chairman of the Board, and A&R Director for Universal Music Canada in Montréal, Widney Bonfils.

Since its founding, “Advance has been seen as primarily an English-speaking, Toronto-based organization,” admits Bonfils. “The organization first wanted to broaden its mandate on the English-speaking side, to be better attuned to [the realities experienced in] other provinces, and then to ensure it had a presence in Québec.”

Mission accomplished, now that Bonfils is spearheading the initiative. “I was approached by Keziah [Myers] because we worked together at SOCAN,” he says, both in the A&R Department. “She asked me if I would be interested in setting up Québec’s Board of Directors to build on what ADVANCE has accomplished, and adapt it to the Francophone reality – because, although I chair Québec’s Board, our mandate isn’t limited to this province. We aim to promote Francophone diversity across Canada.”

Musicians Corneille and Marième, as well as other industry stakeholders, like Carla Beauvais and Stéphane Moraille, Esq., were invited to sit on the Board. “Convincing them to get on board wasn’t very difficult, even though at first we didn’t know exactly where we were going with all this,” says Bonfils.

“First, we had to define our – Francophone – values, the reasons for setting up this committee, and establish our priorities for the next three years” with “realistic but ambitious” objectives in mind, says Bonfils. “Our primary goal is to understand the problems of the Black Francophonie, and then to draw up an action plan” to promote its development.

“It’s also important to create what’s called ‘generational wealth,’” he continues, “to create wealth as a bridge to the future so, that the next generations can take their place in the industry and benefit from it, without being bitter about the past… It would be ridiculous to just slam our fist on the table and say, ‘Give us this or that!’ Our message is, ‘What can we do to solve the problems, the barriers in place, in order to introduce more diversity and opportunities for people of colour?’”

To what extent does the reality of Black artists in the Québec music industry differ from that in English Canada? Language is a distinct factor, says the Chairman. “But we don’t have the same institutions” as in English Canada, he says, citing Musicaction and SODEC. “We also have our own gala,” referring to the ADISQ Awards. Thus, ADVANCE’s first challenge in Québec “will be to increase our notoriety, to make these institutions and Black artists understand that there’s now an organization that can help them,” he says, to achieve greater diversity within the Québec music industry.

ADVANCE Québec has already identified several angles to the lack of cultural diversity in the music industry, and will work to implement actions to remedy it. For example, the Board of Directors is lobbying ADISQ for the inclusion of an Award category for the R&B scene, which has been largely ignored. “There’s a Best Rap Album category, but it’s not enough,” says Bonfils. “There’s a pool of creators in this genre that aren’t represented [in the industry]. We must demonstrate to ADISQ that there are people in our community who work in this style,” he says, citing as an example Les Louanges, who adheres to the musical genre.

The other important aspect of ADVANCE’s approach is the funding of musical projects developed by Black artists. “We need to focus on the levers of development, understand why [the Black community] is not applying enough for grants [from institutions that support the industry] and why too many of those applications are rejected,” says Bonfils. “Also, we aim to create programs that will educate, inform and advance the community, for example, by reaching out to universities.”

Finally, ADVANCE Québec is committed to improve communications with members of the Black community about the tools available to them to create their businesses and develop musical projects. “When I was hired at SOCAN, I realized that there was a gap in our membership itself, musically speaking,” says Bonfils, citing artists from the hip-hop, R&B, blues, jazz, and Gospel scenes being under-represented. “Why was that? Because SOCAN is racist? Absolutely not! The problem was one of representation [of our mission to the communities] and information. Kids who were making hip-hop and putting their songs on YouTube had no idea that they could make money from their copyright royalties. Why? Because they never knew anyone like them who could explain it in their own words.

“To me, the real challenge is education, funding, and mentoring,” says Bonfils. “That will be our game plan for our first year.”

When she released her single “Straight Shooter” in 2018, then 15-year-old Jody Upshaw was amazed by the way the song took off. Already a confident singer and performer, Upshaw, who was still in high school in Halifax, suddenly found more people taking notice of her music. Among other accolades, the catchy pop tune, produced by rapper Classified, was nominated for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year at the 2019 East Coast Music Awards, along with recognition from the African Nova Scotian Music Association. As the song’s success opened doors, Upshaw moved through them, thrilled and grateful for each new opportunity, and more convinced than ever about building a career in music.

Still, she was as bowled over as anyone when, in January 2022, four years after its release, she heard her song on the hit television show Euphoria. “I was in total shock,” she laughs, remembering waking from a nap to find her phone blowing up, as friends and music community heard the song in the popular HBO series’ second season. Also featured in the episode was music by Dartmouth rapper Thrillah. Upshaw, now 18 – who’s both a fan of the show and its star, Zendaya – admits that she’s still processing the placement. “It’s just crazy. I already feel so blessed to have been able to do a song with Classified… let alone something with Zendaya!”

“I was in total shock… It’s just crazy”

Though she’d known that having the song in the show was a possibility, Upshaw had figured her chances were slim. Some months earlier, she’d been in touch with Melissa McMaster of UnitedMasters, who also manages artists like Quake Matthews and Kayo. “She’s always been really supportive, and has always showed me love, and given me great advice,” says Upshaw. McMaster told her that UnitedMasters was doing synch for the show and that she thought “Straight Shooter” would be a good fit. While she and Classified agreed that McMaster could put the song forward for consideration, Upshaw says that it felt like a longshot. “I thought that there was no way that this was going to happen to me,” she says. “But of course, you can try!”

Upshaw, who grew up singing and performing, began writing her first songs at age 11. Thanks in part to her father Marvin, a former rap artist who performed as KL, she was exposed to lots of musicians, and set her sights on a life in music at a young age. “I was really lucky,” she says thinking back. “I feel like I got a super head-start. I got to learn from a lot of great artists, from watching them and their writing and creative processes.”

She met Classifed through her dad, and the two began working together. “Straight Shooter” was a tune that he had in the works, which was tweaked to suit Upshaw. “We changed the lyrics to make it fit me more,” she explains, “and to make it feel like what I was trying to portray.”  Classified has also produced a number of Upshaw’s other songs, including her most recent singles “Guilty One” and “Evil.” The video for “Straight Shooter,” which features Upshaw with some of her pals at that time on the basketball court (she’s also a competitive basketball player) was directed by Classified’s brother, Mike Boyd. “We were hanging out and having fun,” she says, recalling the video shoot. “That’s another thing I love about that song. I genuinely felt exactly how the song sounds. It was fitting for my age and what we were doing at the time, and it’s still a crowd favourite. It’s a fun, great song.”

Just a few years on, Upshaw marvels at how her life has changed. She recently graduated from high school, and plans to attend a post-secondary music program in Nova Scotia this fall to ramp up her grasp of music theory. “My life is so different now from then,” Upshaw says with a laugh. “Back then, I thought I had ridden the wave.” Instead, “Straight Shooter” has opened more doors than she ever could have imagined, including a synch placement in an upcoming American Eagle commercial.

Upshaw’s goal now is to focus her attention exclusively on building her career, from playing more shows and working on her songwriting, to finding more opportunities to collaborate with other artists. “Even though I was always making music and performing, now feels like a really great opportunity to take that next step,” she says. “These days, my mind is fully geared towards music at all times.”

In February of 2022, Adria Kain released When Flowers Bloom. Fans had been eagerly awaiting the Toronto-based artist’s debut LP since the 2015 release of her song “Ocean.” Inspired by artists such as D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, André 3000, and Brandy – and crafting her own glitchy blend of R&B, jazz, and soul – Kain followed up “Ocean” with a string of equally compelling songs, including “Reverse Psychology” (2016),  “DE{com}pressed” (2017), and singles “Alone In Kenzo,” “Classic” (featuring Leila Dey), and “Ocean (Reprise).”

She’s been praised by The Fader, Complex, HYPEBAE, and more; opened for the likes of Miguel and Questlove; and sung on projects including PARTYNEXTDOOR’s second album and Allan Rayman’s ROADHOUSE 01 album.

Contemplating her music, Kain explains that challenging herself and her artistry is at the core of her approach and unique sound. “I’m learning how to play guitar,” she says. “It’s been a long, inconsistent journey, but a journey nonetheless. Even if I find the chords or melodies don’t make sense, I find myself coming up with interesting ideas that I’m excited to [explore] more.” This desire to learn and grow also extends beyond music, into content creation. “It [production, visuals, and photography] is something I’ve always been passionate about, but never fully allowed myself to dive into, full force, so [my aim is] to make that more of a focus.”

Kain allowed her debut album to unfurl naturally over six years, allowing the right songs to find their way together. “Originally, when I conceptualized this album and began working on it, I had an entirely different expectation in mind of how it was going to turn out, or what the story was going to be,” she says. “It was simply supposed to be about experiences in love.

“Writing songs is kind of like a daydream, a dream that I’m awake for”

“But I think where my life was at, it naturally became a story of accountability, and facing things in relationships that I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, especially not out loud. It almost forced me into this space, because it was needed in order for me to tap into a certain level of emotion to create each song. Songs like ‘Only With Time,’ ‘To the Ones I’ve Loved Before,’ and ‘Lost One’ are perfect examples.”

Aa a solo singer-songwriter, Kain describes the process as “kind of like a daydream, a dream that I’m awake for… I have random moments sometimes where I’m walking somewhere and a melody or lyric idea comes to life based off of something I see or hear in real time. My songwriting process is never the same. It always depends on my emotional state, or where I am in life, and how it inspires me creatively. I could be in a moment with someone, whether it be an artist, or a partner, and an idea can spark in an instant, and I’ll have the urge to write it down to record a voice note.

“Sometimes I’m just in my own sessions, or sessions with other artists and producers, and ideas come from things I hear through production or direct instrumentation. I’ve had songs that have come to life in minutes, and songs that I’ve started and didn’t finish until months or years later. My song ‘Only With Time,’ I began writing in 2017. ‘Alone in Kenzo’ was literally a guitar loop, and I visualized that entire song about a year before I even began writing or recording it, and then it took another full year to finish the song entirely.”

This trust in her own creative timeline has resulted in an album Kain is incredibly proud and pleased to share with audiences. “After the release of my album, I realized all of the songs were sitting exactly where they needed to be sonically,” she says. “It’s such a fulfilling feeling to know you created that from your mind and soul.”