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.”

DJ Shub doesn’t just make Powwow Step, he helped create the genre.

We ask the “Godfather of Powwow Step,” as he’s sometimes known, if it ever sinks in that he had a hand in cooking up a style that’s a monumental mix of powwow songs, drumbeats, electronic music, and dubstep. “It hits home whenever someone brings that up in an interview, or if I’m introduced that way before a show,” says Shub, born Dan General.

“It makes me realize (what I’m doing is) a responsibility, musically and culturally,” he adds. “I love Indigenous music! It carries itself through the culture, and it gives us the opportunity to shine and say, ‘Hey, look how beautiful our culture is!’ And what’s really exciting to see is that it’s getting more popular, and that there are all these sub-genres [of this style].”

Not only did the sound that Shub pioneered when he was with A Tribe Called Red (now re-named The Halluci Nation) fill dancefloors all around the world, their second album  Nation II Nation won a JUNO Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year – making Tribe the first Indigenous artist to win in a non-Indigenous category.

This year, Shub, a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, has been nominated for Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year for his 19-track album, War Club. “A war club is a weapon used by our people during war times,” he explains. “My music is my war club. It’s my voice, and it makes you dance. And the MCs in the film, they’re writers, and their pens are their war clubs.”

The film (actually a TV show) to which Shub refers is also called War Club, and it’s a beautiful 40-minute “cinematic adventure” that was shot at Longwoods Road Conservation Area near London, Ontario. It’s currently streaming on CBC Gem, and features Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Fawn Wood, Phoenix Pagliaacci, and Boogat, as well as six Indigenous dancers in regalia.

Shub says the album and film, which is “a celebration of song and dance, with a message of power and protest,” provide “a doorway to learning about our culture, and for me to find out more about my culture. I grew up off-reserve, so the culture was there, but I’d never thought about mixing it with music. But now that I have, it feels like I was supposed to do this.”

Shub is in great spirits the day we speak. He’s chatty, jokes, and his excitement to take War Club on the road is infectious. You’d never know he was in a dark place a few years back, if he wasn’t so forthright about his former drug and alcohol abuse. He’s a survivor, he’s keenly aware of that, and credits his recovery to the people around him. “It was my family that got together, saw me at my worst, stepped up and made sure I got help – and got it fast,” says Shub. “I thank the Creator for them every day. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here if not for them.”

It goes without saying that watching fans lose their minds at his shows makes it all worthwhile for Shub. But, we ask, have there been moments when he realizes the cultural impact he’s making? “I got a message from an aunty who said, ‘I want to thank you for making this album. My niece and I were drifting apart, and I gave her your album for her birthday and we’re talking again.’

“I was in tears,” says Shub. “That’s the magic that people don’t see. It really hit home.”