As music fans awaited the Polaris Music Prize 2021 shortlist, the organization’s Executive Director, Claire Dagenais, spent her last week certifying it. Weeks before, on June 28, 2021, Polaris announced that Dagenais would be departing the organization after 11 years, just one year into her role as Executive Director – after its founder, Steve Jordan, moved to CBC Music as Senior Director. But while some found the declaration surprising, Dagenais says that the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest surprise announcement, one that changed the trajectory of her time as the head of Polaris.
“COVID hit, literally, the week I was officially announced as Polaris [Executive Director],” she says. “We were supposed to put the press release out on March 12, [2020,] but that day the JUNOs announced they were cancelling, so we postponed the announcement until March 16. It [the pandemic] threw a wrench in a lot of ideas, especially learning how to be the face, voice, and authority of an organization in a year where we had to throw everything out – we couldn’t lean on what we’d done before.
“And it wasn’t just COVID. There were really important social justice issues that were happening: anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, Indigenous colonialist impact, #MeToo sexual harassment, [all] coming to the forefront. Like [they did with] everybody, they touched and impacted us, and we wanted to make sure that we were engaging in those conversations properly. We were making sure that even though we were busy, we weren’t ignoring real things that were going on around us in real time. I’m incredibly proud of what we did.”
Navigating an unprecedented year with a small but dedicated team of creatives, Polaris was able to maintain the forward-thinking trajectory for which the organization has become known – 2020 saw the $50,000 prize awarded to Montreal rapper Backxwash, the first trans winner. [Editor’s Note: Chaka V. Grier, the author of this story, was part of the 11-member Polaris Grand Jury for 2020.] It was just the latest win to celebrate new rising voices, which have included Lido Pimienta, Kaytranada, and Haviah Mighty. And in 2020, the Polaris Prize was presented in a virtual awards show, in lieu of its usual in-person Gala, that featured dynamic music videos created by each nominee and up-and-coming filmmakers. Dagenais says that without the team, within and outside of the organization, the festival wouldn’t have gone as beautifully as it did.
“Even though our salaried team is small, we have people, our contractors, grant writers who we’ve worked with and go back to regularly, who are all A-plus individuals,” she says. “I think too often those individuals don’t get their glory or the appreciation for how much they actually put in. And they do it because they love it, not necessarily because it’s going to get them a yacht anytime soon. The only way great things happen is if there are people who believe in you and who work with you. We owe it to them to try and be our best, be transparent, and do the best we can, even if it’s not our ideal situation. Always show up.”
As Dagenais uses her current time away from the music industry to re-focus on her young family, Polaris’ first employee – “Technically, Steve [Jordan] was the first employee, but in terms of straight-up employees, I was the first one,” Dagenais corrects with a chuckle – recalls the days of going from summer help, to welcoming some of Canada’s biggest music names to the gala. Asked what she thinks Polaris’ greatest impact on music has been thus far, she says the first is the way that it removed the velvet rope between artists and fans.
“It was never so exhilarating as when we opened up a few small tickets to the general public,” says Dagenais. “It was always just artists and media and industry people the first few years that I was working there. When we moved to The Carlu we were able to open balcony tickets to the general public, and it was really interesting to start having conversations where artists would say, ‘I’m sitting at a table, but my friend is getting GA (general admission). Where can I see them?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, anywhere. There’s no velvet rope separating this person from that person.’”
But most importantly, Dagenais says that the longlist may have been the biggest game-changer for her personally.
“What I love about the long list, and about Polaris in general, is that we present everything equally,” she says. “Without genres, there’s no way for people to pre-judge and pre-cast-off artists. Having genre categories is not a bad thing, but when you look at the long list, because it’s just listed, it forces you to open your mind. There are types of music that I may have been more resistant to giving a try because I was like, ‘Oh I’m not 100 percent into that, so I don’t know if I’m going to like that.’ But when it’s presented on a list without any sort of borders or barriers, you’re like, ‘Well, let me try that.’ It’s happened to me multiple times.
“Sometimes people create rules for themselves around what they like, and they don’t like, and I think Polaris gives you permission to step outside of those rules. And we also give you permission to not like something but still appreciate it. Something can not be for you, but you can also still appreciate that it has value for someone else.”
The 2021 Polaris Prize winner, chosen from this year’s short list, will be announced on Sept. 27.