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.”

Marilyne LeonardToday’s youth speaks up with its own voice. And that can be heard on Marilyne Léonard’s first mixtape, Vie d’ange (the title literally means Angel’s Life, but is also a homophonic wordplay [vidanges] that also means Garbage). She mixes singing and rapping with confidence, constructing songs with no user guide other than her inner voice.

“I always talk about what I go through, and I’m not about to start making up stories,” says the singer-songwriter matter-of-factly. She dubbed this short, eight-song album a mixtape based solely on its eclecticism. “Our inspirations are all over the place, and we just collated all of that together,” she says. “I think eight songs are enough for people to figure out who I am without giving enough time for people who don’t know me to get bored,” she adds, laughing. “I like the format, and it represents where I came from and where I’m going to, all at once.”

Emmanuel Ethier produced the first four tracks. “I didn’t trust myself enough to do it on my own,” says Léonard. “But after that, what I wanted was so specific that I couldn’t delegate. I brought the demos of four new songs [‘Mirage,’ ‘Dans la foule,’ ‘Vie de rêve,’ and ‘Quand tu parles’] to Marc Bell so he could put his touch on them, but it’s very true to what I’d done on my own at home. Ultimately, they’re the four songs that are closest to who I am right now.”

With both hands on the wheel of her musical story, Léonard dreams of independence and self-production, even though she is now a member of the Audiogram family. “When I’m more experienced, I’d like to go independent, but it’s always been my dream to build my career with a record company,” she explains. “I dreamt of telling my mom I’d signed with a record label. It’s truly thanks to Audiogram that I’m able to live what I’m living now, since I’m starting at the very beginning of the ladder.”

Her songs are honest slices of life, rooted in the present. Above all, everything starts with a guitar: “I always write with my guitar first,” says Léonard. “I look for cool chords. I find a cool sentence, and I find a melody to tie it to those chords. It’s quite a strange method,” she admits. “I never write all the lyrics. I do everything at once. It’s like a puzzle made of sentences, melodies, and chords.”

Hearing Léonard sing, you can hear the very specific character of her voice. It becomes a rhythm, an instrument. If you heard her sing a capella, it might almost feel like listening to drums, because the beat is so integral to her vocal delivery. “I listen to a lot of rap, so it obviously inspired me,” she says. “I also love ‘80s productions. I find inspiration in rap, but I’m also into ethereal and complex productions involving synths, and very lively bass, so I find a way to make all that fit.”

She unabashedly tells her audience that vulnerability isn’t a fault, and that the difficulties that arise as we go through the stages of life are normal. She hopes we identify with that and allow ourselves to make it a safe space where we can calm down.

“I want to say I want to love,” says Léonard. “There’s a music video with my girlfriend: ‘Dans la foule.’ Before that, I didn’t dare name the gender of my love interest. I was scared. But for the last two years, I’ve wanted to show off this pride, and this freedom. A guy or a girl talking about love using the word she is banal. I’d love to be one of those girls who are super-at-ease with that, and for whom difference no longer exists. Les Shirley, Calamine; many others do it. It’s relatively new for girls to speak up about this, and I’m glad I’m part of this youth cohort that’s waking up.”

On stage, the project will travel the same numerous directions that the mixtape hints at, but “it’s going to rock a little more,” promises the singer-songwriter. “I also do remixes on stage: La bohème, and a Drake song. People know those songs and they get on board with the show.”

She hopes music will allow her to travel, and in fact, she’ll soon head to France. The future is full of many different promises, and she plans to learn bass, and would also like to produce for other artists. “I’ll start by acquiring my own experience by fucking up my own stuff a thousand times,” she says, laughing. “I need to finish building my own puzzle.”

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.”