Curated and Written by Gemma Mastroianni, Amanda McMillan, and various artists
The music industry is by no means perfect - far from it. Ample criticism of the problematic systems it upholds as a capitalist, patriarchal, and quite frankly, the racist institution is not only valid but fiercely needed. It is an industry that has always and continues to exploit and benefit from Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour; their work, their cultures, their histories. It’s a complex machine, one that operates from the high towers of major records labels and trickles all the way down to local venues, promoters, and even fans. Being an artist in this space isn’t easy, and there are systemic and systematic barriers that are intentionally put and kept in a place that disproportionately affects Queer & BIPOC, artists.
As such, we would be remiss to ignore the racism that exists within the industry in Canada. We like to think that Canada is a kind and peaceful place, but we have darkness, too. Our self-sustaining music industry was built to create a space for Canadian artists in the shadow of a giant, but it was built for a particular kind of artist; a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, thin, English-speaking, straight, preferably male artist. It has limitations, barriers, and pitfalls. It covertly lays traps, tucked under rugs and behind doors so as to not look so harsh. Small, tiny traps that can snap at an artist’s feet as they walk by, or big, walloping ones that can eat them whole. One has got to have their wits about them, artists have got to look out for each other.
Music is and always will be, a fundamental pillar of culture, history, and identity. An artist is always creating, and this is certainly true for musicians: there is almost nothing that can quiet that part of them. We are a country that is filled to our very edges with musical talent, many of whom are left out of conversations due to stereotyping, prejudice, micro-aggressions, and flat out racism. There is a limiting of talent in the music industry because of the boxes it puts people in, boxes that are comprised of oppressive, white supremacist walls. There are so many voices muffled by this, and it is the objective of this conversational series to highlight BIPOC artists in the city of Toronto, hold space for their stories and experiences within the industry, and showcase their talent and work. This is not a perfect process, and we at The Soundtrack are aware we will make mistakes. We will try anyway, and we are open to a dialogue with our community so that we can do better. Always.
And with that, please spend some time with the following artists’ work & stories. They are truly special, and we are delighted to have had the opportunity to connect with them and share them with you.
“I remember entering this song/radio contest not too long ago. I had submitted the then-unreleased ‘Centerfold’, which is kind of hard to deny is pretty much a straight-up Pop song. I did all the things; filled out the form, chose my genre as Pop based on the lane the song would be fit, submitted my name, and a photo. I was selected as one of the finalists, which was great! When I got to the event, they were going through the categories announcing one artist at a time, and as the rounds kept going, in the pit of my stomach I was like I bet they will put me in the R&B category. Sure enough, they did. All the judges were like, ‘this probably wouldn’t work on R&B/Hip-hop radio but would fit more on the Pop/ Top 40 side’ and all I could say was, ‘Yes, I know, I submitted it as Pop’. The whole room of artists felt it too. This is just one example of how this industry really tries to keep BIPOC artists in “their place”. Had I been named something like Sam Smith and had the luxury of not submitting my photo I can guarantee the song would’ve been placed with the rest of the Pop songs.”
See his most recent performance here.
"As a BIPOC musician, I’ve noticed that the music industry, for the most part, has always been segregated. White musicians typically create the majority of rock, country, and pop, while black artists pursue R&B and hip-hop. Personally, I make darkwave/post-punk for solo projects and screamo-indie/alt music with my band, Elmer Flood. Given my taste, I’ve felt like the music I make hasn’t always been parallel to what people expect of me. I remember the first few shows I played with my band, Elmer Flood, sometimes people would come up to me after we played our set to share their appreciation of our music, and also mention that they “didn’t expect the screaming”. I’d smile but would never know how to reply to the latter. I’ve had endless people tell me I have the name and appearance of an R&B singer; however, it’s just not something I’m personally passionate about. These types of checkboxes that intertwine racial identity and musicianship create discrimination, and can surreptitiously push new and aspiring artists into their allotted niches.
In my personal life, I am surrounded by people that are supportive, inclusive, and have always made me feel comfortable in my skin. I feel very lucky and privileged to say that I haven’t experienced very many injustices in my life where I’ve felt threatened or ashamed. I actually had some hesitation agreeing to write about my experience with racism for this article, because I don’t have any gut-wrenching stories. I’ve had the occasional racist joke thrown my way, which has been pretty insulting in certain situations, but I’ve never felt deeply hurt. I am hyper-aware that equality isn’t present in our world yet, but I’m grateful that the people I meet and see regularly encourage and empower me as an artist.
The thought that there is no racism is a false pretense. Inherent racial inequities need to be addressed in the music industry. I’ve only ever met a handful of BIPOC punk-rock musicians and I’ve never met another Canadian musician with Guyanese roots, who makes any type of alt-rock music, other than my little sister. I am ecstatic about the Black Lives Matter movement as it has allowed some light to be shed on music media and business. The music industry continues to profit from black art, yet recent events have heightened concerns about how companies treat their BIPOC staff, artists, and listeners. The majority of the CEOs owning large indie/alternative record labels are predominant of the Caucasian race. These are the people that control budgets and decide which musicians/bands are going to be signed. My hope for the future is that there will be more diversity in management positions in the music industry and more diversity in all genres of music."
Isaiah | weatherboy
"weatherboy started gigging last August. Our second show was at Lingua Franca (A
festival showcasing Toronto’s BIPOC talent, my personal favourite). We have been the most
fortunate to be welcomed into a diverse scene early on. That being said I’d like to shed a little bit of light on some of the things that are sometimes viewed as harmless. I think that with any art it is difficult to find your own voice.
There is a disconnect between what an artist hears in their head and what they can perform when they start out. It’s through developing their craft that they bridge that gap. Early on it’s extremely frustrating because it can be a long painstaking task. Keep in mind that some artists tend to put a lot of their self-worth into their work too. In fact, I think it’s the biggest reason why most people quit artistic pursuits months after starting.
You’ve invested time into your work now. Maybe there was an awkward family performance. Some late nights practicing and a lot of time and effort trying to squeeze the most of yourself into your material. Somehow you manage to strum up the courage to play your first original work at an open mic annnd…. “Hey, you sound like Lenny Kravitz! Arrrrre you gonna go my way?! Right on! ” Being honest I think that most of the time it does comes from a good place. It’s usually with the intention of connecting with someone else but it’s too often that these types of comments are disingenuous in regards to listening to the actual material. I think that they’re cheap. More importantly, it can put more pressure on BIPOC artists especially because in addition to the gap that I mentioned earlier try to imagine a box that’s being projected onto you that says that your voice doesn’t matter because of what you look like. I’ve heard the argument that this could serve as motivation in order to try to climb out of that box but speaking from my own experience it’s acceptance, mutual respect, and encouragement that work much better.
weatherboy is honoured to be playing Lingua Franca once again at the end of August
with the date soon to be announced. We also just released our debut self-titled EP on
streaming services. Be sure to check us out!"
"As BIPOC artists, especially QPOCs, we can always guarantee a busy February and a busy June, simply because that's when our queer and our colour are most popular. Otherwise, it's hit or miss. Before festivals made a promise to add more BIPOC and fem artists to their line-ups, it was a white boy city. We were always on bills with people playing country, electronic or punk. But the intersecting of feminism, Queer Pride, and Blackness couldn't have come at a better time; there's definitely a shift happening right now.
Our hope for the industry is that people will continue to shift the power with their voices. People are speaking up for and out against things that are changing a very antiquated system and way of doing things. By using social media, word of mouth, and other formats, the industry is at the mercy of the artists, especially those who make a large profit off of Black music. Finally, the Black voice will be heard through its own music. "
Kamilah Apong | Tush
"I’ve been in the Toronto scene for a decade now. The thing about living here is that racism is veiled in politeness, naiveness, and callowness. This makes it that much harder to call out the bullshit because first, you have to pull off that veil. And many people hide in that damn veil.
This scene is filled with a lot of smoke and mirrors and empty, performative allyship. My intellectual and emotional labour as a Black femme has been used for capitalistic gain by white artists in this scene who, ironically, now run their own “activist” oriented platforms. Like many other Black femmes here, I taught, comforted, and extended my good graces for white artists messily moving through the scene without care or consideration for Black artists, despite the fact that Black artistry was their personal mood board and launchpad into their own careers. I was good enough to be in the band or on a stage, but not enough to get adequate credit, payment, decision making power, or reciprocated kindness and care for my contributions. In this deployment of white supremacy, white artists get to piggyback and use Black culture and Black artists as tools and marketing ploys for their own gain, while also insulating themselves from critique since they are “employing” and “providing representation” for Black artists, but are not actually providing compensation or allowing decision making power to be given to them. Then we end up with tokenization. But because they offered a hollow platform, Black artists are expected to be grateful for this deceitful “inclusion”.
I know Toronto likes to think of racism as a burning cross on lawns left by the KKK, but where does that leave us? It ends up with white people being able to shrug off the responsibility of ending white supremacy, so long as they say please. Racism, and in my particular experience, misogynoir, is at the same time overt and deeply insidious. You know it is happening, but since it’s always disguised in “niceness” - the fake Canadian “politeness” of racism, where you are denied your rights, but they say it with a “sorry” or “please” at the end.
For the emerging artists on the margins - demand your credit. Demand the emotional, mental, and financial respect for your contributions. Know that your contributions might look different, but are no less important, in fact, they are incredibly important and beneficial. Don’t make yourself small like I did. Hold on to your worth and advocate for it to hell and back. Do not let other’s selfishness stop you from getting what you deserve. And always know you can leave. No situation is worth you devaluing yourself. The power is in YOU. If shit feels weird and you feel like you are being used, you most likely are. Trust your gut."
I hope these stories can teach all readers something. Be considerate and do your research on the origins of your art. Be inclusive of black artists, and open your eyes to the current reality! Let's work together every day to create a better one. Black artists need more respect.
If you are interested in telling your story, please email email@example.com.