Here at Roots Music Canada we’ll jump on any opportunity to boost great artists from marginalized communities, so please don’t be waiting until February to let us know if you’ve heard a Black artist who deserves our attention.
But we also won’t say no to an extra “hook” to amplify the voices of artists who have had to face added barriers in an already impossible business.
So in honour of Black History Month, here are five awesome Black artists you may not already have discovered – but that you’ll be glad you took the time to listen to.
D’Orjay the Singing Shaman
It’s been a couple of years now since D’Orjay released her debut album, A New Kind of Outlaw, but it’s possible you have yet to discover this one-of-a-kind artist from the prairies. D’Orjay is a Black queer woman who grew up in rural Alberta, which, as a queer myself, I can imagine wasn’t a whole lot of fun (no offence, Albertans but I remember the days when Ralph Klein was threatening to use the constitutional notwithstanding clause to overrule the Supreme Court on queer equality). She was unable to heal from the traumatic experiences of her youth using western methods, but she found healing in energy medicine, Buddhism and Pranic healing. Now, when she’s not making music, she’s using what she learned to help others. D’Orjay is still based in Alberta, and her music is kick-ass soulful country. There are some great tracks on this album, but one of my favourites is her cover of the Watchmen’s “One Headlight.”
The story behind CCMA-nominated country artist JoJo Mason’s rise up the charts is like something out of a very Canadian made-for-TV movie. He moved from his hometown of Regina to Victoria as a teenager to pursue his dreams of hockey stardom. But then he was sidelined by a herniated disc. So one day, he walks into a party with a jar of moonshine in his hand, like they did back on the prairies when he was growing up, and songwriter/producer Dan Swinimer is all like, “I was just arguing with my co-writer about whether people actually drink moonshine out of jars in small towns!” This and a few more beverages lead to JoJo convincing Dan to make music with him because, well, he’s “not the worst” singer. Anyway, it turns out, he’s actually pretty good. His stuff ranges from straight-up commercial sounding country to country-rock and country-pop. This track is one of my favourites: “Broken Umbrella.”
I personally discovered Flavia last fall at the Folk Music Ontario conference when she fronted the Brazilian group Tio Chorinho, an act devoted to “the New Orleans jazz of Brazil.” They were playing to a half-full room, but the woman was performing like she was playing to a packed stadium. Her energy was incredible. Flavia studied theatre in Brazil and began her career as a theatre performer and later a clown and stilt walker and leader of circus workshops. She met her Canadian husband in Brazil when he was there on behalf of Cirque du Soleil’s Cirque du Monde project. Flavia may be a new discovery for English Canadians, but she’s been in this country for more than 20 years now, and in Quebec, they know her as an artist to call when they need to get a party started. She fronts a couple of Brazilian ensembles; she’s performed on the popular live music TV show Belle et Bum, and in 2015 she was given a Galaxy Rising Star award.
Look, if you live in Toronto, you probably already know who Shakura is. But in some parts of this country you could be forgiven for not having discovered her yet, so here goes: Born in New York but based in Toronto, Shakura is a singer-songwriter, actor, entertainer and activist whose achievements include being the runner up in the 2008 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, creating a four-woman tribute to Nina Simone called The Nina Project and being a member of the Jazzagals in the TV show Schitt’s Creek. Her versatility as a vocalist seems limitless, and her power is unstoppable. Her latest album, Hold On to Love, opens with a barn-burner of an original title track and ends with the most stirring cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” that I’ve ever heard.
Angelique Francis has been racking up the accolades just recently, earning Juno, CFMA and Ontario Folk Music Award nominations and a pair of Maple Blues Awards. But she’s by no means a musical novice. A child prodigy, she made her American national television debut on the Oprah Network for writing and composing an original theme song for the Gayle King Show. By 14, she was playing at music festivals across North America. Angelique is a multi-instrumentalist who draws inspiration from a variety of genres, but the blues shines through in a lot of her work. Songs like “Ashamed” will leave you convinced you’re listening to a Willie Dixon cover until you check the credits and realize Angelique wrote it. Wowzers.