An Overdue Conversation on Why African-Canadians Are Often Forgotten in Toronto's Music Narrative

An Overdue Conversation on Why African-Canadians Are Often Forgotten in Toronto's Music Narrative

"The identity of black people became a lot more of 'oh you must be from the islands' because of the influx of black people that came around the seventies" -Brooke Blackburn
February 28, 2017, 4:15pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.

When we talk about what makes Toronto important, we must talk about the races and ethnicities that make up the identity of the city. There is a pride here, and Canada itself, for accepting immigrants from all corners of the world—including blacks. History reminds us of great achievements like ex-slaves starting the city's first taxicab service, our entries into high public offices in the government, and of course our swath of contributions to the music scene. But history is amenable and can be cherry picked to push inclusiveness and overlook our troubled past (and present) here—a theme Brooke Blackburn is more than familiar with as longstanding resident of not just Toronto but Canada, itself. Brooke recalls his experiences with father and local legend/ R&B musician Bobby Dean Blackburn. "We used to go down to Yonge St and he'd play at different places but mainly the Zanzibar Tavern—the strip joint, but back then it was actually a live music venue as well," he says. "You know, number one he was a great musician but he was also a tough guy so any problems, he took care of it. Being black at that time in the sixties, seventies you had to be able to throw down, to [defend yourself]." The past is of particular importance to Brooke. One part of a six-piece outfit Blackburn (vocals, guitar) including his brothers Duane (keyboard, lead vocals), Cory (drums) and Robert (vocals, songwriting) whose songs, like "Talk to Me" and "Survival" are steeped in the themes and stories of Black civil rights as well as slavery. The latter of which is unsurprising considering their lineage stretches back to one Elias Earl.

Their great great grandfather, Earl was born a slave in Kentucky in 1833 who would cross through the Underground Railroad up north to Chatsworth, Ontario as a free man making the Blackburns part of a long line of African-Canadians in the country—otherwise, the first blacks to take resident in Canada. Nevertheless, due in part to the influx of immigrants from the West Indies in the late 1960s and other countries in subsequent decades their presence has been overshadowed. Whereas current music such as rap, R&B—the music they helped pioneer—is concerned the spotlight has shifted away from them. As a result, Brooke and I spoke about his family's past and present as well as thoughts on the seeming exclusion of 'African-Canadians' from the Black experience in Toronto.

Noisey: What was your experience with race growing up?
Brooke Blackburn: Well I was born in '63 so I felt some of the racism. I was born in downtown Toronto but then moved out to Brampton with my family. We lived out [in Brampton] for about ten years and going to school you definitely felt it. I remember myself and my brother used to fight kids all the time because somebody would always make some remark because of your colour. I came from a mixed family since my mother was white and dad was black so I would get comments on that too. But again this is Brampton, Ontario in the sixties. It was a different world, you know what I mean?

I recall a quote from your mother saying, "We moved from Brampton to [Malton] because I needed the children to experience different cultures," versus Malton, Mississauga which "had every culture you could think ofItalian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Asian. It was such a beautiful culture." Why Malton and what was that transition like moving from Brampton?
I remember first driving through Malton and my father asked "'what do you think of this area?" and I just saw black people. It was like, you had back up. I had cousins that already lived in Malton too. It wasn't just Black either, it was Italian, a lot of northern European people, it was nice. Don't get me wrong, Brampton's a good place now it was just a lot different. My grandparents lived in Brampton so I suppose that's one of the reasons why my father decided to live there as well because the area was starting to get developed and it was cheap to buy a house. But I think my mother probably felt that you needed to bring your kids up in a more of a multicultural kind of area because, you know, not just because they're fighting every day, but if you want to raise your kids not to have any type of prejudice.

[In Malton] you had an opportunity to just to be kids, to not have to deal with ethnicity all the time even though you still lived in a world that was populated with a lot of people of European descent it was still more of a multi-culture, multi diverse area. I remember the first time I met, well, now a friend of mine for thirty years or whatever, but somebody that just came from Jamaica. Just came right off the plane or whatever. I was dedicated to showing him around the school and meeting other people from other cultures. You know like people of the West or East Indian culture and just visually seeing that shift. When you grow up in a neighbourhood with kids you know that look similar, you know what I mean you don't care about their background. But when you see a kid with a turban on, that you've never seen in your life as a child it's different. So I would hang with him and when people tried to pick on him because he was different, I'd pick on them. I've always been that type of person because of my parents. My father has always been a gladiator for that. I don't believe in any type of racism.

Photo by Jake Kivanc

That's no accident of course because the Blackburn lineage, your lineage is tied to the slaves who came through the underground railroad, specifically your great great grandfather Elias Earl. How did you come to learn about him?
So, Elias was my father's great-grandfather, and he was a slave. He came up through the underground railroad as a runaway slave from Kentucky around the 1850's or maybe prior, and came through the border near Windsor...farther north and settled south of Owen Sound called Holland's Place- its called Chatsworth now. But ever since I was a kid we had a family picnic every year in Owen Sound called the Emancipation Day picnic so I knew about him since I was born. Every August first weekend we go up there, I think they've had it for a hundred and fifty-five years or so. It's funny because I knew of the Earls, but I'd do my own research on to see how he came up through Kentucky and it was interesting because I didn't know his name.

In terms of lineage and also just Canada's history when it comes in relation to slaves and the black identity do you think that's something enough people are knowledgeable about?
Well when I was growing up in Toronto, a lot of people didn't know that black people have been here since the 1700s, 1800s. If you recall, The British army essentially said to many of our people 'Listen, come up here and fight for us against the Americans', we'll get you out of slavery. So, Black Loyalists that came to Nova Scotia, places like Africville, they were Loyalists too, so they were here even before I was. The drummer I play with his family has been here longer than mine. So, we've always been here but I mean I always knew of my identity as a black Canadian, yes but people didn't think of it that way. There wasn't too many of us I knew besides my cousins and even then we were in a complete multi-cultural world. The identity of black people became a lot more of oh you must be from the islands, because of the influx of black people that came around the seventies and eighties, nineties.

And that's something you started to notice personally? Because I mean it would around that time a lot of my relatives would be coming into the country
Again, I lived in Malton which was right by the airport so I'm seeing in the sixties, seventies, and eighties all these people come through and it was really nice. At the same time, people started to recognize a lot of people coming from the islands or from Africa, just different places with people of colour. So, I noticed that people who would identify black people as from the islands, they didn't really know the heritage of black Canadians. It was, "So, you must be from Jamaica, you must be from Trinidad, you must be from Guyana" and I'd say no I'm from Canada, from Toronto, actually. Then they'd ask about my parents' background and it's like my father is from Toronto, my mother's born in Newfoundland. So you get this really locked into people's brains that black people were here only since the 1850s and it's just like listen, you know, black people fought in the war of 1812.

Being of Caribbean descent and my background being one focal point of the Toronto identity here I've always wondered since I've had little interaction with African Canadian, when you did become an adult and move back to Toronto was there ever a sense or a feeling like you were kind of excluded from the cultural narrative here?
No, because I never let it. I think a lot of people that I grew up with, like my cousins, we'd get together and, I think we all had this— we just knew that people didn't really know the existence of Black Canadians. Not that they didn't know that we didn't exist, but, they didn't understand. My grandfather is actually from the West Indies and has been here since the early 1930s but I personally didn't know much about the culture there apart from the fact that it was part of the slavery route. Prior to that, we weren't really Black Canadians, we were just Black people you know what I mean? And then it was more like, we had to let people know that we had actually been here longer.

Photo by Jake Kivanc

Would it be fair to say there wasn't even essentially an identity, even shaped—
Yeah probably only within our own community. You know, there wasn't a knowledge of Black Canadians out there within the white community, within the European-based community. I don't think Canada ever shunned it. There just wasn't as much information as there is now with the Black Historical Society and others because we're seeing people digging up these areas in Toronto, putting up condos and finding artifacts from Black Canadians that settled here. But the country is definitely working at it. In school, we'd be in history class learning about American History and very little about certain things that happened in Canada because that was more the focus.

Do you think then the education system isn't doing enough then?
When the education system in Ontario or nationally through Canada says we're gonna
concentrate on Canadian history and make it more important to teach it that's when we'll learn more about our relationship with America and the British, or even First Nations people. I remember doing a play of the Underground Railroad, it was my idea from this book I had, at school and I don't think many people knew about it. And the problem is that now I don't think people know as much as they should. If it's Black history, then you're also talking about Canadian history. And the more people are educated, the more you can research and find out about Canadian history because there's a lot there. For instance, the Irish were basically put in the category of Jewish, Black, Irish back in the day. They were repressed, man. The Christie Pits riots, look it up man, it was a big fight against the Jewish people and the Irish. Everywhere you go in this world, your financial class system kind of puts you into a certain thing. And then in order to break out of that, you need opportunity. It's definitely getting better but in general, knowledge needs to be dispersed around the younger people. Now, of course, I'm 53, so I don't know what happening.

Well, I'm 25, and I don't think I learned too much growing up a lot of it I was told from family or through my own research. Only recently I was wondering, and forgive my ignorance, about where a lot of African Canadians are currently settled outside of Nova Scotia.
I mean we're in Windsor, London, Dresden, Chatham, everywhere all the way up to Owen Sound. I mean, back in the day if you wanted to find us in Toronto you had to go to a Nova Scotia club or a Black club in the fifties and sixties. There was this one place called The Paramount Tavern, which is one of these interesting black clubs in the day where they had live entertainment and then there was a place at Vaughan and St. Clair. Just in general, there was a lot of Black Canadians in that area. I find these days, there are still a lot of Black Canadians along that area too but we don't have an area like you say Little Portugal, or Chinatown, or Little Italy. We don't have that because what happens is, back in the sixties, when you don't have that kind of population you just get dispersed amongst everybody else.

Aren't you even a bit put off put by questions like this?
Again, it's because they don't teach it in school as much as they should. But also, to be honest with you, there wasn't that many black teachers when I went to school. I'm sure that's changed but they never taught it as much to me. Even now if you mention the Underground Railroad to say, ten people, probably six of them will think it was an actual railroad. People gotta learn the history, because slavery, trust me, can happen again. There are a few steps between slavery and kind of keeping you down financially. Thank goodness we're not slaves but as a people, we still demand equal right and those ideas are what I grew up listening to. We have a song on our record called "Sister Rosa," originally written by The Neville Brothers, that we covered that is, of course, named after Rosa Parks from Montgomery, that carries that message.

Unlike the United States where African American is the default term for blacks of all backgrounds here, there's oft a dispute in designation i.e. Caribbean-Canadian, or we refer to the native country of our parents as our identities. Is that in one way where that rift within our communities begins?
I think there's obviously more of a focus on being Black American than being Black Canadian because they were direct descendants of slaves. For Americans, they could be living in the area where their ancestors were enslaved so their history is important. Not too long ago we did a video for a song of ours called "Africa" and basically the way it is in Africa, and still now is you learned about your history from your elders. So in the spirit of that, we had my father sitting with a big cane telling a roll of kids about what happened in the past; stories from elders to the parents, and then their kids. That's the way I think it is in the States, more so than Canada, passing those types of stories down. The states have more of a population of black people and you think of the civil rights movement as well, that wasn't as prevalent here as it was over there. We had our marches and stuff like that, but in the sixties that I remember, we were, for the most part, being pretty well respected, you know, my father was respected. Of course, there were also a lot of moments I also remember playing with my father back in—let's see I'm 63, so about '78— in places that I felt very uncomfortable. My father was a big dude so I was always felt secure but I always felt you know, that this is happening, I could see their attitudes. Once he started playing, though, he just turned them around man. Just to the point that they'd have tears running down their eyes. It was a different world back then, so.

I remember talking to Toronto jazz musician Archie Alleyne before he passed and hearing how jazz was so important to the music scene and in terms of just being Black. Now rap has become the dominant genre of Black people in the city but it centers itself on the experiences and cultural points of people from the West Indies and more recently Somalis. I feel as if again African Canadians have been left out of that picture.
Well, put it this way, I think that throughout the years, a lot of Black Canadians, descendants of those who passed through the Underground road and or slaves here, kind of became professionals. And by that, I mean going through the education system and becoming doctors, lawyers. In my time, the music path had a lot of Black musicians that were into Jazz and R&B but they were coming from the States when the Vietnam war was happening. It was like I'm not gonna go into Vietnam and get killed I'm gonna be a conscientious objector and come to Canada. I grew up listening to a lot of cats that came from the States, that were my dad's friends and played with my father. In fact, the guy who taught me how to play guitar went to Vietnam, he was in the army and came from Chicago and then he came to Canada. Again, what I'm saying is there wasn't that many Black Canadians as artists… this was a small circle. A lot of Black Canadians themselves did what everybody else does when they come here, go into the education system, become a worker. The Black people that did stay in the music business, they were in families of music. You had the Gabriels, there was us, Salome Bey and her husband Howard Matthews, and her kids.

Photo by Jake Kivanc

Have you ever felt or observed tension between East Coast African American descendants and Caribbean descendants? Since we've come to be associated as the default Black experience here in Toronto?
Definitely, there was that kind of thing, like again, people didn't understand that Black Canadians have been here since, you know, since the 1700s. I mean, again, my grandfather's from the West Indies, a small tiny island called Montserrat that I could ask black, white people most people don't know of. But we never identified with that because he didn't talk about his culture. I'm interested how many times you've been, where're you from, Trinidad?

Dad's from Trinidad, my mom's Jamaica/Cuban
How many times you've been to Jamaica or Trinidad?

No kidding! See that's, that's different. Usually, a lot of my friends have been from Jamaica, go there every couple years. It's just a big difference and see now, you know, your generation, to me I'm finding, is doing what, we did as kids. You're being identified as more Canadian as just Black people. We didn't go by where we're from like Jamaica, from the island.

I'm realizing that too, because again when I was growing up, there was kind of like an embarrassment of being from Canada, or even saying you're from Toronto. It's just like no, I'm Jamaican, I'm Trini, I'm Cuban and that's where it stops. Whereas now I'm seeing, likely in part of Toronto now being a 'cool city,' people my age and below are claiming Canada.
Yeah, you see that's the thing now my parents always instilled in me, that you're Black Canadian. Even though I'm light skinned, I'm Black Canadian. You're a Black person, and you gotta respect your heritage, you know what I mean? I'm still of mixed descent since I'm biracial but the point is that, that Black Canadian thing was still instilled. You know my father, his grandmother was white so there's a lot of that in our system, but it was like, always through the identity of who we were, we're Black Canadians. That's what I personally felt. What I'm also noticing now is the young Black people they're educated, they care about where they live, you know, and they care about Toronto. They care about the Black Canadian identity whether that's West Indian, African, Somali, or wherever. But still, it's identifying Black people as a whole.

In regards to that Canadian identity I came across a study where according to an October 2016 poll of Canadian values, a majority believe immigration policy should be based on the country's economic and labour needs, rather than on the needs of foreigners to escape crises in their home countries. As history has informed in the case of the black experience and what's happening in the news currently, how do you feel about this sentiment coming from Canada?

Well, I think it should be a blend of both. I don't believe in imaginary borders, but I do believe in being part of a community. If somebody wants to come to this country, then, as long as they're peace loving people, why not. I understand for some who have come here they have a lot of animosity to whoever was repressing them in their country of origin. I've seen it in the Black community too. I have friends come up to me and say from certain parts of the islands where they grew up that, 'this person" or "people" were trying to keep 'em down as second class citizens. I get it. But, try to impress on a younger generation, you don't have to live this way. You can live together as people. it doesn't matter where you come from, if you're in that community, you're a part of that community. You know what I mean, and Canada is a community. Canadians have always been more open-minded than, people from other countries because we're a young country. And what it is that young country need? It needs immigration. If you don't have immigration you're not gonna grow.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Thanks to the Ontario Black History Society.

Jabbari Weekes is the Noisey Canada Editor. Follow him on Twitter.