On the eve of the 1998 Juno Awards, Vancouver group The Rascalz, who were nominated for ‘Rap Recording of the Year’ for their album Cash Crop, sat amongst their peers at the annual gala awaiting the results. Given that the ceremony was untelevised, and rap music had propelled into being one of the most popular genres in music, admittedly, the trio joked about refusing the award if they won, which would not only be a Juno first but also a presumed career killer. The group would win that night, and what started as a jovial conversation quickly turned into an explicit decline of the Juno Award.
In an effort to rectify their errors of not having the category televised previously, in 1999 the Junos invited The Rascalz to perform their chart-topping, and now classic Canadian anthem “Northern Touch” on the televised broadcast. The single not only became a domestic chart-topping single—a rarity for hip-hop music at the time, but it was the first rap song to be performed live during the televised portion of the prestigious award show. Moments after their performance, The Rascalz would be once again awarded ‘Best Rap Recording’, this time for “Northern Touch”, becoming a moment that would cement itself in history as the first time the award would be handed out during the televised portion of the show.
Nevertheless, Rascalz manager Sol Guy’s statement following their win in 1998 still rings true: “In view of the lack of real inclusion of Black music in the ceremony, this feels like a token gesture towards honouring the real impact of urban music in Canada. Urban music, reggae, R&B, and rap: that’s all Black music and it’s not represented at the Junos. We decided that until it is, we are going to take a stance.” Unbeknownst to the Rascalz, the statement they made that night would foreshadow a strained relationship between the Junos and the hip-hop community for years to come.
Since 1970, the Juno Awards have been an annual ceremony that recognizes the artistic and technical achievements of Canada’s music industry—however, Black music categories, as well as genres made by marginalized communities in general, are rarely, if ever, televised. Little change appeared in sight for more than a decade until 2011 when Drake, who was nominated in six separate categories that year, was asked to host the Juno Awards. He would not only be the first rapper to ever be asked to host the award show, but also the first Black host in its 41-year history. But what should’ve been a trophy sweep resulted in Drake snubbed in every single category for his debut Thank Me Later. "He had one of the biggest years ever in rap history as far as being a Canadian, they have him hosting the entire thing…. and to me, it's disrespect, what they did. Absolute disrespect,” Kardinal Offishall would later tell the Toronto Star.
Since then, Drake has not attended the national award ceremony. And though he’s been nominated and won several awards since, some of his biggest achievements have failed to be recognized. More recently, Jazz Cartier’s 2017 speech following his win for ‘Rap Recording of the Year’, addressed the awarding committees directly and in a since-deleted Instagram post saying, “…also @thejunoawards while you guys enjoy all the hip-hop in the world at your after parties, next year you gotta have this category filmed on television.”
This year marks a turning point in hip-hop’s relationship with the Juno Awards, and it probably stands to be its most volatile position to date. According to Nielsen’s 2017 Canada Music Year-End Report, Hip-Hop/R&B was the “fastest-growing music genre of the year, with an 86% increase in audio on-demand streaming consumption over 2016.” Additionally, seven of Canada’s most streamed artists of the year came from the Hip-Hop/R&B genre, including Drake and The Weeknd. With those statistics, it would only make sense that the most popular genres in Canada—and North America, overall—would finally receive their due praise. Twenty years after The Rascalz first rejected their Juno Award, the conversation continues, but this time a new question is on the horizon: do our homegrown talents, who’ve earned accolades and praise elsewhere in the world before Canada, still need the Junos?
Three-time nominee and Juno-award winning producer and rapper Rich Kidd says, “Speaking for myself and a few others [who] I've talked to about this, the Junos only sort-of matter. They matter when we see people we know from the community that are nominated or performing [un-televised]. After that, it’s an after-thought—the generations after don't put any emphasis on it because their OG's don't give a shit.” Race, according to Rich Kidd also plays a role in how the Junos operate. Similar to Macklemore’s success across the border, both Classified and SonReal have benefitted from being white in an vastly white music industry, allowing for a ‘safer’ image to be associated with a ‘dangerous’ genre. “Even though Class[ified], who I respect, put years of work in his craft, he's still benefiting off white privilege in a majority white country. His image relates to the average Canadian and he doesn't rap about issues that may make white people uncomfortable or critically think about shit that’s going on like [what] Eminem's 'trying' to do right now,” he says.
Traditionally, Black music has always functioned in coded languages only understood by those involved directly. And while that coding has started to be deciphered as these genres gained mainstream popularity, it’s still misunderstood by the governing committees that oversee them. While hip-hop culture becomes a fashionable marketing tool for Canadian entertainment industries, the return on investment for the community producing it, especially in Toronto, falls flat, time and time and time again. “When you can win one of what is said to be one Canada’s top honours or music prizes and it not revered by anybody as something significant, there’s a real problem with the infrastructure. The silence there speaks volumes,” Juno-award winning rapper Tona states. Sean Leon, one of Toronto’s most promising artists who opted out of submitting this year, shares similar thoughts, “Canadian award shows are bad, period, in the sense that they’re not going to change your life in the way that a Grammy would, but to apply and go through all that and to lose based off these Canadian politics is exhausting and I don’t see the point of it, at all.”
For Quebecois artists like rapper Wasiu, the awards seem even more out of touch, partly because Francophone releases are largely overlooked by the vastly English-speaking committees. “In Quebec, we don't care about the Junos. The francophones only care about ADISQ (Association québécoise de l'industrie du disque, which also hosts an award gala), and if the anglos in Quebec care about an award show, it's whatever the Americans are watching,” he says. “Whatever happens at ADISQ can change how people view you over here in Quebec. Whatever happens at the Junos doesn't change your social status in Quebec at all.”
Akin to the 1989 Grammy Boycott led by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, whispers of a Juno boycott have lingered through the Canadian rap community for a while, but in some cases, it’s already happening. This is the first year that none of the artists signed to OVO, including Drake, DVSN, Baka and Majid Jordan, submitted for Juno nominations. It’s also the first year where several artists were reportedly approached to perform on the televised award show but turned it down.
“If all of the hip-hop community boycotts, I mean, what are we trying to change? If it’s to get our awards televised, I don't know if it really matters. What matters is the exposure of these artists,” Rich Kidd states. “Maybe they should let Belly or Tory [Lanez] perform on Sunday because that’s more helpful to me than giving me an award for a category that has no clear definition what a rap recording is.” Sarah F., a corporate music professional, shares a different view. “We have to care. Backing off of the Junos alone would only send the message that they don't need to do the appropriate amount of work to be an accurate representation of all music in Canada.”
There’s an overwhelming sentiment that if the Juno Awards and their administrative body, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, truly want to elevate their worth, their infrastructure needs to be uprooted from the top down in all departments. As it stands, the initial voting process for many Juno categories, including hip-hop and R&B, is done by approved community members who serve as initial and secondary judges. It’s a voluntary position, rather than a paid one, which Sarah F. feels needs to also change "by doing the work to engage and pay the members of the community who are active in the scene and finding innovative ways to support the music.” While these concerns have been echoed for years, it seems as if they’re finally being heard.
In a recent statement provided by Allan Reid, President & CEO of Caras and The Juno Awards, he says that,
" We value our relationship with all music communities that make up our dynamic industry. The rap/hip-hop/R&B community is a significant part of the Canadian music landscape, and our job at CARAS is to ensure that we are providing the right avenue to educate, develop, celebrate and honour artists in these genres, as we do for all genres,” states Reid. “This year we are happy to share that the rap/hip-hop/R&B community will be represented on JUNO Weekend through performances by Clairmont The Second at the JUNO Gala Dinner and Awards, and Daniel Caesar and Jessie Reyez on the JUNO Awards Broadcast. The Rap Album of the Year category will also be included in the 2018 JUNO Awards Broadcast, along with some exciting initiatives during JUNO week, and throughout the year, celebrating the legacy and future of Canadian hip-hop.” As per Reid, not only will the ‘Rap Album of the Year’ be presented 2018 Juno Awards broadcast, but to celebrate “Northern Touch” once more twenty years later, the Rascalz, as well as Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Thrust, and Choclair will be the artists presenting it."
Though this may still feel like an afterthought for many artists, in an additional statement, CARAS and The Junos note that they are making long-term adjustments such as switching the Rap category’s final voting procedure from “judge-voted to member voted” to ensure that the entire voting body is able to weigh in on the selection with the hope that it “will encourage more members of the rap/hip-hop/R&B community to become CARAS Academy Delegates and have their voices be heard.”
Though the changes reveal a step in the right direction, Rich Kidd and journalist and XL Recordings A&R Samantha O’Connor sum up the hesitancy of these communities celebrating them too early. “I think it will help change the relationship of present to future rap artists from our country. I don't think it changes shit for the older generations of Canadian hip-hop/rap, who have seen their time come and go without being properly acknowledged, and [will] look at the Junos involvement with urban music now as a contrived method of reaching for relevance and ratings because rap music is the most popular and streamed genre,” says Rich Kidd.
“We’re used to putting in the work and only relying on ourselves for the earned respect and praise for art that... has gone on to change the face of the global music scene,” says O’Connor. “The Grammys still haven’t completely gotten it right. The Brits are just coming around. The Junos [have] to take the first step by putting away their politics, look around and realize that it is our rap and R&B communities that birth superstars who are going to shine with or without them.”
Erin Ashley is a writer based in Toronto, a city that owes her many thanks. Follow her on Twitter.