METALLIC CONVICTIONS

A stylized image in red, black and white depicting Michel Langevin, Thérèse Lanz and Topon Das foregrounding a raging fire.

Photo of Michel Langevin by: Catherine Deslauriers; Photo of Thérèse Lanz by: Alicia Montague; Photo of Topon Das by: Alex Carincross

Metallic Convictions: The Passion Behind Extreme Metal In Canada

By: Daniel G. Wilson | Art by Michael Rancic

“There were a couple of periods where people were telling me that I was crazy to keep on keepin’ on,” Michel “Away” Langevin tells me over a video call from his office in Montreal . Best known as the drummer and primary cover illustrator of Canadian “technical thrash” legends Voivod (he’s been the sole continuous member since the band’s inception nearly four decades ago), Langevin knows a thing or two about the fundamentals of being in an aggressive and extreme band. 

“You need to be very dedicated, and to the point where it’s almost crazy,” he points out. Voivod has achieved its legacy and global influence in spite of the lack of industry support for metal music in Canada. Though many sounds and styles that begin along the periphery are eventually subsumed into the industry proper, metal music—and extreme metal by extension—continues to confound, frighten, and evade that same fate. It’s clear in speaking to Langevin that it’s that same rebellious spirit still fuelling him today, one that connects him to a community of extreme-metal musicians and bands who persevere in a musical climate that wants nothing more than to look away.  

From the outset of their career in 1982, Voivoid never really fit in. Though technically in the family of hardcore punk-infused thrash-metal bands in the same vein as Guelph’s Razor and Ottawa’s Annihilator, they were (and are) defiantly weirder and more conceptual than their peers, drawing on progressive rock and science fiction to form a sound that is truly transgressive. 

That unique sound took shape on albums such as 1988’s Dimension Hatröss and its 1989 follow-up Nothingface, and has been cited as an inspiration by countless bands around the world, including Converge, Meshuggah, and Gojira. As an artist, Langevin has helped pioneer the visual style and language of extreme metal through the post-apocalyptic graphic design work he has done for the band, as well as other acts such as Dave Grohl and Toxic Holocaust. Over four decades, Voivod have been a defining influence on the experimental substrates of metal and punk, but their mercurial, experimental nature also makes “extreme metal” incredibly hard to pin down. 

A sci-fi panorama in black and white, Metallic constructs stand outside a futuristic city as skull-like celestial bodies crash from the night's sky to the surface.
The sleeve art for Voivod’s latest album Synchro Anarchy. Art by: Michel Langevin.

The term applies to music that pushes the principles, attitudes, and sonic elements of heavy metal (thrash, doom), aggressive forms of punk (grindcore), and noise well beyond the boundaries of conventional songwriting and composition. That might take the form of tempos hitting blistering or glacial speeds, vocal performances that verge on indecipherable, or sheer walls of turbulent cacophony. This advancement is often accomplished through physically demanding performances both in the studio and live in front of an audience. Just as important to the essence of extreme metal, however, is the attitude that drives it. 

Raison d’être

Despite the influence of Canadian musicians on extreme metal, extreme forms of music have always maintained an uphill battle in this country. By contrast, Langevin notes that “Canadian metal is really highly regarded around the world as being some sort of technical, heavy music, really well-performed, and so we have this signature.” 

While it’s true that bands like Voivod have received accolades and awards more recently, like being longlisted for the 2019 Polaris Prize, and winning a Juno that same year for their album The Wake, these instances are rare exceptions. There’s still a significant gulf between the recent mainstream recognition a band like Voivod receives compared to the extreme metal scene at large. “I’m still amazed that The Wake won a Juno. It is just so amazing,” Langevin says, beaming. Though it’s Canada’s largest music award, the Junos only added a heavy-metal category in 2012. 

Despite these occasional brushes with the mainstream, a sense of apathy toward conventional pop stardom and success pervades the genre. “Why are we looking for acceptance from people that don’t necessarily care to give it to us?” Topon Das challenges. “Like, who fuckin’ cares? I think that’s probably what the genre is built off of. It’s just like, ‘We’re gonna do what we want to do.’ And if people like it, great. If people don’t like it, then all right, there’s other music for them to enjoy.” 

Das is the guitarist of the longstanding Ottawa grindcore band Fuck The Facts, which originally started as a solo lo-fi experimental metal project in the ’90s. They went on to become one of the most exceptional acts within extreme metal, with albums such as 2001’s Mullet Fever and 2008’s Disgorge Mexico showcasing a musical ambition that never abandons the crushing riffs that are expected of the genre.

Extreme metal as a style and philosophy aspires to make music that cannot be easily commodified. As Canadian metal musician and music journalist Sarah Kitteringham notes in her 2014 masters thesis, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses: The Treatment of Women in Black Metal, Death Metal, Doom Metal, and Grindcore, extreme metal is “not a commercially viable enterprise.” 

Kitteringham goes on to observe that “bands revered in the underground with several decade long careers often still work day jobs unless they are extremely fortunate; in this, extreme metal perpetuates an underground, nearly unknown aesthetic, and often revels in its own obscurity. Indeed, it is ‘extreme music for extreme people.'” 

“Just do what comes out. There’s no filter—that’s it,” Das says, explaining the ethos behind the experimental nature of his band, now well into its second decade. “The idea was to have a project where there wasn’t going to be any bounds.” 

Fuck The Facts have exemplified this attitude, from their abrasive band name that limits radio play, record visibility in big-box music stores, sponsorship opportunities, as well as their frequent inclusion of unothordox influences such as showtunes and rap music. There is a sense in their music of a creative freedom that can come from being unfettered by the trappings of commercial success—freedom to experiment without worrying about trends that may come and go, or the demands of an industry that does not always reward unorthodox thinking.  

This opportunity for rebelliousness also has implications for BIPOC involvement in the genre. As with all forms of music, especially those derived from rock, BIPOC have been instrumental in extreme music’s foundation. Two of the “big four” of Canadian thrash metal, Sacrifce and Annihilator, have been active since the emergence of the style, and include prominent non-white members. Other prominent examples from across Canada include bands such as Protest The Hero, Biipiigwan, Bison B.C, and Sarin, each of whom offers an example of the diversity of sound that can be found in extreme metal. That freedom affords the musicians the ability to assert their identities in their art in visceral and profound ways. 

”My inspiration is my mom, who is a tiny brown woman who has been working in white, male-dominated industries all her life,” says Thérèse Lanz, lead singer, guitarist, and album artist of Calgary doom-metal band Mares of Thrace, who have just returned from a nearly decade-long hiatus. 

“We’re both just filled with Satan. And if you tell us we’re not welcomed somewhere or there’s something we shouldn’t be doing, I’m gonna do it more—and harder, and I’m going to do it better than the people who are telling me I’m not welcome.” 

Coming out of Western Canada, a longstanding breeding ground for some of the country’s loudest bands like KEN mode (of whom Lanz was once a touring member), Mares Of Thrace have carved out a niche for themselves within Canadian doom metal with a forward thinking approach on albums such as 2010’s The Moulting and 2012’s The Pilgrimage, blending elements from various influences both inside and outside of extreme music along with a love of mythology. The 2022 release of their third album The Exile marks both a return to form and is their most dynamic album, so far. 

While the dedicated attitude fostered in extreme metal may seem ”over the top” to the casual observer, it’s directly responsible for the career longevity of the artists who gravitate to the style.

Lifers

The emphasis on freedom and rebellion can also extend to a rebellion against time itself. In contrast to other styles of music, physical age is less important than the mental or spiritual age of the people involved. An evergreen sensibility permeates the culture. 

It is not uncommon to see people wearing their band paraphernalia and going to shows well into their 50s and 60s, and for band members to keep performing with as much vigor as would be expected of musicians in their early 20s. 

“There’s definitely something that keeps us young in heavy metal, not to mention the fact that it’s very energetic music, so you need to keep in shape to be able to deliver,” Langevin says.

Indeed, during our conversation, it was easy to forget that he is nearing 60. The energy Langevin has and love of the extreme that he carries when he speaks is reminiscent of a teenager talking about his favourite band. 

“It was at the end of the ’90s—I saw Whitesnake in Montreal and I saw Tommy Aldridge doing double-kick drums for 90 minutes and I thought, ‘If I want to be that guy later, I better take care of myself,’” Langevin recalls.

The eternal youthful spirit is a fundamental quality of this kind of music that also extends into the relatively frequent comebacks that have occurred over the past decade, as in the case of Mares of Thrace. Unlike other genres that experience periods of stylistic nostalgia, extreme music rarely ever falls into such a conventional cycle. While there are periods when extreme music can bleed into the mainstream as seen in the commercialization of metalcore and screamo in the early-to mid-aughts, the underground always follows a much more resilient and enduring path. Following trends are not as important as creating music that is in effect timeless. 

This timelessness is a fundamental aspect of the style as musicians are free to do as they wish. Sonically an act from the ’80s can sound just as modern as an act from the 2010s with the only difference being the quality of the equipment used to record and produce. 

“Metal is definitely more forgiving of aging than being a pop singer,” Lanz says. “There definitely is a timelessness to it, and I hope that will always be the case.” 

This quality further adds to the universality of extreme music and the culture behind it as age no longer acts as a barrier for human understanding. Passion is necessary to keep performing and putting out music in the style. “I have a passion for music,” Das declares. “I don’t get sick of it.”

Community

It is through tight-knit support networks of passionate artists and fans that the music has been able to survive, evolve, and thrive despite the indifference it faces from the wider music industry and the average music consumer—those connectors can include everything from indie labels that release local music, to simple acts of camaraderie within the scene and bonds that can form from them. 

“This sense of community encapsulates a lot of what I think the heavy-metal scene was when we started doing shows,” Langevin says. “I realized that it was an escape for many people from being bullied at school or problems at home with their parents or having this feeling of not fitting in anywhere. And then you get to this show, and everybody’s sort of like-minded and friendly to each other.” 

Drawing on the DIY/DIT punk mentality of its roots, extreme metal scenes have existed and continue to exist based entirely on underground grassroots networks across the globe. 

“It was just this giant international community that was super-amazing,” Langevin says, reminiscing about his first experiences listening to, and later touring with, bands from different parts of the world. Whether trading cassettes and zines by mail and making phone calls or booking and promoting gigs through blogs, social media accounts, forums, and emails, a complex ecosystem has always existed to support each other within the scene.

The trading of cassettes, or “tape trading” as it is commonly known, has played a particularly vital role not only in the proliferation of extreme metal worldwide as a genre of music, but as a community that stretches across borders and even language barriers. Keith Kahn Harris’ definitive extreme-metal text, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, explains how the scene was built upon the global fanzine network established in the late 1970s by punks where there was little in the way of industry support or infrastructure. 

Fans would share their addresses in these zines, and as the scene grew, metal magazines also featured pen-pal advertisements that made it easier for fans to exchange letters and tapes of demos, live recordings and rehearsals. These trading networks existed well into the 1990s, with some coalescing into the established ‘distros’ that still support the scene today.

“I did a lot of tape trading back in the day,” Das says. “I worked at a Zellers for a bunch of years, and that’s where I would do all my photocopies of flyers and stuff.” 

It was through tape trading that many musicians like Das would find kindred spirits within the scene. “When we did our first European tour in 2009, I remember a few people coming out to see us that I had traded tapes with like a decade earlier,” he recalls. 

The common analogy that “no man is an island” does not fully encapsulate that full complexity of community in extreme metal. It is better to think of it more as if everyone is an island unto themselves in a sea of other islands sharing the same water and the same resources. 

“I’d like to think that the punk ethos of collectivism isn’t completely dead,” Lanz says. “I think that any community that exists on the margins tends to fare better if it sticks together and supports each other.” 

This blend of collectivism and individualism at the heart of extreme metal stands as a statement of defiance against the status quo, creating an ecosystem that is not defined by capitalistic forces and competition but by shared passion and camaraderie. 

“I think [the value of extreme metal] narrows down to being part of a collective,” Langevin says. “It’s always been known that the metal movement is a great community.”

Extreme metal offers so much more than a sonic palette designed for headbanging. For the people who perform and have a passion for it, it’s a form of expression, a rich worldwide community, a lifelong pursuit and fountain of youth. At the heart of those convictions is an aspirational spirit—one that models not seeking value, meaning or validation from an industry, but rather within art and connection to others first and foremost.

In This Great Future, You Can’t Forget Your Past

In This Great Future, You Can’t Forget Your Past: Reissues As Archive and Canon Corrective

By: Daniel G. Wilson | Art by: Tom Beedham

“For me, [making music] is a spiritual thing that was passed on to you,” Inuit folk rocker legend Willie Thrasher tells me during a conversation about the importance of musical reissues. The spirituality of music and the ways in which that spirit passes from person to person is integral to his long and storied career. Thrasher is one of Canada’s finest songwriters from a time when much of the modern musical canon of this country was still being shaped. Unfortunately his legacy has not had the easiest of roads.

Thrasher began his music career in the early ’60s by performing throughout the northern regions of Canada with all-Inuit rock ‘n’ roll group the Cordells, as well as other projects, before a transformative meeting with an elder inspired a change in direction. As a survivor of the residential school system, Thrasher and his bandmates never delved into Inuit themes or styles with their music, but that shifted after he was encouraged to write and perform his own material. He would spend the ’70s and ’80s involved with the folk-rock music scene among a cohort of Indigenous songwriters (e.g. Sugluk, Morley Loon) whose music explored themes and topics pertaining to the history, culture, and current plight of Inuit and First Nations people in Canada. 

Relocating to Ottawa in the ’70s, Thrasher was commissioned by the CBC to write and record his Spirit Child in 1981, and counts it as a career highlight alongside participating in the Odeyak Expedition in 1990. “Greyhound with my dog team,” he says fondly remembering his time traveling across North America in a nomadic fashion during this period. However, much of his early output would remain out of print, and his contributions to the Canadian canon were overlooked until the 2010s when three of his songs were included on Light in the Attic’s compilation Native North America, Vol. 1.

Reissues have existed since the earliest days of recorded music as both a commercial and archival venture. Ranging from artist retrospectives to multi-artist collections based around a genre, theme, or era, these compilations can be a way for lesser-known artists to reach new listeners and for music that was once thought lost or was underappreciated in its time to find new life. A reissue is also an opportunity to release music in a newer format that’s most readily available to the music-buying public, as was the case with the surge of CD reissues that kicked off in the ’80s. And in many cases, reissues allow artists to garner the attention that they were once denied.

“[Reissues] offer subsequent generations a chance to share things, understand things. Find out that they really liked something or perhaps don’t, but it opens doors, if you will,” says York University professor Rob Bowman over Zoom. “It opens doors through which people can begin to explore different kinds of music artists they didn’t know about.” This aspect of reissues helps to keep the context and arc of musical history in the listener’s mind. Bowman is an ethnomusicologist and writer, who has decades of experience with artist releases and reissues. He has won several Grammys for his work researching and writing liner notes for releases such as, Numero Group’s Jackie Shane retrospective, Any Other Way, composer John Oswald’s Grayfolded, and compilations like The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972–1975.

As a form of preservation, reissues keep music that may have been lost in circulation in contemporary formats that are easier to access and store. The renewed interest that reissues can bring to an artist can inspire efforts to further preserve the original sources and recordings of the music that the music industry at large may not have put much care into preserving in the beginning. This can prove important in the face of sometimes poor storage conditions for musical master tapes and original sources as evidenced by the 2008 Universal studio fire which destroyed the original recordings of countless musicians. In cases like these, surviving reissues can be the means for future generations to listen to artists whose music would have otherwise been collected and entombed in a vault that no longer exists

For artists from the global south and racialized artists living within western countries, reissues can often allow them to gain a level of visibility that they were denied earlier in their careers. It is an all too common story for an artist’s career to be sidelined due to the cultural biases of their time. The all-Black Detroit proto-punk band Death was largely unknown to the general public for decades until they were rediscovered in 2009s and had their debut album, …For the Whole World to See, reissued. During their original run in the ’70s, the band faced numerous difficulties due to their name and the fact that they were an all-Black band playing a style of music that would not gain mainstream attention and recognition until long after they had already broken up 1977. The reissue not only brought much needed attention to their music and story but also added to the story and canon of punk rock, the Detroit sound, and the marginalization of Black people within burgeoning scenes of heavy music at the time. The band was able to reform with its surviving members and start touring internationally.  

Similarly, the Canadian artist Beverly Glenn-Copeland has also experienced a career resurgence due to the 2017 reissue and subsequent acclaim of his classic 1986 record Keyboard Fantasies. The album had remained something of a hidden gem for fans of the proto-electronica and downtempo sound that the album pioneered. The attention that the reissue brought Copeland allowed him to form a band and start touring earnestly. Most significantly, his late-career success attracted an entirely new audience to his work without the same barriers that he faced during the album’s original release as a Black and queer musician. Like Death, Copeland has spent this second wind on a number of successful tours across North America and Europe, has had a number of documentaries produced that focus on his life and work, and has been able to leverage the renewed attention into other artistic work.

Though Thrasher had an album commissioned by the CBC and toured the country, it took crate-digger and archivist Kevin “Sipreano” Howes’ own enthusiasm before his name achieved the wider recognition it has today. The 2014 release of Native North America Vol. One situated Thrasher’s work within a tapestry of Indigenous folk music that emerged across Turtle Island starting in the mid-’60s that was absent from the history books at the time. The compilation does more than just collect and juxtapose a number of songs, it contextualizes them with well-researched historical accounts of not only that moment, but the span of each of the artists’ own careers. In fact, the liner notes found in the more elaborate reissues are indispensable from the music itself, helping to further provide context and information on the artists being reissued, and acting as companion pieces to the music. Howes and Thrasher have partnered up once again on Indian​/​Inuit Country, a reissue of Thrasher’s 1994 cassette-only release of the same name. 

“The book covers a story about a native North. Better than anybody in history. It’s gone all over the world,” says Thrasher, discussing Native North America‘s liner notes. “I think this book is going to be part of Canadian history, part of Canadian life.” These releases act as both reissues of older music and also as guides that immerse the listener in a time and place of which they may not have been aware. For artists like Thrasher, whose work is deeply influenced by the stories and oral traditions of his culture, the significance of being able to share his songs and the stories behind them should not be understated or ignored. Doing so helps to keep the collective memory of the culture that these stories came from alive and well into the future. “I heard the stories from the elders of Inuvik […] and I try my best to write music of our culture,” he reminisces. “We have to accept what’s here today. We have to accept and go on this journey and be as strong as you can within your heart. But always remember where you came from.”

It must be noted that the majority of reissues are made by labels owned and operated by people in Western Europe and anglophone North America. There are many factors behind this, but the most pressing problem is lack of resources and funding. “Most of it is anglophone-dominated work,” says Bowman. “We have a world based on inequality unfortunately, and that plays out everywhere, including in music.” This economic reality highlights broader questions about the disparity between the global north and south areas of the world under a capitalistic meta culture and the global music industry. Though reissues help draw attention to overlooked artists they also exist within the same structures and dynamics of the music industry that exclude racialized artists from those opportunities in the first place. 

An interesting contrast to this is the reissue culture of Jamaican music that is led by Jamaicans living in Jamaica and the diaspora. Culturally, Jamaica is one of the first places to embrace remix culture or “Dub” which describes both a genre and the  act of dubbing over old records. The continual revival and reinvention of older sounds and songs as riddims is a musical tradition that permeates the present, is a technique not unlike reissuing. Sampling, which is informed by Jamaican soundsystem culture, is also rooted in this same practice. As an extension of this practice, Jamaican communities in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. have maintained a thriving industry of importing and re-releasing music from the island to foreign markets since the late ’60s. The Randy-Chin-founded label VP Records grew from its early days as a record store in Kingston, Jamaica to one of the largest Jamaican music focused labels in the United States. The continued work of UK Based Trojan Records in reissuing old school reggae into the present day must also be noted. 

Toronto has served as one of the largest reggae-producing cities in the world and stands as the home of  labels such as the historic Scorpio Records/Monica’s Production and Summer Records. “Jamaica is such a unique place because it’s such an extraordinarily vibrant recording scene and there’s been so much emigration from Jamaica to New York and Toronto in London,” says Bowman. “So Jamaica, the exporting of Jamaican music, and the reissue of Jamaican music where Jamaicans often were involved has been incredible. I don’t see a similar pattern that I know of anywhere else.” The fact that so many of these labels are founded by and led by Jamaicans and Jamaican-descended people, in contrast to the majority of not only reissue-focused labels but also the music industry of the global north as a whole, cannot be ignored. 

This model demonstrates a blueprint for people from the global south and racialized communities to shape the arc of their own legacies in the broader world. We can’t always rely on the artists who were lucky enough to have been found to do so. Sometimes in our communities there are artists that only we know about. It’s great that curators, crate diggers, and passionate labels are doing the archival work that they’re doing. It’s necessary, but it would be beautiful and crucial if people from the communities closest to the music and cultures involved were doing it for themselves. 

Reissues are an important part of musical history and an essential part of musical preservation. They can be more than just a way for popular artists to re-sell their old hits and major labels to profit off nostalgia. They can be a way for musical traditions to survive into the modern day in the face of cultural amnesia, a way of preserving the stories and histories of people through songs so that future generations can know them. For people from oppressed communities especially, reissues can inspire them and remind them of a history that was once thought lost. In an ever-changing world that has actively tried to erase them, it is important that these stories, songs, and traditions are preserved in some fashion and made accessible to the wider population. As Jamaican activist and Pan-African thinker Marcus Garvey perfectly summarizes, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Karloff – Karloff

Karloff
Karloff
No Funeral Records
Cambridge, ON
RIYL: Yaphet Kotto; City of Caterpillar; Orchid

The Canadian Screamo scene has produced some of the most dynamic and boundary pushing bands in heavy music like ’90s legends Union of Uranus, ’00s breakthrough act Alexisonfire, and new ’10s stalwarts like Respire and Terry Green. On their self-titled debut, Brampton’s Karloff have managed to fully embrace the traditions of the genre while also adding a unique flair to its canon.

Each song on the album showcases a dynamic sonic palette that can shift from chaotic and atonal to serene and understated at the drop of a hat without losing a sense of coherence, starting with the opening track “untitled” which blends a contorted sample of a trailer announcing the name of the band’s namesake, legendary actor and horror icon Boris Karloff, with a glitchy dirge of noise and riffs that sends the listener through the looking glass. Pristine arpeggios and chainsaw riffs sync up with jazzcore drumming to propel each song forward while melodic basslines dance through each track with surgical precision. The vocals sit on top of each track acting as both paintbrush and colour palette elastically bending and shifting to the demands of the music, moving from the aggressive shrieks and growls of songs like “Abre Los Ojos” to the raspy wails of songs like “Ocean or Other.”

A darkly cinematic atmosphere can be felt throughout the project. In a similar fashion to the classic horror films that starred the band’s namesake, Boris Karloff, the album pulls the listener into the internal struggles of the soul with the monster inside.

– Daniel G Wilson

On the Gentrification of Cannabis Culture

On The Gentrification of Cannabis Culture

By: Daniel G. Wilson | Photo by: Aphiwat Chuangchoem via Pexels

It always surprises people when I tell them that I don’t smoke weed. I’m a rock musician, Jamaican, Black, and I have a personality that some have said comes off as “high” sometimes. I check all of the boxes, and that provides me with a unique perspective about cannabis culture. Because as much as I don’t partake, I still experience a lot of the stigmatization and assumptions that have arisen out of the prohibition of cannabis, and I still have a reverence for the medicinal and religious ways in which cannabis is used, something that I see is becoming gentrified as the Canadian cannabis industry emerges. 

Since legalization, the culture around marijuana or cannabis usage has become co-opted in a fashion that is unfortunately all too familiar to marginalized communities. As with various forms of “ethnic” or generally non-European cuisine, hairstyles, fashion, and forms of speech, the industry that has formed around the consumption of marijuana and related-products strips it from its original religious and medicinal contexts, a process that is driven by the very same groups who once persecuted its use. 

Long gone are the days of films like Reefer Madness where the plant was presented as a type of boogeyman that threatened the stability of a polite and predominantly white society or the days when classic rock acts such as the Band or Jimi Hendrix would get arrested at airports for possession. Cannabis has been growing steadily in popular acceptance and now is treated as an almost miracle plant. In a recent moment of weakness, rocker Bif Naked went so far as to make wildly untrue claims that the CBD products she markets through her company Mona Lisa Healing “help your body defend against COVID-19 Coronavirus.” 

This shift in the public perception of weed is ever more apparent here in Canada as the plant has been legal, with various caveats and some restrictions since 2018, when we became the second country in the world to fully legalize recreational use of it. Unfortunately, this acceptance does not always appear to respect or properly acknowledge the roots of that culture, the work put in by BIPOC activists to push for the decriminalisation of the plant as well as the expunging of records for those still incarcerated on cannabis-related drug charges, or even involve these communities in the development of these new products.

It is not hard to find a lifestyle publication, a social media influencer, or major corporation cashing in on cannabis culture in some shape or form. This commodification is often at the expense of the BIPOC folks who not only birthed cannabis culture but who were also demonized for it by the legal system. The modern image of the highbrow weed dispensary or marijuana paraphernalia company that celebrities lend their names to or promote on social media stands in large contrast to the old image of marijuana as an illegal substance that was associated with only the lowliest of people in society. 

Despite this disconnect between the industry and culture, the cannabis industry has a purposeful and unspoken reliance upon music as a way to feign cultural legitimacy. Before legalization had even been finalized, companies like Aurora were sponsoring music festivals and events, though The Cannabis Act quickly put an end to that. Then, unable to outright endorse products thanks to the same legislation, musicians like The Tragically Hip and Drake began partnering with companies like Up and Canopy. The Hip’s strains were intended to be medical in use, though that partnership ended when parent company Newstrike was sold to HEXO. Drake’s More Life Growth Co. was to be centred around “wellness” but now that partnership is also up in the air with Canopy’s CEO David Klein telling BNNBloomberg in August that “when I looked at the IP that Canopy has on its plate, I will admit that More Life was pretty far down the list of things to get to.” 

Drake’s brand being a low priority doesn’t come as a shock in an industry where the largest companies like Canopy Growth, Cronos Group, Aurora, Tilray and HEXO are all owned and operated by predominantly white executives and management. The makeup of these boards offers a glaring dissonance from the people who are still currently incarcerated for possession, trafficking and production charges, which in 2017, made up some 53% of all drug-related arrests in the country. Though companies like Aurora and HEXO have put money toward programs for cannabis amnesty, the expunging of criminal records is not enough if the laws are still unfairly stacked against particular groups.

While many people and organizations over the decades have worked to both decriminalize marijuana and to remove its negative connotations, it seems the most startling difference between the image of the cannabis user in the public mind today is the shift from its association with often poor Black and brown people to more economically privileged white people while also becoming more socially acceptable. In contrast to the more corporatized partnerships, many in the music community work at a grassroots level to foster acceptance of the plant that’s inclusive of and acknowledges the deeper history of its use. In the Greater Toronto area cannabis paraphernalia store Culture Rising was started by punk musicians in 2006. Others such as Damian Abrham of Fucked Up and Witch Prophet  have acted as advocates of sorts for cannabis’ destigmatization by describing the positive experiences they have had with the plant. 

Though the use of cannabis for health and “wellness” reasons may appear to be a modern trend, the use of the plant for medicinal and recreational purposes has an old and complicated history. Different cultures throughout the world use marijuana and related plants for a variety of practical, medicinal, and spiritual purposes and have for thousands of years. In ancient China, the plant was used for its anesthetic qualities while the related hemp plant was often used as raw material for every item such as clothing or rope throughout in numerous countries such as in the Americas. In Jamaica, marijuana, also known as “ganja,” has been used as a type of medicine for everything from stomach aches to the common cold since the plant was introduced to the island in the 1800s by East Indian labourers. Many adherents of the Rastafarian faith would also recreationally smoke marijuana as part of their religious practice. This would extend into musical expressions as one of the biggest links between cannabis culture and music is reggae. Reggae as a musical genre has its origins in the integration of Rastafarian philosophy and musical elements such as Nyahbinghi drumming with other forms of Jamaican music such as ska and rocksteady. Some of the most prominent reggae artists around the world have been adherents of the Rastafarian faith or have been directly influenced by its ideals.

Who is benefiting and who is punished through this industry today belongs to a long history of the way in which settlers have shaped and defined what is or is not acceptable. In the 19th and 20th centuries psychoactive substances that had roots in Indigenous cultures and religions were specifically targeted by governments in both the United States and Canada. A report by the 2002 Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs In Canada details that: “the strictest controls were placed on organic substances – the coca bush, the poppy and the cannabis plant – which are often part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where these plants originate, whereas the North’s cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic substances produced by the North’s pharmaceutical industry were subject to regulation rather than prohibition.” Thus beginning the rise of drug policy as a form of social control, policies that still inform drug policy and legislation today.  

For decades in the United States and Canada, cannabis prohibition was used as an excuse to demonize, harass, and incarcerate countless BIPOC individuals. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples have been particularly targeted at higher rates than other groups despite comparable statistical usage. And despite the work of advocates and the acceptance of cannabis culture, numerous individuals remain incarcerated on cannabis related drug offences such as possession. Processes to give people pardons under the new system have been unfortunately slow. In September 2019 only 44 people were noted as having been pardoned for minor possession related charges and in August of 2020 that number increased to 257 with thousands more left waiting in a bureaucratic backlog.

Even with recreational use legalized, the establishing of a formal industry and regulations means there are plenty of ways for Canadians to still get busted for pot, which coupled with the fact the rates of arrest for Black folks is disproportionately higher in this country, the enforcement around these new laws still single out one group while privileging another. This shows that there is much more left to be done in terms of the public discourse around cannabis culture, but it seems to have taken a side-step to the industry itself. 

Reggae artists have been some of the most vocal opponents of these injustices and proponents for the decriminalization of the plant globally. Numerous reggae songs were written both about the health and spiritual aspects of the plant as well as in protest of its criminalization during the ’70s by artists such as Peter Tosh in his song “Legalize It” and Inner Circle in their song “Healing of the Nation.” This extended to musical groups in the diaspora as seen in the song “Arrested” by Jamaican-Canadian reggae band Messenjah in 1982. This song’s lyrical content speaks to the context of the unequal ways in which cannabis is policed in Canada and how Black folks in particular are often singled out by these laws and those who enforce them. 

The song goes into detail describing an incident where a person is profiled and arrested for possession. The second verse of the song narrates the incident in question with lyrics, “I was a-sitting in the back of a police car, oh yeah,” painting an all too familiar picture to many BIPOC Canadians placed in custody for possession or suspicion of possession. The closing statement in Jamaican Patois, “Don’t u badda babylon, babylon cyan badda u,” (translation in English, “don’t bother the police and the police can’t bother you” ), acts as a haunting message to be mindful of police presence so as to avoid a similar fate. The image of the Black “drug dealer” who would corrupt the youth and destroy the fabric of society still permeates our culture today. Many Black musicians, including myself, have had experiences being mistaken for dealers when moving through white spaces and facing increased scrutiny that our peers would not be subject to.

With very few of the entities profiting from the plant’s growing acceptance acknowledging its history or making space for BIPOC folks in positions of leadership that are more substantive than mascot or corporate spokesperson, it is clear that the cannabis industry has moved away from the plant’s roots in BIPOC religious and medicinal practices. Framing cannabis consumption within the amorphous concept of “wellness” is a part of a campaign to legitimize the drug in a way that obscures and distances the actual medicinal and cultural practices of folks like Rastafarians, and the many Indigenous people who have built entire customs around it, after hundreds of years of demonizing those same practices and forms of knowledge. The cannabis corporations who are profiting from the change in legislation need to put more work into not only engaging with the original communities in which the plant was first used but to advocate for the release of those still incarcerated. 

The Changing Face of CanRock

The changing face of CanRock

How BIPOC bands like the OBGMS, Cutsleeve, and Zoon are leading the charge

By Daniel G. Wilson | Photos by Vanessa Heins / Beee / Louise Allyn Palma

For decades the Canadian rock musical sphere has been dominated on all fronts by a mostly white establishment. This is not to say that BIPOC musicians have not been involved in the genre’s history. Indeed, in that same amount of time, in every facet of CanRock’s history, there have been non-white musicians both on stage and behind the scenes helping to make this particular subset of our national music scene the grand (and frankly messy) experience it is. Unfortunately, the contributions of those individuals have far too often been ignored or forgotten.

Representation in music has always been important to me. I am a first generation Afro-Jamaican Canadian, and much of the music I make is influenced by my heritage. Even my band JONCRO’s name is taken from the Jamaican patois word for vulture. I hoped that other Jamaicans would hear about my band and feel welcomed into the punk sphere, and that a proudly Jamaican fronted band could rock out without question. To this end I started Festival Lingua Franca as a way to foster better representation of other BIPOC in rock and punk, and to build a greater sense of community for us in the Canadian music landscape.

That landscape and the industry that supports it has not been the most welcoming place to those who do not fit into certain boxes. A prime example is the historic lack of respect that has been given to Canadian hip-hop since the 1990s. While I am too young to remember, growing up with the story of how The Rascalz refused a JUNO due to the rap award not being televised would prove formative in my opinions of how BIPOCs were treated by the music industry in this country. It showed me how the music we create is not viewed with the same respect as our white peers. It helped prepare me for the unfortunate realities of being a non-white musician long before I ever picked up a guitar.

Returning to the rock sphere, I can name only a handful of popular bands that I grew up hearing on the radio and seeing on TV that had racially diverse line ups. These include Billy Talent, Sum 41, and Metric, but I can only count one or two who had a non-white front person, such as LiveonRelease, led by Métis singer Colette Trudeau. I never saw bands with visible members who reflected my background or looked like me. I never knew Black people or Jamaicans played rock music in Canada. Indeed, most of my CanRock heroes were white. 

Again, this is something that I think most BIPOC Canadians who are into rock, punk, or alternative music can relate to. This is not an indictment of those bands, many of whom I still love and listen to regularly, but it is an observation and an acknowledgement of an unfortunate truth. Not seeing yourself represented in any space, especially artistic spaces, can impact your view of them. It’s a sign that you may not belong, that your identity is somehow incompatible. It is a debilitating feeling that can prevent marginalized people from feeling welcome or safe. And as a result, it can lead us to turn away from that space entirely.

I had lost faith in the CanRock mainstream until two things occurred that shocked me and signified potential change. The Canadian rapper K-OS appeared on my TV one day in late 2012, wielding a guitar and performing his rock song “The Dog Is Mine.” It was the first time I had seen an Afro-Caribbean Canadian artist playing a rock song on MuchMusic (a throwback to when they still played music), and I was in shock. I became obsessed with the video.   

The second event was the phenomenal and surprising rise of Arcade Fire in the early 2000s. It makes sense that they were one of the bands that firmly inspired my love of alternative and “indie” music, whatever that term means in 2020, that has continued to this day. I had never listened to a Canadian rock band with a Caribbean singer before, who sang about their cultural background and the stories that come with it. Hearing Régine Chassagne sing songs proudly honouring her Haitian background was a different experience to another band singing about how much they hate their homework or some nebulous description of living downtown. 

These were the same stories I heard growing up among the Caribbean community. These were stories that spoke to an experience with which I was all too familiar. And to see a band like that gain prominence in the whitewashed landscape that is Canadian rock music was inspiring to my young mind. 

After this, I started to look beyond the white space that was in front of me and did my own digging into the CanRock canon. I made it my mission to find more artists who were telling different and diverse stories or came from different backgrounds. I found many bands that were racially diverse, BIPOC fronted, or composed entirely of non-white members during this time, who had not received much attention: Inuit-led bands such as Northern Haze, First-Nations-led bands such as Breach of Trust, Black-led bands like Weaves, the classic Canadian punk band SNFU fronted by the late Chi Pig, the genre-defying sounds of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, and the experimental, satirical rock of the Vulcan Dub Squad

I questioned why these bands did not get played on radio or TV as much as other bands. I questioned why these bands were not spoken of in the same ways as the Tragically Hip or Bachman Turner Overdrive. I questioned these things even though as a BIPOC I knew what the answer was.

Slowly things have started to change. As the old guard of Canadian rock has started to fall away, a new group of musicians is rising up to take their mantle. This was the case when ’70s hard-rock bands replaced the original rock and rollers, when the ’80s hardcore punk scene replaced the ’70s punk scene, and in the ’90s when indie-rock ruled the airwaves. 

The most noticeable aspect of this particular changing of the guard is where it stems from. Many of the emerging BIPOC artists I would like to highlight have been heavily involved in DIY punk scenes and shaped by their principles. These communities have typically been more open to new ideas and alternative voices, whereas the traditional pathways of the mainstream music industry have often been blocked, in favour of maintaining the status quo.

There is a growing cohort of BIPOC musicians and bands who are not afraid to proudly wear their backgrounds on their sleeves and sing about their histories, many of whom happen to be based in the Toronto area. Examples of these bands are Cutsleeve, who draw inspiration from their collective East Asian cultural background and heritage to paint expansive soundscapes; the Afro-Jamaican fronted OBGMS, who expand the sonic palette of garage-rock and the notions of what defines punk; Zoon, who channels his Ojibwe heritage into music that breathes new life into shoegaze; and the Latinx sister duo Lolaa, who proudly bring the sounds of classic Latin American pop music to the Canadian indie landscape. 

Each of these bands are actively challenging the conventions and orthodoxies that have held sway over Canadian rock music since the beginning, and that has also kept BIPOC artists from reaching the same heights as their white Canadian peers. In a similar way to how the ’90s Halifax indie-rock explosion led by bands like Sloan, Eric’s Trip, and Thrush Hermit managed to bring much-needed attention to the rock culture of the Canadian East Coast, these bands and many who are following their lead are bringing attention to another ignored side of Canadian music. Indeed, these artists are helping to usher in a new era where young BIPOCs will not be starved for representation.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Danko Jones is a Black-led band.