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.