The new Canada Black Music Archives, draws interest from America and beyond


by Donald James, For The Michigan Chronicle

America and the world know that Canada has produced many Black music stars, such as Drake, Oscar Peterson, The Weekend, Deborah Cox, Melanie Fiona, Tamia, Vanity, Cree Summer, Glenn Lewis, and more. However, long before the talented artists ever recorded music or performed on world stages, Canada had already established deep Black roots representing many genres of music dating back to at least the early 1700s.

In a cutting-edge and concerted process to research, document, preserve, and celebrate the music of Black artists north of the U.S. border, the Canada Black Music Archives (CBMA) was officially launched in late 2023. The Toronto-based non-profit’s mission is to fill crucial gaps in Canada’s historical music narratives by providing a broad digital platform spotlighting the voluminous contributions, stories, accomplishments, milestones, and legacies of Black artists in Canada.

While superstar recording artists like Drake, The Weekend, and a segment of others have garnered tremendous exposure, there are perhaps thousands of talented Black Canadian artists – past and present – who have received lesser exposure, with some recording or performing in obscurity.

“Their stories and contributions are often not told or documented by the mainstream narrative in Canada,” said Phil Vassell, CBMA’s executive director, who spearheads the relatively new project with his wife, Donna McCurvin.  “And because most artists in Canada were not signed to major record labels and didn’t have the support to go big, they have been underappreciated, underrepresented, and sometimes their contributions to music in this country have been erased.”

According to Jamaica-born Vassell, who has lived in Toronto since the mid-1970s, the Archives will be an ongoing collection of songs, music, recordings, photographs, biographies, interviews, historical documents, and other images associated with the significant number of Black artists who are – or will – be a part of CBMA.

Vassell told the Michigan Chronicle that CBMA also wants to include more than just the artists who sing, record, and play instruments, adding that the digital archive platform has set its sights on researching, identifying, documenting, and celebrating the Black songwriters, arrangers, producers, music venues, and DJs, all of which have played fundamental roles in elevating Canada’s music ecosystem.

CBMA has currently chronicled approximately 120 Black music contributors in its first few months of operation. However, CBMA’s team, said Vassell, has hundreds of more names to take through the process of researching and vetting for inclusion in the Archives.

“We want the widest reach possible and not just for a Canadian audience,” Vassell said. “We want to go international, which means reaching the United States, the Caribbean, and the entire African Diaspora. What we have found out so far since the launch of CBMA is that ten percent of our audience is from the U.S.A. We think that is just the start.”

As CBMA evolves, the organization is contemplating ways to include the impact of Black music in Canada based on Black music and artists in other countries, especially the United States.

Black America’s interest in Canada’s Black music is understandable. After all, thousands of enslaved Black people between 1800 and 1865 escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, and with them came their songs, music, musicianship, and rhythms.

Detroit, separated from Canada by the mile-wide Detroit River, has perhaps a closer relationship and influence on Black music in Canada than most U.S. cities since it was the last stop on the Underground Railroad, which is believed to have been responsible for more than 30,000 enslaved Africans to cross the Detroit River into Windsor, Canada and go to all points west, east, and north.

Fast forward to the 1960s, Detroit-based Motown Records signed two singing groups from Canada:  Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers out of Vancouver, Canada, and The Mynah Birds (from Toronto), featuring teenager Rick James, who was living in Canada’s biggest city.   There are countless other stories about Black artists from Detroit going to Canada to perform and record, including saxophonist Demetrius (Demo) Cates, a 1966 graduate of Detroit’s Pershing High School.

Cates played with The Fabulous Counts – later the Counts – in Detroit. When the soul/funk group recorded an album in Toronto in the early 1970s, legend has it that Cates loved the Canadian city and its growing soul/funk scene so much that he remained there. He has been a major influence and contributor to Toronto’s soul/funk/jazz music and bands’ foundation and evolution for over 50 years.

In addition to Detroit and other American cities, Black music in Canada has been substantially influenced by the influx of Black singers and musicians from Caribbean countries, Africa, and  European countries such as the United Kingdom.

“We are all connected,” said McCurvin, CBMA’s managing director. “Yes, there are borders that have separated us, but we are connected, and we are the same people coming from the same place way back when.”

CBMA also wants to develop a greater learning and educational component that would include elementary schools, colleges, and universities across Canada. The University of Toronto and York University have already made CBMA available to their students.

“When we designed and created this project, it wasn’t just for the archives side, although the archives side is very important,” said McCurvin, who was born in the United Kingdom but has lived in Toronto for more than 45 years.   “However, a big part of this project was to create learning opportunities for young people to know the history of Black music in Canada.”

Vassell and McCurvin are no strangers to chronicling Black music in Canada. The power couple founded and published Word magazine in the early 1990s. Word was one of Canada’s first Black arts and cultural magazines. Vassell and McCurvin are also the founders and executive producers of two of Canada’s most prominent music festivals celebrating Canadian-Caribbean and African Diasporic music:  The Toronto Urban Music Festival and The Irie Music Festival.

Vassell and McCurvin are now laser-focused on building out and promoting Canada Black Music Archives in 2024 and beyond. So far, the project has been a success.

“The CBMA stands as a testament to resilience, creativity, and cultural richness, amplifying the voices of Black musicians and redressing historical underrepresentation,” said Vassell. “Before the CBMA, there was no place where all these stories were collected and housed. We’re  changing that!”

For more information about the Canada Black Music Archives, visit

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