Ebonnie Rowe, executive dir. of PhemPhat Entertainment Group, producers of Honey Jam.
While Ebonnie Rowe has a very impressive mind, its quality is not in a conventional mold.
A self-described “Boss Bitch”—though one with a twinkle in her eyes, and a radiant smile–Rowe speaks with persistent precision.
Her poise is fruit of a long struggle for personal identity. And her realism is derived from her experience as a black woman of Barbadian origin born in Montreal–working in traditionally male domains, and of being someone different from the patterns expected of her.
At the heart of Rowe’s belief is that she rejects the assumption that the leaders in the music industry should only be men with women either excluded or driven down to the bottom rungs of the entertainment ladder.
Her PhemPhat Entertainment Group is a one-woman-run, non-profit company that supports emerging female artists by providing them with promotional, educational, mentoring, performance, and networking opportunities.
For the past 25 years, PhemPhat Entertainment Group has hosted sessions, events, an annual summit, and the annual concert Honey Jam in order to inspire, educate, and connect women; providing them with access to its network to help them build a talent pipeline.
Among the mentors involved have been such female musical heavyweights as Erykah Badu, Estelle, Janelle Monae, Jessie Reyez, Marsha Ambrosius, Elle Varner, and Destiny’s Child’s LeToya Luckett.
In 1995, Rowe was working as a legal secretary (15 years all in), and running a mentoring program called Each One, Teach One for young black youth. Some of the females in the program had told her that their brothers were listening to the misogynist lyrics of gangsta rap, and using the B and H words around them.
Rowe talked about the issue on DJ X’s popular three-hour hip-hop show “The Power Move Show” on Toronto community radio station CKLN-FM. Afterward, she was tapped to guest-edit an all-female edition of Mic Check magazine.
Rowe threw a wrap party afterward, and some of the hip-hop women artists featured came out to perform. She called the one-off party event Honey Jam.
After friends lobbied her for a follow-up Honey Jam, Rowe launched PhemPhat Entertainment, and Honey Jam has since grown to become a much-anticipated annual multicultural showcase of upcoming artists. The event, which originally focused on women in hip-hop, now also includes pop, jazz, R&B, country, dancehall, rock, and even opera.
Among the female artists treading the Honey Jam stage have been Nelly Furtado, Jully Black, Melanie Fiona, Haviah Mighty, Jordan Alexander, Anjulie, Melanie Durrant, Kellylee Evans, LU KALA, Kyla Charter, Reeny Smith, Saveria, Augusta Ray, and Angelique Francis to name but a few.
Also a performer was film director Stella Meghie, who is now directing the upcoming Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (with British actress Naomi Ackie portraying Houston) due for release in 2022.
Rowe launched Honey Jam Barbados in 2011, and the Honey Jazz Barbados Festival in 2016.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 25th anniversary of PhemPhat Entertainment Group/Honey Jam was modified in 2020, though a songwriting camp happened and online artist talks continued, as did a highly successful livestreamed Honey Jam from the El Mocambo club.
Where are you this year with Honey Jam?
So I have been watching and waiting. I am still shell-shocked. I cannot believe that a year later that we are still in this position. I don’t want to be part of the clutter in the virtual space.
You don’t want to do another Honey Jam livestreaming show from the El Mocambo as you did last year for its 25th anniversary?
The El Mocambo show (Oct.1st 2020) was fun because we were all there together. It wasn’t like beaming in from your badly lit living room with your cat crawling across your face, right? That I was not going to do. And we were able to have 25 people there. So we still had applause. We were in our own world. We were together. So it was still wonderful. It was extremely well-produced. The lighting was spectacular. So yeah, it was an amazing show. I wasn’t going to have something where people would say, “Oh God, look at what they had to settle for.” It actually exceeded everyone’s expectations. So that I was fine with.
I am hoping we don’t have to do that this year, however. My God, we have the vaccine. The only thing that I can see is if the variants (of virus strains) start doing something really wild; that we are not getting it (the vaccine) out there. That we are at the mercy of (Ontario Premier Doug) Ford), and (Toronto Mayor John) Tory, and the virus.
You have set your sights on Honey Jam happening in October or November?
I am waiting to see. It’s a summer show. It’s a summer vibe. Last year was the first time that we had it differently. Nobody would describe me as, “Ebonnie is really chillin’ and flexible.” Like nobody would say that. I am such a control freak that to realize the idea of having my summer show move, and all of the changes — it was so hard for me.
It is looking increasingly doubtful you will have Honey Jam this summer.
That’s what you are telling me? I don’t know. Maybe, we will do it in Australia (laughing). Anything is possible. And why don’t they make some real cool hazmat suits (hazardous materials suits) for everybody? I think this is crazy. Why can’t we wear deadmau5-like head gear? I think that people are just allowing themselves to be defeated. Maybe, it’s the money. I just don’t see why we are doing this when we put a man on the moon.
Within clubs, there are a lot of touchpoints to come in contact with the COVID-19 virus.
So wear gloves and a full hazmat suit. Seriously, like do them in different colors. There’s a band (the Flaming Lips) that has their audience in bubbles. We can do that. This is just crazy.
(Last October, the Flaming Lips put on a private concert where the audience was bubbled-up, recording the footage for a music video. In January 2021, the band played two public gigs at The Criterion in their native Oklahoma City to 100 bubbles. Usually, the venue holds around 4,000 people, but with the bubbles, and COVID restrictions, attendance was limited to around 300 people. Each bubble, containing up to three people, featured speakers, water bottles, a fan, a towel, and a sign, used to signal staff when an audience member needed to use the washroom, or if the enclosed bubble became too hot.)
I was among the few first warning that COVID-19 would not be over in a few months or even a year. From the start, I was saying there would not be live shows in 2020 but, maybe, in mid-2021. Most likely we will not be back to full shows until 2022.
I was getting mad at people like you.
Break down your career activities starting with Each One, Teach One, the mentoring program for black youth, and being head of PhemPhat Entertainment Group, producer of Honey Jam as well as artist showcases, and workshops.
Each One, Teach One, I ran for about 10 years, from the beginning of 1990 until around 1999. That does not exist anymore. For a while, I was working full-time at a law firm (as a legal secretary), and doing Each One, Teach One, and doing Honey Jam before the internet.
Meaning you were getting up at 6 A.M. to cover off all of your work.
More like 5 A.M. I was just a zealot. I had had a friend who had died suddenly and I was just freaking out that I had to hurry up. Because you could just be here today and gone today.
You had dropped out of university after your friend had committed suicide. You had been studying English literature at the University of Toronto. Studying English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer from the Middle Ages while suffering such a devastating loss. Determined to have a constructive influence on the lives of others, you left university to launch the mentorship program Each One Teach One with 250 or 300 young people signing up.
Your friend’s sudden death made you realize the shortness of life?
Exactly. It (university) seemed so irrelevant. So I was extremely driven, and if you were a friend of mine, you had to come onboard or you would never see me. You either had to be part of Each One, Teach One, or come to the meetings or help out and volunteer with Honey Jam. That was the only way that you were going to see me because that was how I set my time 24/7.
PhemPhat Entertainment Group is the umbrella company that produces Honey Jam?
Currently, I am doing the Honey Jam artist development program full time in Canada. And that is a year-long enterprise. Last year was our 25th anniversary. PhemPhat Entertainment Group also produces an artist development program.
What staff do you work with?
I am mostly a one-woman army, chief cook, and bottle washer. Depending on what funding that we have from year-to-year determines what kind of team that I can have to then assist with different things. I can’t have help be more work than help. I want someone that I am not giving them something to do that I have to hold their hand, and they are asking 10 million questions, and they are only going to be around for two months. I want to give them something where I don’t want to do that. Like, “Drop fliers to these 10 places,” or “Contact the artists and see what their stage needs are.”
Closer to the Honey Jam night do you bring in more staff?
Well, we use the staff at the venue in terms of stagehands, and whoever is running the tech, and the soundboard. If we can have people who are volunteers, we will give them some kind of honorarium. They just need to be able to hit the ground running so it’s not stressful. In coordinating and organizing in the lead-up to the concert, it’s sometimes easier for me to just do it myself. The night of the concert it would be impossible for me to do it myself. We need at least 15 people on the night of the concert.
When you started Honey Jam, very few sponsors stepped forward. Today, the sponsor list is impressive.
Among your sponsors have been Slaight Music, TD-Bank; city, provincial and federal governments, as well as government-affiliated Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings (FACTOR), Ontario Art Council, and CBC Music; music industry organizations The SOCAN Foundation, Music Canada, Music Managers Forum, entertainmentOne, CMI Incubator, and Harris Institute; radio stations Kiss 92.5, iHeart Radio, and 98.1 CHFI; magazines Canadian Musician, and exclaim!; The El Mocambo, Yamaha, Artscape, Woodbine Mall, Goldman Group, and Madison Liverpool Limited.
Do you spend a lot of time seeking funding?
Oh, God yes. I don’t want to spend all of my time doing that. I want to spend my time working on the program. At the very beginning, we actually had somebody actively telling people not to support what we were doing. Telling people not to sponsor.
I do recall some controversy when you produced a three-hour radio special on DJ X’s popular hip-hop show “The Power Move Show” on Toronto community radio station CKLN-FM, and you criticized how women were being portrayed in hip-hop lyrics and videos. And then you edited an all-female edition of the now-defunct Mic Check magazine that caused a storm.
Do you know that outside DJ X’s hip-hop show there were rappers looking to beat me up after the show?
Because you had talked about misogyny and hip-hop?
Who was I to criticize this male boys’ club, right? I did not Monica Lewinsky anybody for permission to step into this. It was a big thing. What most people won’t know because Honey Jam now is unrecognizable from what it was in ’95, that in ’95, it was probably 99% hip-hop because what it came out of was giving women a platform in this traditionally male-dominated industry of hip-hop. So most of the acts were hip-hop artists.
In 1995, when you hosted the first Honey Jam, featuring an all-female lineup of aspiring musicians you said that it was “just a party and everyone was there for the love.” At a time, such Canadian female singers of color as Deborah Cox, Jully Black, Ivana Santilli, Kreesha Turner, Keshia Chante, Divine Brown, Melanie Fiona, and Tamia were creating their own success stories.
Honey Jam has changed quite a bit from its hip-hop party roots to featuring now many genres and being widely recognized as a launching pad for igniting artist careers.
Completely. After Nelly Furtado
(Honey Jam changed after its 1997 showcase when 19-year-old Nelly Furtado took to the stage, and, as Ebonnie Rowe described, “You could hear a pin drop.” That night Furtado met the Philosopher Kings’ Gerald Eaton (aka Jarvis Church) who would work with her to produce the demo that landed her a record deal. When Furtado’s first album, “Whoa, Nelly!” was released in North America by DreamWorks Records in 2000, the liner notes acknowledged her triumphant come-out night, “I’ll always remember the Honey Jam.”)
So it was when Nelly got discovered by Gerald and signed by DreamWorks that Honey Jam became more goal-oriented, and opened up musically?
Everything changed. It was mostly hip-hop because that is how we started. It started by accident. It was only supposed to be one year. There never was this grand vision or plan. It just evolved organically. We weren’t specifically trying to exclude anyone. But when people saw that we were black, all the artists were black, and that it was mostly hip-hop, they thought that there wasn’t a place for them. But then after Nelly Furtado performed, the floodgates opened. Then all different cultures came to the auditions. Then we had multiple genres of music.
But still with women performing?
Oh, only. It has always been only women. There are men who will play in the band or who may be part of the workshops, but the featured artist who comes in for that particular cohort is female. That has been consistent for 25 years.
What is mind-blowing is that when Honey Jam started in 1995 there were no iPhones, and no Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snap Chat, or Instagram to support what you were doing.
I know. Whenever I talk about it, and I’m talking to someone under 30, even under 40, they just look at me really wide-eyed. “What are you speaking of?” The idea of a life without social media is just completely foreign to them. And even as I talk to them about it, I feel like I am from Jurassic Park. I used to go on (the CITY-TV dance show) “Electric Circus” and different things on MuchMusic, do all of these promotions, and I would have to give out my phone number because there was no voice mail. It was an answering machine with a tape. What is that? Then I would have to reply to these messages, and I would have to talk to these people. I couldn’t email them. Or I would have to fax information or put it in the mail. People out of province who wanted to audition would Fed-Ex me a VHS videotape Artists would send Polaroid pictures of themselves. It is just insane to think about it. About what that world was like.
Don’t you think with technology and social media today that the world is moving too fast now?
Yeah because now that we have all of this technology I don’t have any more time. I have almost less time because more people can reach me. And it’s 24/7 accessibility. No apologies, and they are expecting this instant response. And I just don’t cave in to it. It’s like, “No. If it’s not an antidote to a snake bite, and I am the only one that has it, then you will wait.” Right? Until I feel like answering it. Until I am in the mood because I like to stay focused on what it is that I am doing. I like to be present with it, whether it is with an individual or with an idea or the work that I am doing.
You are old school.
I just am not conforming because that is what everybody else is doing now.
You had so many goals for the 25th anniversary The overall plan was to focus on some of Honey Jam’s alumni. To amplify what they were doing, and have programming, including workshops, artist talks, songwriting camps, performances, collaborations, for them throughout the year, and then have the annual Honey Jam concert to celebrate the anniversary.
COVID-19 erupted and events from February through July were cancelled or postponed.
Discouraging at first, no doubt, as people around you were saying, “Oh, it’s canceled. Let’s forget about the 25th anniversary, and let’s focus on 2021.”
When pandemic restrictions in Toronto were slightly lifted in August, you dusted yourself off and hit the ground running.
You organized artist talks with Serena Ryder (who has just released her new album “The Art of Falling Out” on our own label Arthaus, distributed by Warner Music Canada), and with Canadian singer/songwriter/actress Jordan Alexander, a Honey Jam alumnae who is set to play Julien Calloway in the “Gossip Girl” revival. You also organized a songwriting camp, a streamed concert event, and several workshops and one-on-one mentoring via Zoom conferencing.
Yeah, and we took an artist to the Grammy Awards in L.A. in January. We did the show at the El Mocambo (on October 1st) and livestreamed it on YouTube and Facebook (a celebration of women in music where emerging artists paid tribute with covers of iconic songs by female artists in a variety of genres) and over 10,000 people tuned in.
So 2020 wasn’t a write-off?
There was just no way for this 25th anniversary not to happen—if you know my personality—I’m a Leo, and a black woman. I’m a “Boss Bitch.” (Laughing), I am very driven. I will work so hard. We had been dreaming of our 25th anniversary, and so when people said to me, “Oh this is a waste year, don’t even bother “I was just like, “Oh, no. Not me. You said that to the wrong person.” Then the artists were suffering from depression and a lack of connectivity, and just starving for real-life, in-person interaction. That also made me determined to create some experiences. We did a songwriting camp as well. So yeah, it wasn’t as big as I wanted the year to be, but it was still fabulous in what we were able to do. It was fabulous the recognition that we received from people like Jessie Reyez, and (Grammy soprano winner) Melanie Fiona who did testimonials for us, and (Toronto) Mayor John Tory to record a video in support of us, and to receive the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition.
All of that was very uplifting and satisfying. We were showered with love. And just being around the artists was just so much more special because it was so rare. People would watch the (streamed El Mocambo) show, and it was just like a spiritual experience. So I am really, really glad that I pushed through, and we were able still to do some impactful things.
Meanwhile, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on musicians, and music industry workers everywhere has been massive. From lighting techs to truck drivers to sound engineers and to background singers, and all of the many people whose life’s work is creating musical moments.
Yes, also affecting managers, the places that sell equipment, the sound techs. Even people like make-up artists and stylists. Everyone that is part of the traveling Magical Mystery Tour.
Pre-COVID-19, many artists and songwriters were already struggling to support themselves as the music industry shifted from album revenues to a streaming model affecting incomes. Artists have gone from being able to sell CDs offstage to CDs, and MP3 downloads becoming practically extinct.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm for livestreaming, and many artists have been simulcasting on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Still, livestreaming isn’t monetized. Artists are mostly performing for free to gain exposure. In a nutshell, income for most artists has dried up due to industry distribution changes, and the COVID-19 pandemic killed off live music.
Everyone’s reaction to it (the year-long COVID-19 pandemic) depended on what their personal situation was. I had to call a few people out on their privilege. All of the people showing their bread that they were making, and people saying, “If you haven’t come out of this with a new skill, and a new language” and, maybe, learning to put together an airplane (Laughing), then, maybe, there is something wrong with you. There were people that are really suffering from severe depression that made them want to do nothing more than be in a coma on the couch.
How about being a single mother raising kids while trying to keep a once-promising music career afloat? Not exactly happy days there.
Exactly. This is what I am saying. That there was a whole different side to it. There were these people who still had their jobs. Nothing had really changed, except that they were inside (their home) instead of going into an office. So they had a regular paycheck, and could be kind of wagging their finger, and going, “What are you whining about?” Yeah, for someone who has to homeschool a few kids, and who lost their job? People weren’t really thinking about that. So it was a different kind of privilege. And, as with most privilege, those who have it sometimes don’t even realize that they do. It doesn’t even occur to them that not everybody is in that situation. That there are people who live hand-to-mouth, and are one paycheck away from being homeless. With the music industry also just being eviscerated, it’s just a whole other conversation.
And none of us are able to predict what the music infrastructure will look like when we come fully out of this. The Ontario government is investing $2.5 million through the Unison Benevolent Fund’s COVID-19 Relief Program, and the Canadian Live Music Association.
(The Unison Benevolent Fund will receive a one-time grant of up to $2 million from the Ontario government to immediately support individual musicians and industry workers, many of whom have lost their sources of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unison Benevolent Fund’s COVID-19 Relief Program provides direct emergency financial assistance to members of the industry to cover necessary costs so they can continue to enrich our communities through music.
The Canadian Live Music Association will receive a one-time grant of up to $500,000 to support local communities that wish to develop and implement music city strategies in a post-COVID-19 economy.)
We don’t even know how many venues will be available or what artists, managers, agents, and so on will make the transition.
Well, I think quite a few of them have had to make some kind of transition, otherwise, how are they living? They might have had to get a job at a grocery store and, maybe, they won’t come out of that. Who knows? Who knows what the new world order is going to be, and if they are going to come back to those jobs, and how many of those jobs will be there. Because there is going to be a whole restructuring, and streamlining. What are the available funds going to be when we go back to live or if the audiences are going to have to be smaller.
it’s unclear when venues will re-open again in Toronto, but there’s talk of shows by September.
I am to the point that I will go to any show even if I don’t understand the language, even if I don’t like the artist. If somewhere is available to go and be among people and experience something as a group, I am there. Sometimes I watch old YouTube things, and I cry just thinking about 10,000 people in a stadium or the big old concerts like Live Aid, and all of those old shows beginning again.
In 2016, BBC Radio crowned Toronto, “The most multicultural city in the world.” With a population of 6.8 million today, there are over 250 ethnic groups, 170 languages spoken and 16 countrries are represented with over 50,00 people. And 47% of the population is foreign-born, and half of the population identifies as a minority.
Toronto is certainly a uniquely multicultural city.
You were born in Montreal which is quite multicultural as well.
Yes. That has been my only experience except when I lived in Kingston, Ontario, and in Ottawa, where we were among the only black families. But the majority of my life has been in a multicultural setting in Montreal, and Toronto. So it’s not anything new or remarkable to me in terms of my, the majority of my experience, but it is glaring when I go to places like Ottawa or Kingston, and not having that experience.
When I was a teenager, Toronto had a population of around one million, and few minorities were visible. One could experience the city changing starting 25 years ago. My daughter Robin, now, 36, was one of three white kids in her Grade 3 class at Corvette Jr. Public School in Scarborough.
About 25 years ago, while Canadian Bureau Chief at Billboard, I wrote several articles emphasizing that the lack of diversity at Canadian labels was undermining services and music being offered to an increasingly growing ethnically-mixed population in Canada. I wrote about “racism of exclusion,” by which the Toronto-based major label executives were hiring white friends that they were more comfortable with.
I can recall being at a music conference in Vancouver in the mid-‘90s. and a female Asian Canadian label executive asking me to look around the room of about 250 people, and saying, “What do you see?” I saw only 5 women, and only one person of color. That was her.
Although some racism is blatant and explicit, I concluded that people of color often experience quite subtle communications that they are being excluded from job opportunities. I thought it was poor business strategy given the growing popularity of R&B, hip-hop, and rap acts in Canada, and in particular, in Toronto.
It has since become increasingly evident in Canada as elsewhere that there is a need for diversity in the workplace; to include people of varying gender, age, religion, race, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, education, abilities, etc. as companies have recognized workplace diversity provides a competitive advantage.
There have certainly been sweeping changes in Canada’s music industry, but still, non-white label women executives are rare–and certainly not as A&R heads–and only now, with the development in recording software and the increasing use of home studios, is there a growing pool of Canadian female producers and engineers.
Well, where there hasn’t been a change is that the people at the top are still older white men. The heads of the labels that I can see. There have been changes in that there are more people of color that are now in these companies, and there has been a change in the way that people are either naturally embracing diversity or are being forced to embrace diversity.
Forced in what way? By economic conditions in order to service an increasingly more diversified customer base?
And society is demanding it. Individuals are demanding it. People are looking at the boards of companies and, then if they are asked to work with these companies, they will say, “You are all white men, so I am not going to do business with you.” Right? There have been people who have been asked to do panels at music industry conferences, and have said, “There is only one type of person on that panel, I’m not going to participate.” So they are allies of the power structure. Allied from the power structure population who are working to ensure that there is inclusion, and if they aren’t going to come to it as in the right thing to do, they are saying, “Well we are going to boycott you,” or “I’m not going to participate,” or the staff is saying, “This needs to change.” So that is what I mean by being forced into it because they didn’t come to it naturally. And that, in my mind, looking through history is how most things occur; like black people getting the right to vote or so many things like integrating schooling, even the right to go to school. Nobody did that because, “Oh, that was wrong.” Or even slavery, right? Nobody decided, “That was wrong.” People had to go to war. People had to march in the street. People had to agitate and make things happen.
According to a study on representation and equality from the Statista Research Department, published January 8, 2021, only 5% of producers in the U.S. music industry are female, and 95% are men. Whilst the share of female music producers more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, there remains a significant gap that certainly also exists in Canada
For the past three years, we have done some things specifically to promote female producers. We have had a female producer come in, and do some kind of workshop with the artist. We definitely want to continue doing that, and grow it because especially it was something during the pandemic it would have been such a great skill for them to have. They can’t go into a studio with a producer that they are hiring, to be able to play around on their own.
There are some great female producers in Toronto and surrounding cities like Hill Kourkoutis from Barrie, and in Toronto, there’s Denise De’ion…..
Yeah, I love De’ion, and Hill also.
Also in Toronto, there’s Alison Wonderland, Tokimonsta, the Australian twin sisters Nervo, and Isabelle Rezazadeh, who headlines EDM events under her persona Rezz, and such black DJ/producers as Bambii and DJ Lissa Monet. Elsewhere in Canada, there’s Montreal’s Maïa Davies, Vancouver’s Elisa Pangsaeng, and Erin Costelo in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Are you familiar with Stacey Lee’s documentary “Underplayed,” which debuted last year at the Toronto International Film Festival? This New Zealand-born filmmaker celebrates some of the women at the forefront of change in EDM.
I have actually been trying to reach her. I don’t think it has gone in regular release yet. We used to do an all-female DJ event called Women on Wax back in ’96. So we’d love to be involved in helping to promote it and do what we can to support it. But I haven’t found out how to connect with her.
A funny story in the film is when the Nervo sisters got pregnant, club owners pushed to book them at half price.
In Toronto, there’s a culture of black queer DJs including Ace Dillinger, Bambi, Chanlmarshl (aka Chanelle Marshall, and Big Sound Barbie), Demīyah Vanessa Pérez, Litney Spearz, and Nomad Nala, DJ Recklezz, SailorQ, Sandy Duperval, and DJ Soulsis.
Separate from black queer DJs are trendsetter women DJs like Melboogie.
MelBoogie is a great DJ.
(With more than two decades in the clubs, MelBoogie has been the resident DJ for Honey Jam since it launched and is Canada’s first female CORE DJ. She started at CHRY 105.5 FM in 93, fresh out of high school, and hosted “Droppin’ Dimez” on CKLN and CHRY arguably the only hip-hop show fully hosted and produced by women in North America at the time (from 2001 to 2014). MelBoogie now spins at Vibe 105 FM.)
Do you plan still to do the full day of workshops, panels, and the speed dating mentor cafe, at the Harris Institute?
You include men in all of these activities?
Yes. In the early days, we didn’t because I had wanted to remove that specter of sexual harassment. We’d have men asking, and I would say, “Are you transitioning?” And I just felt more comfortable then (with women). But we do try as much as possible (to have women), especially if I am trying to encourage women that, “es you can learn to produce,” and I want someone to come, and kind of be a mentor to talk to them about a career in producing, then I am going to look very very hard for a female producer.
I suggest a future panel on women and music journalism. I know of few female music journalists in Canada. Maybe 10, and none of color.
That’s a great idea. You know about ADVANCE?
Canada’s black music business collective,
They are about promoting black people in the music industry. Not just at the record labels, but throughout the industry.
Then there’s Girl Connected.
(Toronto native Lola Plaku’s Girl Connected provides aspiring female professionals a chance to participate in a year-long, one-on-one mentorship with an industry giant.)
I would definitely like to do a panel talking about all of these various behind-the-scenes areas of the industry that the artists should know about just because they are going to be interacting with these different positions and then they might want to be educated about their field and it may be something that they want to pursue themselves.
Three decades ago, a reporter at CITY-TV in Toronto was doing a news story on black youth and crime, and he asked if you wanted to tag along as he went around to different places. You brought some friends with you, and he took you to a community center in Regent Park public housing. You had to go through metal detectors. That really struck you. And the way that the kids looked at you, and your friends was so that you recognized a great divide between these kids living in the projects, and the limited opportunities that they had, and the crime that they saw around them.
Have conditions changed all that much over the past three decades?
Having moved over to music, I’m not working in the space, and I haven’t for 10 years where I would actually be seeing and speaking to these kids, and speaking to the parents, and working within that community system, and be in touch with those other community centers. But from the outside looking in, I’ve definitely seen some progress in the number of programs and the support for those programs, but I’m also still seeing the crime , and the shootings, and the gangs, and all of that. So I’m not sure how much has really changed. For somebody who is not working in that field, and doesn’t have a first-hand updated experience, I don’t feel that I can speak on it (on the subject) with any kind of educated commentary.
Have you ever been profiled by the Toronto police?
Never. But my brother has, and he’s a lawyer. It happens probably a thousand times more to black men.
With a wave of immigrants from the Caribbean arriving in Canada during the 1960s and specifically, in Toronto, the local music scene started to incorporate more distant sounds. Did you know that the late Canadian country music icon Stompin’ Tom Connors was among the first to release recordings by Jamaican artists in Canada.
Tom’s label Generation Records (an off-shoot of Boot Records) in the ’70s recorded Ken Boothe, Judy Mowatt, Ernie Smith, Ted Toppin, Audley Williams, Ernie Smith, and my favorite, Carlene Davis, who lived in Toronto for 8 years. Prior to her gospel career, she found fame as a reggae singer. She recorded her debut single in Toronto, a cover of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and had a local hit with a version of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”
You introduced Honey Jam Barbados in 2011, and its spin-off of the Honey Jazz Barbados Festival in 2016. Are they continuing?
I don’t know. The country’s economy was suffering pre-COVID, and now with it being a completely tourist-driven economy, you can imagine how much further it has dropped.
(With Barbados leading the way as the most vaccinated country in the Caribbean, Caribbean Airlines recently announced it will launch non-stop flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport beginning April 1st. Flights will depart Thursdays from Barbados and Saturdays from New York, said company officials.)
Why did you expand Honey Jam to Barbados in 2011?
It’s my heritage. Both of my parents are from Barbados, and I went to school for about three years there. My father moved to Montreal in the ‘50s. He was a soldier and he went to McGill University and Concordia University and got his education. Then he brought my mother to Montreal, and then he was a diplomat for the government in Barbados. Then he was sent to Ottawa, and then he was living in Geneva.
Where were you born?
Montreal. I left when I was 4. I went from Montreal to Ottawa, and Ottawa to Barbados, and then to Kingston (Ontario), and then to Toronto. I’ve been in Toronto since the late ‘70s.
Your career has taken many different pathways. Wasn’t one of your earlier goals to be a school teacher?
When I was a teenager, I thought that is what I was going to do. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to experience the job that you said that I wanted. So I was seconded off to an elementary school in the Don Mills and Sheppard area of Toronto to see what it was like to be a teacher. So I was to be there in the school room to experience it for about a week. Some people see me as a hard ass, but I really am a big mush-poo inside. With the children, it was just such a world that I could not separate. It was very emotional for me. There were no other black teachers there. These two little black girls in the class I was assigned to just kind of held onto my leg for the whole time. They were being abused by their parents, and I wanted to kill the parents. I had to constrain myself in terms of how you speak to the kids as well. There are things that you can’t tell them when they ask you stuff, like about the birds and the bees. It was too much. I was very emotional. And I would take it home. I did not know how to compartmentalize. And I thought, “I can’t do this. I would be an emotional mess.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.