The 2021 Junos reflected a period of Canadian cultural upheaval
The 2021 edition of the music awards celebrated its 50th anniversary in a very tumultuous year
By Richard Trapunski
Jun 7, 2021
The Tragically Hip and Feist playing at Massey Hall for the Junos 2021.
The Juno Awards celebrated their 50th anniversary this weekend in Toronto – sort of.
The big anniversary celebration was supposed to take place at Scotiabank Arena, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Canadian music awards into a virtual format for the second straight year. Instead, presentations and performances happened all over the country, in music venues and studios, backyards and apartments.
“This is not the 50th we envisioned,” admitted Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) and Junos head Allan Reid in a media Q&A. So Toronto gets a do-over. The 51st Juno Awards will be back in the city where it was born for an in-person event in 2022.
But even scattered throughout various Zooms, the Junos’ half-century celebration felt like a meaningful check-in on the institutional Canadian culture bellwether.
The Junos and Canadian content regulations are inextricable from each other. The Junos started in the same year that the CRTC mandated 30 per cent of the music played on Candaian radio had to be made by Canadian artists, and the awards were named after CanCon architect Pierre Juneau. In a lot of ways, the Junos are a celebration of CanCon itself.
CanCon has been a controversial topic in the last five decades as it went from a media regulation policy to, in some ways, a genre itself. Overwhelmingly, what we’ve tended to think of as CanCon is white and guitar-heavy. And when an artist becomes entrenched, it feels like they’re there forever – a canon of emblematic musicians that rarely makes room for others.
The Junos broadcast was filled with them: the Tragically Hip, Jann Arden, Robbie Robertson, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Rush, Gordon Lightfoot, the Barenaked Ladies.
The diversity and multiculturalism that the Canadian music industry so often pays lip service to hasn’t always been represented in the music that we consider “Canadian” – or, if it has been, it’s pushed into self-contained “World,” “Urban” and “Aboriginal” categories – but that has been changing over the last decade or so.
The Weeknd, who started off mostly recognized in R&B categories, is now all over the winners’ list – after this weekend’s five wins for his After Hours album, he’s now the sixth most awarded artist of all time. (He didn’t send an acceptance speech for any of the wins this year). Wondagurl was the first Black female artist to win in the producer category, and says she’s mentoring other up-and-coming women producers. Kaytranada became the only Black male solo winner in the dance category since its inception in 1992.
A lot of this is way overdue, but at least it’s happening.
A reckoning over residential schools and cultural genocide
Crown Lands, a duo with Indigenous roots, won breakthrough group of the year and used their speech time to talk about the ongoing national reckoning over residential schools and Indigenous genocide – a theme that recurred throughout the show.
“It’s really eye-opening for a lot of people who haven’t been directly connected to it, but are part of this country, they have had some sense of the injustices but not the full picture. It was a necessary thing to be put right in front of our faces to show the mistreatment of that community,” they said. “The best thing that we can do as a country is to show support to all those people that have been let down and that have been taken advantage of and have been raped and murdered and displaced.”
“The thing which I find uplifting is when you see people form coalitions from every corner of the community and advocate for what’s right and when you see that pressure applied, things actually change. The first step is understanding how deep these problems are; and then the second thing is showing support. Pressuring your local politicians to invest more of their time, showing up at rallies, and most important is listening. Listening to the communities that have been deeply wounded and asking, ‘What can I do to lend a hand?’ That’s hopefully what we are doing more of every single day.”
Arkells, who won group of the year, also talked about the importance of forming coalitions between communities and applying pressure to affect change. It shouldn’t all be left to Indigenous people, as Buffy Sainte-Marie underscored in her opening land acknowledgement (the iconic singer/songwriter also gave the first ever land acknowledgement at a Junos ceremony in 2017).
“This is not news to Indigenous people,” she said. “The genocide basic to the founding of this country is ongoing and we need to face it together.”
New categories for better representation
Later in the show, Sainte-Marie looked back at a Junos performance she did in the 90s and the push she’s given to introduce a second Indigenous music category. That’s happening this year as it will now split into two awards: contemporary Indigenous artist or group and traditional Indigenous artist or group.
Reid says it’s rare for the Junos to introduce a new category, but there are a bunch of new ones this year and next. This year, R&B split in two – also traditional and contemporary – with Savannah Ré winning the first and the Weeknd winning the second.
Next year, they’ll add a category for underground dance single of the year. It comes after a push by Toronto DJ Sydney Blu to recognize the people getting dance floors moving who aren’t on the giant EDM stages at Coachella. The rap category will also double in 2022: rap single of the year and rap album/EP of the year.
All of those decisions, Reid admitted, came from a feeling from certain communities they weren’t being properly recognized, or cramming too many good releases into one small category. It’s hard to pay attention to more than 50 categories, but the landscape of music is expanding and if the Junos want to truly represent it then they have to adapt too.
The Junos’ relationship with Black music
The Junos, like its American cousin the Grammys, has had a fraught relationship with the hip-hop community over the years.
Following last year’s Blackout Tuesday – the black square gesture after the police murder of George Floyd – this year the Junos vowed to “confront systemic racism” and the music industry signed a declaration against anti-Black racism.ADVANCE is a new organization that aims to advance Black music professionals into the echelons of an industry that’s historically exploited and profited off of Black artistry, and they were advising the Junos behind the scenes. They also presented the contemporary R&B category.
This was the 30th anniversary of a hip-hop category at the Junos, and they celebrated that with a performance celebrating the past, present and future of Canadian hip-hop. The performances, which took place at Rebel in Toronto and across North America, featured Kardinal Offishall, Jully Black, Maestro Fresh Wes and NAV, while Haviah Mighty finished it off with a speech about the future of hip-hop in the country.
Haviah was an interesting choice considering she’s never been nominated despite winning the Polaris Prize for her 2019 album 13th Floor. She feels like the kind of young, DIY-minded artist who’s driving the future of the genre, and though the retrospective makes sense at the 50th anniversary it would be nice to see more recognition for the present.
Despite dropping the submission fees, the nominees for this year’s rap category were somewhat underwhelming, but the winner felt right: Nigerian/Torontonian artist TOBi, whose soulful tunes seem ready to break through on a global stage any day now. He performed at the non-televised (but streamed on CBC Gem) Friday ceremony, where they gave out the bulk of the awards – including the hip-hop award. In 1998, the Rascalz famously boycotted the Junos for not televising the rap category, so leaving it off the main broadcast while also presenting a celebration of Canadian hip-hop felt like a bad choice.
The hopeful return of live music
This year’s Junos was also a celebration of the resilience of Canadian musicians, who have been hit hard by the pandemic. It’s hard to talk about music culture without live music, so the recordings we were recognizing this year felt a bit incomplete.
Many artists, like rock winner JJ Wilde and Jann Arden, talked about the importance of sweaty rock clubs. There was lots of attention paid to the venues that make the music scene go, including a pre-Junos special called If These Walls Could Talk that zoomed in on bars and theatres throughout the country.
Though there were no crowds to play for, a few of those pivotal spaces – many struggling for life after being dark for a year and a half – got brought back to life for Junos performances. William Prince and Serena Ryder, for instance, played from Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, the same spot the Cowboy Junkies recorded their pivotal Trinity Sessions album. The setting fit Prince’s striking deep voice beautifully.
“I want all those artists that are making a name for themselves on TikTok to play shows, and feel the connection of a live crowd because that’s when it really all comes together in a really exciting way,” said Arkells’ Max Kerman.
There was some acknowledgment that many musicians are making their name on TikTok and other social media platforms now, not just in the sweaty rock clubs. JP Saxe, who won breakthrough artist of the year, played his duet with Julia Michaels, If The World Was Ending, which is all over TikTok. As a pop songwriter, he already had fingerprints on some big singles, but this gave him his biggest recognition as an artist in his own right.
The fan choice award was voted for on TikTok (won by Shawn Mendes, who initially blew up on TikTok’s predecessor Vine), where the Junos broadcast was also livestreamed. It had about 400-something viewers when I checked in, but to be fair it was long after the show-opening Justin Bieber performance.
One of the country’s most iconic venues, Massey Hall, has been closed for the last couple of years due to renovations, but it was reanimated for its first performance since it went dark: the show-closing tearjerker from the Tragically Hip with Leslie Feist. They played It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken from the floor of the venue, not the stage, but it still felt stately and gorgeous. Gordon Lightfoot, who introduced the performance, also teased that he hopes to play there in the fall – presumably the venue’s reopening concert.
The Hip won the humanitarian award and used it to put more spotlight on the legacy of residential schools, reminding us that Gord Downie used the band’s final performance to hold Justin Trudeau accountable to “make things right” with Indigenous people. Those words are worth remembering. Their posthumous performance with Feist made us remember the power of one-off live performances, too.
Hopefully next year we can be there to see it live.
Richard has covered Toronto’s music scene for over a decade. He was once called a “mush-brained millennial blogger” by a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter and “actually a pretty good guy” by a Juno-nominated director.