The Junos are getting a do-over.
Last year’s 50th anniversary event was scheduled as a celebration at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage, but another COVID wave forced the Canadian music awards show to go remote for the second straight year. So they’re doing it again, May 15 at Bud Stage, with a full crowd (fingers crossed). Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) and Junos head Allan Reid says the idea is to turn the outdoor show into a kickoff to the summer concert season “that’s going to exist”.
Canada and its music landscape are very different than they were when the Junos had their last in-person show. So how have the awards shifted to meet those times?
The nominees for the 51st Juno Awards were announced on Tuesday (March 1), and it looks like they are making moves to better reflect the breadth and diversity of the music being released in these borders, even if there are still some head-scratchers.
There’s always been a criticism of this country’s music industry, and the Junos as their biggest symbol, that we don’t embrace artists until they’re recognized elsewhere first. Those international superstars are still heavily represented at the Junos, with the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, and Shawn Mendes still among the top nominated artists (but not Drake, because he is still boycotting after being snubbed when he hosted years ago). The top nominated artist is actually Québécois pop singer Charlotte Cardin with six, while rising rapper Pressa and TikTok breakout JESSIA got four each.
TikTok is one of the biggest new tools for breaking artists now, often organically outside of the typical industry machinery (though the labels certainly are trying), and artists on that platform are well represented this year. The social media video platform is actually sponsoring the fan choice category, and artists like 347Aidan, BBNO$, and Tesher (look them up) came up on that platform and ended up with various Juno nods.
Tesher, for his part, still echoed the usual criticism in the media Q&A. Though it’s his first big award nomination, he said, Canada was late to recognize the Canadian artist, with his music blowing up “in the randomest places” before reaching here.
And one older CanRock band, Mother Mother, got nominated for Group of the Year, after their more-than-decade old music was discovered on TikTok. Recently, the band released a sequel to their now-TikTok-famous 2008 song "Hayloft".
“One thing about that early music is that it’s very fearless and didn’t mind taking chances,” says Mother Mother’s Ryan Guldemond. “For that recipe to be received warmly now all these years later has granted us permission to do anything we want to [in our new music], and for anyone to do what they want to.”
New categories create more space
The Polaris Prize exists as an alternative to the Junos, an award based solely on “artistic merit” as opposed to the strange formula of record sales and label affiliations that help get a record nominated here. The last few years of Polaris winners—Haviah Mighty, Backxwash, and Cadence Weapon—were all shut out the next year. This year’s winner, Cadence Weapon, is not on this year’s nominees list, though Haviah Mighty has finally made it there, the only woman in the rap album/EP of the year category. This year, rap has two categories, with the rap single category also including one female nominee, Charmaine.
That new category split is part of a modernization of the “urban” categories. Last year, R&B was also split into “contemporary” and “traditional”. They’re both strong this year, with more artists benefitting, including Charlotte Day Wilson, Allie, Aqyila, and Savannah Ré getting nods. The latter is on the cover of this year’s Sound of Toronto issue of NOW.
Charlotte Day Wilson, who has spoken critically about the male-dominated field of producing, was also nominated for producer of the year. That’s one category that is often criticized for being overwhelmingly filled with male nominees.
“That’s definitely the category most excited to be nominated in,” says the Toronto soul singer/songwriter/producer. “I’ve wanted more recognition for [female producers] for awhile now. It’s great to be able to point to that and say ‘see.’”
The Indigenous category was also split into “contemporary” and “traditional”, which means more exposure for Indigenous artists who are often pigeonholed or overlooked. Electronic act Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red) has pointedly not submitted to the Indigenous category in the past and didn’t again this year, instead getting nominated for electronic album of the year.
Bear Witness, one half of the duo, says he thinks splitting up the category is a “great move”. It creates more space for Indigenous artists, he says, even if more is needed still.
“There’s a lot of Indigenous artists who can take up that space while we’re here taking up this other space.”
This year also included a new underground dance category—designed to recognize the groundbreaking electronic music that happens in the clubs, forefront of groundbreaking music—which scored nods for Jayda G and Korea Town Acid, both artists making interesting, boundary-pushing sounds that don’t usually get recognized.
Fees waived for independent and underrepresented artists
The other big change is the new Junos Submissions Access Program, which works to cover the costs of submission fees for independent Canadian artists from underrepresented communities. The cost to submit is a major barrier for artists without a big machine or money behind them, so this helps level the playing field—even if there are a million other structural barriers once the music is submitted.
Ceréna, another Sound of Toronto 2022 artist, is a pleasant surprise in the dance recording of the year category. She actually did pay to submit, she says, and then the Junos got in touch to tell her about the program and refunded the fee. They also told her to submit her music in the dance rather than underground dance category, and the fact that she was nominated affirms something she said in our profile about being a visible trans artist: “Dance music is rediscovering its Black, brown, Indigenous, queer and trans roots, and it’s time we see ourselves up there on stage.”
This is a good step, she said, but says there is still a major lack of support for the diversity of artists in Canada and pointed out the nominations are still “overwhelmingly white”.
Other artists that got nominated with support from the access program include Adrian Sutherland for contemporary Indigenous artist or group of the year and the Manitou Mkwa Singers for traditional Indigenous artist or group of the year.
Read the full list of nominees here.