What the 2021 Juno Awards nominations say about the state of Canadian music

In their 50th year, the Canadian awards are contending with a music industry reckoning with systemic racism and a lack of live venues

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      It was supposed to be a big year for the Junos. 

      The 2021 edition of the Canadian awards show is marking its 50th anniversary and a return to its original home in Toronto. But instead of inviting the industry to the city, the 2021 Juno Awards will be virtual for the second straight year. 

      They’ll still celebrate Toronto’s long-shuttered music venues, broadcasting live from Budweiser Stage and other to-be-announced “iconic musical landmarks”. The 2021 Juno Awards will take place on May 16, 2021, and air on CBC TV, Radio One, Music, and Gem. 

      The nominations were announced this morning in Toronto at Meridian Hall and Queen Elizabeth Theatre, both venues that have hosted the Junos in years past. During the broadcast, Allan Reid, the director of the Juno Awards and the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) shouted out venues like the Horseshoe, while each award category was backdropped by a Toronto venue, like the Dakota Tavern.

      Broadcasting from a handful of different local venues is a way to support the live music sector, said Reid—not just artists, but production crews and staff, many of whom are laid off while venues remain closed for in-person concerts. 

      The Junos “confront systemic racism”

      But, Reid and host Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe (of CBC’s new Black music radio show The Block) noted, Canadian musicians were resilient this year, remaining prolific when it comes to recording and releasing music. In fact, they said, this year Canadian musicians sent in the most submissions in Junos history. 

      It was also a year for the Junos to confront systemic racism, Reid said. That’s an important thing to note. The Juno Awards are named after Pierre Juneau, the first president of the CRTC and the father of CanCon regulations. The Junos are inextricable from the bands and sounds that have become synonymous with establishment Canadian music, even as conversations around race, multiculturalism, colonialism, and representation have sought to broaden what we mean when we talk about “Canadian music”. 

      Familiar big names were still represented in the nominations, as Céline Dion, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, and Bruce Cockburn all added to their pile of nods. The bands nominated for group of the year are mostly modern versions of those same broadly “Canadian” sounds, with Arkells and Glorious Sons representing blue-collar radio rock, the Reklaws representing country, Half Moon Run representing former CBC Radio 3 indie soft-rock, and Loud Luxury representing export pop. 

      Junos so…what?

      The most nominations this year went to The Weeknd, whose album After Hours was a huge international success and led to him headlining the Super Bowl halftime show. He had six, while Jessie Reyez, JP Saxe, and Justin Bieber had five each. Ali Gatie, Curtis Waters, Lennon Stella, and Céline Dion followed with three apiece.  

      This year’s awards come with the hashtag #Junos50, which looks a lot like #JunosSo, which has been followed in years past by the words “male” and “white”, criticizing the awards for overwhelming straight, white male nominees. That was still in play this year.

      This week, the OBGMs were on the cover of NOW Magazine’s Sound of Toronto issue, and their blistering album The Ends was sadly nowhere to be seen in the rock or alternative categories. “Why is Canada always getting behind the same old bands?” asked lead singer Densil McFarlane, while advocating for BIPOC people in rock.

      There were still spots in the rock category for long-established CanCon staples Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Sam Roberts Band, and Silverstein. (That said, JJ Wilde kept the category from being all men, and Crown Lands are similarly outspoken about Indigenous rock legacy.)

      “While we appreciate the speech about representation, would love to see what that looks like in real life.  Would love to know what it means?” McFarlane asks in an email. “At the end of the day, the industry as it currently operates, has many flaws that we will actively try to dismantle.”

      Dropping the submission fees

      In an effort to be more inclusive, the 2021 Juno Awards dropped their submission fees for six categories (three jazz, two R&B, and one hip-hop) thanks to a subsidy from sponsor TD and plans to do so for even more next year.

      “It’s been a challenging year for so many industries, especially artists, and we hope these initial steps will help more creators bring their work forward to be recognized and supported by the Junos,” Reid says in an email.

      This year’s subsidized categories included rap recording of the year, but the all-male nominations looked pretty similar to the last few years. Both 88glam and NAV were nominated for the second year in a row, while white TikTok artist bbno$ jumps over from the breakthrough category. Toronto’s TOBi is a good pick, grinding for years before this year’s breakout on Warner Music. Eric Reprid, meanwhile, is the only independent artist to be nominated in the category.

      Independent artists like DijahSB, who was also in this week’s NOW, and DIY stalwart Clairmont the Second, were snubbed despite the encouragement to submit for consideration based on the more accessible process. 

      “I don’t mind not being nominated, but it’s like at least TRY to get it a little right,” DijahSB says in an email to us. “Like, we had a bit of confidence because they opened up the rap submissions for the artists who maybe couldn’t afford to submit their music. [The Junos] did all that performative shit just to choose a bunch of artists that are clearly backed by labels. 

      “I don’t understand why they’re so lazy when it comes to rap. In every aspect, radio awards and grant system, Canada constantly shits the bed. It’s a joke now. That’s why Canada is never the goal. They will love me when I’m long gone and in Europe eating a croissant near the Eiffel Tower.”

      There are still some nice surprises, like anti-oppressive doom band Vile Creature getting a nod in the metal category. (“”HOLY SHIT, HOLY SHIT, HOLY FUCKING SHIT!” they said in a release). NOW cover stars PUP and U.S. Girls both picked up nominations in the alternative category.

      And this year, the Junos separated the R&B/soul category in two, contemporary and traditional, giving more shine to a particularly strong slate of artists including TOBi, Charlotte Day Wilson, Emanuel, The Weeknd, Jessie Reyez, Shay Lia, and Savannah Ré, the latter of whom was nominated in both categories. 

      “The conversation has to be ongoing”

      Asked about the Junos push to be more inclusive, Reid said changes will be reflected in the broadcast and are also happening behind the scenes.

      “CARAS is committed to the inclusion of Indigenous, Black, and people of colour for a more equitable and representative industry now and over the long-term,” Reid wrote in an email to us. “It is our goal to amplify these voices and you’ll definitely see some of that on our Juno Award Broadcast—look out for more announcements in the coming weeks.”

      Reid also says they are taking an “active approach” to recruiting BIPOC Junos judges and members of advisory committees, also offering members of Black music business collective ADVANCE complimentary memberships for the CARAS Academy Delegate program, which includes Juno Award voting privileges.

      “We have an incredible diverse group of nominees this year including: Ali Gatie, Jessie Reyez, WondaGurl, TOBi, NAV, KAYTRANADA, Terry Uyarak, and many more. It’s great to see these artists being recognized by their peers.”

      In a post-nomination media conference, Reyez, an outspoken voice on systemic racism within the Canadian music industry, said she was happy with the diversity of this year’s nominations, but that there’s still progress to be made. 

      “I feel honoured when I look at the nominations, I feel like I’m looking at a rainbow,” she said. “I feel like it’s a reflection of the multiculturalism that Canada holds as a whole. And I think that any progress is good progress, so I’m happy about that. I’m happy that it’s apparent, but I also think there’s always a way to go, always a way to improve. And having multiculturalism not just in the nominations, but having that representation in boardrooms, that representation in executive rooms, I think is also just as important.

      “The conversation has to be ongoing.”

      Check out the full list of 2021 Juno Awards nominees here