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N.S. artists call for new voice to represent urban music industry

Artists in Nova Scotia’s urban scene are pushing for a new association to better support and recognize their work, claiming existing organizations are failing them.

Conversations around whether groups like the East Coast Music Awards properly reflect the local industry have been circulating since only about 15 per cent of the 2020 music category winners were women.

Corey Writes, a Halifax hip-hop artist and songwriter is also speaking up. He said the ECMAs and Music Nova Scotia don’t recognize the new acts in urban music, including rap, hip-hop and R&B, and people in their genre find it harder to access funding.

“I would like to think it’s not done purposefully,” Writes told CBC’s Information Morning recently.

Some Black Nova Scotian musicians say they don’t get enough recognition from the ECMAs or Music Nova Scotia. Now a recording artist from Uniacke Square wants to start a music association that would focus on hip hop and R&B. 7:59

He said it might be ignorance. He said the province’s Celtic tradition means many associate local music with fiddles and tartan.

“You’re going to represent your heritage, I get it. But at the same time, you’ve got to … share the platform with everyone and [equally] distribute it.”

Writes said he’s found that even when there are hip-hop showcases at the ECMAs or Nova Scotia Music Week, they are often in much smaller venues than other genres, or in ones further away from the main stages.

Association would include musicians, dancers, and more

He is now calling on people within Nova Scotia’s urban music and art scene to come together and form their own association, which could include musicians, promoters and those who are into slam poetry or dance.

By forming such a group, Writes hopes they could bring the urban scene to the forefront and inspire those who might still be singing in the shower, or feel like there’s no point in trying to break into the industry.

“I think about all the artists that just stopped working because they couldn’t get grants and stuff like that,” Writes said. “And it’s just unfair. It just seems like the same grants go to the same people over and over and over.”

Dean Stairs, chair of the ECMA board of directors, said in an email that the association connects with emerging artists across all genres.

He said it is also “always looking to grow our membership in meaningful and productive ways and continue to assess how to best do this on a year-to-year basis.”

He said they “strongly encourage” any initiative in support of East Coast artists and would welcome any potential collaboration with a new urban music organization. 

Long struggle

For Brian Pelrine, an artist in Halifax for more than 20 years who goes by Dj IV professionally, the fight to have the scene better represented in the province has been a long one.

Pelrine said about three years ago he and fellow hip-hop artist J-Bru (Jason Bruce) wanted to form a Maritime urban music association. 

Brian Pelrine appears in a screen capture from a Classified music video. (YouTube/Half Life Records Inc./Sony Music Entertainment Canada)

After he spoke with CBC about the idea, Pelrine said he got a call from the director of Music Nova Scotia at the time who wanted to set up a meeting.

“They kind of just gave us a lot of lip service about like, ‘You know, it’s going to take years to acquire funding. There’s no sense in you guys starting your own organization, come over here and align with us,'” Pelrine said.

But Pelrine said after they came up with a list of ideas, almost all were shot down. An urban music committee was established and got a non-voting seat on the board, but Pelerine said nothing concrete came of it.

It’s unfortunate, because Pelrine said their committee had gathered people from “every aspect” of their community, including R&B singers, electronic producers, DJs, Indigenous artists, and more.

Committee offered to work on outreach

A main goal they hoped to achieve was public outreach, Pelrine said, and getting into diverse communities around the province to attract new members.

“If we took our Indigenous supporters for the committee, and sent them into Indigenous communities, they would have a better shot,” Pelrine said.

“We served it up on a platter … and that was all in the itinerary, you know. But like it was just, I don’t know, just frowned upon I guess.”

Pelrine noted the director they worked with at the time is no longer in the organization.

In an email, current Music Nova Scotia president Brian Doherty said the urban advisory committee was an independent one with an appointed seat on their board of directors. 

“They were encouraged to develop proposals to be submitted by Music Nova Scotia for projects they were interested in pursuing, that fit within Funding Guidelines. This independent committee decided to disband in June 2020,” he wrote.

Doherty said Music Nova Scotia has a “variety of initiatives” in place to engage new artists and they recently struck new diversity, programming, and youth committees. Each of those groups are “committed to assuring marginalized and diverse communities are represented.”

Current groups don’t have ‘ear to the streets’

Pelrine said his biggest hope is just for more people to support the local talent that’s already doing amazing things.

He said it would be ideal to see the ECMA and Music N.S. be more proactive, since right now there’s no one that has their “ear to the streets of urban culture.”

He said right now a membership might ensure these organizations know your name, but they don’t know where your music is played, how many albums, or how many Spotify followers you have.

Most end up promoting themselves online and not worrying about local accolades, Pelrine said.

For example, new hip-hop duo Atay & JAX put out their first album last year under JAX’s name and got about 40,000 downloads in one weekend, he noted. They weren’t nominated for an ECMA this year but are “obviously doing something right,” Pelrine said.

To the average person, Pelrine said he’s sure they see Classified performing at an awards show and assume the existing organizations are doing something — “but it’s just not enough.”

“I think we’re beyond working with the existing associations at this point,” Pelrine said, adding that it would be best to start a fresh new organization because urban music will never be a focus for the other groups.

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