It’s 1985, and Canadian musician Liberty Silver arrives at the Juno awards ready for the stage in an elegant black dress and chandelier earrings. She’s set to perform her nominated hit song “Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love.” Tonight she also makes history, becoming the first black woman to win a Juno.
Silver recalls, “I was very excited that night, because I was actually up for five different Junos. But the R&B one was special.” It was the inaugural year for the R&B/soul award, and because of that, Silver was also asked to perform. “Looking out to the audience, if you can imagine, back then you had some of the greatest artists there. You had Tina Turner sitting there, you had David Foster sitting there — so many amazing producers, vocalists and entertainers.”
You can now count Liberty Silver within that group of top talent. On Juno night in 1985, she walked away with two awards, including best reggae/calypso recording and best R&B/soul recording. But she wouldn’t have received the recognition if those award categories hadn’t existed, and for a long time they didn’t.
When the Junos launched in 1970, there were 12 categories, largely based in the country and folk genres. Through the ’70s and ’80s, as the Canadian industry grew, music communities lobbied for expansion. As R&B/soul gained in popularity, so did the push for a Juno category in that genre. Having it finally recognized was significant, as Silver explains.
“It was a milestone. It truly was a milestone. Because there wasn’t really any kind of black representation in the record companies, it was difficult to them to grasp it, sign it and figure out how to market it. I think that today, it’s still a bit of a challenge in Canada,” Silver says.
She admits that it was difficult to be a pioneer. “But it was an honour, and I thought, ‘if this is the role I’m playing, excellent, let me go forward and do this.’ And I had to step up and do it. It’s just a part of who I am.”
The R&B/soul category has meant exposure and recognition for other artists, including Jacksoul, Jully Black and Divine Brown.
“Divine Brown, I read in a article her influences were Stevie Wonder and Liberty Silver and I was, like, ‘wow that’s really cool.’ That makes you feel great and you know that what you did was the right thing and it helped others,” Silver says. “When I first met Divine, she said, ‘You know what, when I saw you, I knew I could do it.’ And often when we do not see ourselves reflected in the media or in the mainstream, we often don’t aspire to those things, so that’s what we are here to do.”
It’s clear artists like Silver have forged a path for the next generation of Canadian R&B/soul artists, but since 1985 the genre has evolved. Given the ever-changing climate of the music business, Silver believes that that industry could be doing more to support the many facets of current R&B music.
“My demographic are people that are older. They’ll buy my music, they’ll buy a bottle of wine, but they won’t download. So you have to keep all those things in mind when marketing the music, but it can be done,” Silver says. “It’s good music and people love it. And it’s just identifying those artists here and getting them the exposure that they need.”
And exposing Canadian artists in Canada is the key. Silver is very excited about one of this year’s R&B/soul nominees, Melanie Fiona, who recently won two Grammy awards for her duet "Fool for You" with Cee Lo Green.
“I think she’s amazing. I think she’s learned well and listened well. I think she has a great image. And thank you, I appreciate that. But once again, in Canada — why are we not a king in our own country? We have to uplift our artists.”
Silver is doing just that with the Liberty Silver Foundation for the Arts, a project that goes into schools and works with young people to unlock their potential through both the creative and business sides of music. If the past 27 years are anything to go by, she’s likely to become an inspiration and role model for yet another generation of musical artists.
Visit cbcmusic.ca/Junos for complete coverage of the 2012 Juno Awards.
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2012 Juno Awards: Complete coverage