The country of Canada brings to mind images of natural beauty, cold winters, animals like elk and beavers, and iconic foods like poutine. But Canada has a vibrant arts scene, too, with musicians, writers, actors, and comedians gaining international reputations.
Canada is also a multicultural country and has had a thriving Black population for centuries. Many Black singers and artists from the Caribbean, Africa, and the US call Canada home.
Read on to learn more about 11 of the most famous black Canadian singers and how each has shaped music in North America and beyond.
Related: For more African American singers, see our article here.
1. The Weeknd
Born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, The Weeknd is a name that even listeners with no interest in pop music will recognize.
The Toronto-born singer-songwriter and producer got his breakthrough with several mixtapes that he released not long after launching his music career on YouTube.
The singer has received multiple Juno awards, a pinnacle of excellence in Canada, as well as several Grammys and Billboard Music Awards.
Since emerging a decade ago, he has become one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, with hits like “Starboy,” “Kiss Land,” and “Can’t Feel My Face.”
2. Jully Black
Born and raised in the Jane and Finch neighborhood of Toronto to a Jamaican family, vocalist Jully Black, born Jullyann Inderia Gordon, has been hailed by many as “Canada’s Queen of R&B.”
She has become one of Canada’s best-known singers, with an international reputation rivaled by few other soul and pop artists.
Black’s early talent and hard work led her to a contract with Warner Chappell Music in her late teens. Aside from her solo work, Black has collaborated with numerous artists, including Sean Paul, Destiny’s Child, and Nas.
Her last album, The Black Book, was released in 2009, peaking at number 40 on the Canadian charts. She continues to release singles, with tracks including “Mi No Fraid” and “Fever.”
Among her many accolades and accomplishments are opening the Olympic Games in Vancouver, and sharing the stage with Celine Dion.
Few musicians have put Toronto, Ontario on the map in the same way that Drake has.
Born Aubrey Drake Graham, Drake first achieved popularity in his teens as an actor on the Canadian TV show Degrassi: The Next Generation. Soon after, he released his first mixtape and was quickly signed to a record label.
Of course, Drake is now most famous for his music, with hits like “One Dance,” “Hotline Bling,” and “Summer Sixteen.” His versatility and overall popularity have led to him becoming a cultural icon.
He is now one of the most commercially successful musicians in history, selling more than 170 million records. In addition, Drake has even been credited with being the source of five percent of Toronto’s tourist income in 2018.
4. Jackie Richardson
Singer Jackie Richardson spent the first few years of her life in the American northeast but is known as a Canadian musician through and through.
Richardson’s African-American roots are a key part of her identity musically and personally, and she was honored in 2017 with the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award in Montreal.
Richardson started her career in the 1960s, performing with the Toronto group The Tiaras. Her style is simultaneously powerful yet tasteful, singing ballads and faster soulful numbers with a mix of intensity and subtlety.
She has also performed on stage, including the musical Cookin’ at the Cookery, which earned her a Dora Award in 2004.
When not performing vocals, Richardson can be found acting in several film and television appearances.
Shadrach Kabango, better known by his stage name Shad, is a rapper born in Kenya and raised in London, Ontario.
Shad had early musical inclinations but decided to pursue other interests in his undergrad. That all changed when he was awarded a $17,500 upcoming artist prize (that his sister nominated him for).
His prize led the young rapper to release a self-produced debut album. Two years later, Shad was offered a record contract and produced several more albums that received international attention.
Shad’s music is described as intense yet witty, as the singer brings light to even the darkest subject matters. This transcends music into his personal life, and he has worked in broadcasting as well, notably on CBC Radio’s popular show Q.
6. Measha Brueggergosman
There aren’t many musical artists who manage to bridge musical gaps between classical and pop careers, but New Brunswick singer Measha Brueggergosman has accomplished this feat!
Her early singing experience was much more humble than her current successes and began in the Baptist choir of the church her father worked at.
Brueggergosman has since gained recognition for her varied performances, from Wagner and Beethoven to Christmas music.
Her first album offered a premonition into this future crossover success, with a selection of short songs and pieces.
7. Portia White
Portia White may not be as much of a household name as some others on this list. That being said, the contralto remains an important cultural figure as the first Black Canadian to achieve international fame as a concert singer.
White was born in Nova Scotia to a family descended from Black Loyalists who settled in Canada after American independence.
Her debut performances were in the early 1940s, and her career quickly took off. The contra-alto moved to Toronto, where she instructed a long list of classical singers, many of whom went on to achieve considerable success.
White died of cancer in her late 50s, but the amount of recognition she received during her short career is a testament to her profound talent. Her friends and supporters organized a provincial scholarship in Nova Scotia in her name after her passing.
8. Ranee Lee
Jazz singer Ranee Lee is another American by birth but has gone on to exemplify all things Canadian. Lee has been a staple on the Quebec music scene for years, calling Montreal her home.
Lee began her career as a tenor saxophonist and drummer but now focuses primarily on singing.
The songstress is also an acclaimed educator in Canada and abroad, frequenting University Laval in Quebec City and McGill University in Montreal to impart wisdom to the next generation of musicians.
9. Faith Nolan
Faith Nolan is a singer and songwriter born in the Africville neighborhood of Halifax, Nova Scotia, noted for its historic Black community. Her style of music centers on jazz and folk.
Nolan moved to Toronto at a young age and soon began writing and singing unique songs. She played a prominent role in the feminist music movement in the 1990s, and her social activism has not waned.
Much of her music remains rooted in politics, and she often uses songs to express her viewpoints and advocate for the lesbian community.
10. Molly Johnson
Toronto-born Molly Johnson is a singer and songwriter who performs in the jazz and pop genres. Before becoming a professional singer, Johnson studied ballet while also taking formal music lessons.
Johnson is now often featured amongst the who’s who of jazz, but she doesn’t limit her repertoire to that artform.
Her most recent albums, This Holiday Season and It’s a Snow Globe World, have been festive-themed. Johnson’s 2009 album, Lucky, won the Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.
11. Kellylee Evans
Kellylee Evans is a Canadian musician from Scarborough, Ontario who found international fame in jazz and pop.
After coming close to winning the esteemed Thelonious Monk International Competition competition, Evans began a prolific recording career and is still one of the most influential Canadian singers to this day.
Evans has taken multiple breaks from her career. The first came in 2013 after she was struck by lightning. Then, in 2015, she sustained a head injury.
She later resumed her career, with Come On being nominated for the Juno Vocal Jazz Album of the Year award in 2018. Her first live performance followed in 2019, at the Jazz Festival à Saint-Germain-dès-près in France.
Summing Up Our List Of Black Canadian Vocalists
Canada is a unique place and has no shortage of diversity or musical talent.
There have been countless Black Canadian musicians who have left their mark, but these 11 artists have a global impact far beyond the country’s borders.
But this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of amazing talent. Let us know who you think we missed off our list and we’ll add them in!