Arts·Point of View

Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber: The rise of Canadian R&B is more than just a moment

Amanda Parris opens up about Marvin's Room, her new CBC Radio 2 program, and why she's building a space for Canadian R&B and its fans.

Amanda Parris on Marvin's Room and why she's building a space for Canadian R&B and its fans

Drake performs at the 2016 Soul Train Awards. (Arthur Mola/Invision/Associated Press)

I have a fear of being forgotten. It can be argued that everyone has this fear, that it's a part of human existence.

However, I notice how few African-Canadian artists have Wikipedia pages — and how few mentions about past radio and TV shows developed, hosted and produced by black Canadians there are online. When I say the names of those pioneers to my colleagues, I observe blank looks on their faces. Every time I see these things, the feeling of being forgotten feels less universal — and more specific to African-Canadian folks.

That's why this week's column will be a little different. Usually, I write about other people, but I can unabashedly admit that I want my own work to be remembered — like my radio show.

Marvin's Room airs on CBC Radio 2, Fridays at 7 p.m. (CBC)

Earlier this month, Marvin's Room debuted on CBC Radio 2. It's a weekly one-hour music show hosted by yours truly and produced by Pete Morey. Following eight weeks of summer episodes, we received the green light for a year on the air.

It's not the first R&B show in the Canadian radio landscape, but it's the only one on CBC dedicated to the genre.

Its foundation was laid by numerous programs of the past: The Love Zone hosted by Geena Lee (Flow 93.5, Toronto), Vivian Barclay's Bulletproof Soul (CKLN 88.1 FM, Toronto), The Black Experience in Sound hosted by the late T.E.D.D.Y. Pemberton (CJSR 88.5 FM, Edmonton), the legendary Michael Williams's Club 980 (CKGM 690 AM, Montreal) — just to name a few of the shows that came before.

Still, Marvin's Room is an oddball in the world of radio. There are no interviews on the program and no call-ins from fans. There are no DJs spinning sets and no countdowns.

Perhaps these elements will come later, but right now, Marvin's Room is a show built on stories and music. 

When I began the show this summer, I imagined life-long listeners of CBC Radio being confused by the sound of Roy Woods crooning over the airwaves. That's why I tell stories on the show: I want to provide the audience with some context — perhaps about an artist or a song's creation or my connection to the sound. The stories invite them into the listening experience.

It's evolved into an incredible opportunity to tap into my love of storytelling and create a format that is distinctly unique from other music shows. The fact it's heard each week by a national audience gives Marvin's Room the potential to redefine what's considered Canadian music.

From the Barenaked Ladies to Alanis Morissette, Canada's sound has been shaped by rock. However, the last decade has witnessed a shift.

Toronto's The Weeknd performs at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show on Nov. 30, 2016 in Paris, France. (Getty Images)
Justin Bieber accepts the Top Male Artist award onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

Drake, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd are Canada's best-known cultural exports today. They are frequently called pop stars, but their sonic influences and foundations come from the worlds of hip hop and R&B.

Last year they made history by simultaneously holding the top spots on the Billboard charts. This year, Drake also broke Billboard records as the male artist to spend the most time at No. 1 and was Spotify's most-streamed artist for the second year in a row.

Earlier in 2016, Montreal-based producer Kaytranada won the coveted Polaris Music Prize for his album 99.9%. It's a record that spans the gamut of musical sampling and remixing but retains a strong foot in the worlds of R&B and soul. All in all, it's an exciting time for the genre — and the perfect moment for Marvin's Room.

It feels simultaneously like a gift and an incredible responsibility launching Marvin's Room in 2016, a year that will inevitably go down in the history books. In a year that marks the end of the Obama era and the start of the Trump regime, I feel a particular sense of urgency to represent a diversity of voices.

It's the year that has seen the death of legendary musical artists lkike Prince, Sharon Jones, Phife Dog and Maurice White — a reminder that we need to not only honour these legends but also create space for the newcomers who will take up their creative mantle and push the culture forward.

Montreal's Kaytranada is the first hip-hop/electronic artist to win the Polaris Music Prize. (Getty Images)

It's also the year that has witnessed some of the world's biggest pop stars use their platform to make unapologetically political stands, from Beyoncé at the Super Bowl and Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys to A Tribe Called Quest's "We the People" music video. These artists have created a soundtrack for revolution — and I am so excited to play it for the country.

This year also saw an unprecedented proliferation of well-received Canadian albums inspired by R&B: Kaytranada (99.9%), DVSN (Sept. 5th), River Tiber (Indigo), Tanika Charles (Soul Run), Drake (Views), Tory Lanez (I Told You), The Weeknd (Starboy), Nuela Charles (The Grand Hustle), Partynextdoor (P3), Roy Woods (Waking at Dawn) and Majid Jordan (Majid Jordan). Getting to introduce this music to the country is one of my greatest pleasures in doing the show.

The culture is growing at a rapid pace and Canada is at the forefront. There are still gaps to fill, particularly in the coverage of hip-hop music, but I'm proud to be part of a national show dedicated to sharing R&B with the country.

In the first few episodes, I always played songs from Marvin Gaye and Drake. The name of the show is a salute to both.

In the '70s, Gaye built a recording studio he named Marvin's Room. The studio became a sanctuary for the legendary R&B artist, not only a place for recording music and the occasional party, but also a reprieve from the outside world. Decades after his death, Drake visited the studio to record new music — including a song called "Marvin's Room."

I hope the show becomes a special place, too — for Canadian R&B artists and their fans, especially. A place that won't be forgotten.

Listen to Marvin's Room on CBC Music every Friday at 7pm.