2021: the year of healing

Last year, we indulged in escapism. This year, we came back to reality and confronted important issues in the music industry.

Last year, we indulged in escapism. This year, we confronted important issues in the music industry

We've spent lots of time escaping our feelings last year. Now, we must confront the new reality in order to achieve real healing. (Beatrice Deer/Facebook, Getty Images, Cadence Weapon/Facebook; graphic by CBC)

Last year, CBC Music proclaimed that 2020 was the year of escapism

"Anger, fear and grief reigned over this year and the immense weight of world events threatened to crush us," we said nearly 12 months ago. And those feelings didn't just evaporate when the countdown hit zero and we entered 2021. Change, as many will point out, takes time. 

But while an air of uncertainty still looms large worldwide as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, a glimmer of that light at the end of the tunnel peaked through. Vaccines began rolling out, and people have gradually reunited in homes, restaurants and even concert venues. 

This year, we've decided on the theme of healing, but healing, just like change, is a process that can't be rushed. It was debated whether or not to follow the word up with a question mark, as if to leave readers room to question and dissect whether these acts of healing were effective or even beneficial in the long term. 

The return to live music is great and much needed for the industry (which includes music venues, concert promoters and crew members whose livelihoods depend on artists being on the road), but COVID-19 is still a complicating factor. The introduction of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada is a step forward in acknowledging our country's history of violence against Indigenous people, yet the federal statutory holiday has received mixed reactions from various Indigenous communities. And in music news, the long-awaited trials of R. Kelly and Britney Spears saw justice get served: Kelly was found guilty of sex trafficking; Spears was freed from her 13-year conservatorship. But will this set a precedent for how similar cases of abuse are dealt with? 

We've spent lots of time escaping our feelings, and now we must confront the new reality in order to achieve real healing. Below, we look back specifically at the ways in which we tried to heal in 2021. Here's hoping that in 2022, we can look back at the year with less doubt, and perhaps an emphatic exclamation mark.

The cautious return to live music

Written by Holly Gordon

I didn't notice the giant smile on my face under the mask at first. I'd been hesitantly dipping my toe back into show-going since late last summer, as Halifax has held restricted live shows for more than a year, on either side of lockdowns, since COVID numbers have often been low. 

But this was different. No assigned seats, dancing allowed. Standing in front of a stage with friends, in a bar, with a drink, watching Les Hay Babies sing, dance and jam on songs from their '60s-tinged, Laurel Canyon-comfortable album Boite aux Lettres in dazzling costumes. It was 19 months after the pandemic started, October 2021, and it felt like we had shed a dead-weight layer.

2021 started with a question: will live music make a comeback? We argued yes, and writer Melissa Vincent made a case for what to keep when trying to rebuild. But the process was filled with hurdles and uncertainties. The fourth wave hit Canada in late spring, with a later vaccine rollout than expected. The summer, thankfully, brought outdoor shows back into business, but indoor shows were still up in the air. 

Touring was also risky. Cadence Weapon told CBC Music's Kelsey Adams in August 2021 about his experience performing in Sudbury: "When I arrived, it was the first time I had to do a rapid test before I got to play," he said. "You're sitting in this room for 15 minutes waiting for the results and if it shows that bad colour, you just came to Sudbury for no reason. It's wild, this new level of stress on top of the regular rigours of touring."

It's a different industry right now. As Adams detailed in her piece, "Touring acts will have to restrict how much they interact with fans — meet and greets, merch table hangouts and crashing on fans' couches (as Cadence used to do back in the day) are things of the past. They'll have to skip the afterparties and avoid any unnecessary exposure. All because one positive test can bring their entire tour to a halt." 

That vigilance only became more intense as we moved indoors this fall, with vaccinated patrons allowed to attend shows at varying levels of capacity across the country. Everyone has their own comfort zones: what feels OK to do right now, what feels too risky, and what you need to do to make a living.It's different everywhere. Music Nova Scotia, for example, was able to safely hold its yearly music festival and conference in early November, two weeks before Edmonton's live music scene was just getting back up and running. And no matter where you are, the wild spike in insurance rates for both performers and venues is reaching "untenable" prices.

When it all comes together, though, it is joyous. Last year we had long, dark stretches of months without live music, only able to access it through an intangible live-stream. Now, we have hope, and a slow healing: live music is different, but it exists. Singing and dancing to songs you love, surrounded by fellow fans? It's an energy I knew I'd missed, but couldn't qualify — not until I stood standing in the same room as performing musicians, grinning non-stop. We got used to zero live music, and now we have some. It feels like progress. 

To reach reconciliation, hard truths must be acknowledged 

Written by Kelsey Adams

On Sept. 30, people across Canada and around the world played their drums and sang in solidarity with the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Drum for the Children was a collective effort, organized by the nation to commemorate the lives of the 215 children who died and were buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops, B.C., residential school. The discovery of those bodies on May 27 shook the country to its core, and was the catalyst that set the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in motion. However, it was no surprise to many Indigenous peoples that the children that never made it home from residential schools were buried all over the country. In the weeks that followed, more nations across the country began uncovering mass graves. By June 3, a bill to recognize Sept. 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation received royal assent. Six years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 calls to action, the request for a day to honour survivors, their families and communities was realized. 

People joined in at 2:15 p.m. PT on Sept. 30 to drum and sing the Secwépemc "Honour Song," to participate in a moment of communal healing, honouring, as the event's website specified, "the Indian Residential Schools' Survivors who carried the burden of knowing where the children were buried" and "the families and communities whose children did not come home."

Music, art and film are many people's first entry point into understanding the gravity of the wound the residential school system left behind. CBC Music's Melody Lau put together a list of songs spanning decades that illustrate that history from first-person perspectives. 

For many Indigenous musicians, a statutory holiday is merely a first step. CBC Music partnered with CBC Indigenous to ask nine artists what reconciliation means to them. Their answers varied, but one common sentiment was that "reconciliation is perhaps an aspirational goal," as Anishinaabe musician and composer Melody McKiver said. 

There's a lot to contend with on top of the sordid legacy of residential schools: the Sixties Scoop; the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in foster care systems; the continual backlash against land defenders; treaties not being upheld; the residual effects of generational trauma. 

Inuk singer Beatrice Deer shared thoughts about the government's role in it all: "It just reveals how deceitful the government has been throughout this century and how much it's willing to hide the truth, which is refusing to be accountable for what they did to our people by not giving dignity to those children."

Settlers must reckon with these truths in a material way. The realities of the treatment of Indigenous people on this land must be embedded in our curriculums, law-making and our social consciousness. A continuous and long-lasting endeavour, rather than one commemorative day a year, is needed. Healing takes work, it doesn't just happen with the passing of time. For much of the profound injustice to be rectified, non-Indigenous Canadians must hold ourselves accountable to do this work. 

Every day should be a day of confronting truths and working toward reconciliation. In the aforementioned piece about musicians and reconciliation, Inuk singer-songwriter and filmmaker Elisapie put it plainly: "This is our story. But this is definitely your story, too. So get on with it and discuss and face those uncomfortable questions and try to find the answers, too."

The fight for justice in the music industry 

Written by Melody Lau

While questions and uncertainties revolve around our return to music and Canada's ongoing work of reconciliation with Indigenous communities, one of the more resolute parts of music in 2021 was the end of a couple high-profile court cases.

Abuse in the industry comes in many forms, and two big cases this year illustrated how often it disproportionately targets women. After two-plus decades of allegations and multiple lawsuits, R&B singer R. Kelly was found guilty of racketeering, including bribery and sexual exploitation of a child, as well as sex trafficking. Accounts of the Chicago artist displaying predatory behaviour toward young girls (and later revealed in court, young boys) dates back to the '90s, but his continued evasion of culpability spoke to a larger problem, as reporter Jim DeRogatis (who has covered the rampant allegations against Kelly for years) told CBS News in 2019: "Nobody matters less in our society than young Black girls." 

In total, Kelly's nine convicted counts could add up to decades — or life — in prison. While Kelly is facing even more federal criminal charges in other states, his sentencing for this year's New York trial is scheduled for May 4, 2022. In response to this news, DeRogatis declared that, finally, "The jury showed it cared about young Black women." 

Over in California, fans became engrossed in pop star Britney Spears' 13-year battle with her family and those who held control over her life thanks to a conservatorship that was put in place following a tumultuous time in the spotlight. While the public has been aware of her conservatorship since the beginning, few knew how extreme its circumstances were until the 2021 New York Times/Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears reexamined the media's complicity in scrutinizing and harming Spears' mental health, as well as how her family — namely her father, Jamie — carried on, taking advantage of Spears' fame and money. "I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive," Spears told the court, in a rare statement that was made public. "I just want my life back." On Nov. 12, Spears' conservatorship was terminated by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, with fans joyously celebrating outside.

These moments brought the music community a necessary catharsis, one that's worth celebrating, but many more cases big and small remain. The path to healing here is ongoing and so long as we continue to keep our foot on the pedal, justice will hopefully come — no matter how long the battles may be.