Celebrating Deborah Cox: 7 artists on the Canadian R&B icon's most formative songs

The star will be the first Black woman inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, on May 15.

The star will be the first Black woman inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, on May 15

Deborah Cox will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame on May 15, 2022. (Stephane Danna/AFP via Getty Images)

It's not anyone who can inspire a star-studded social media challenge nearly four decades into their career, but that's the thing about Deborah Cox — she's not just anyone.

A Grammy nominee, multiple Juno Award winner, Broadway star and actor, Cox has been inspiring singers of all genres since she released her self-titled debut album in 1994. It would be her ubiquitous 1998 hit, "Nobody's Supposed to be Here," co-written by Montell Jordan and Anthony "Shep" Crawford, that would spark the Deborah Cox Challenge in 2020 in the midst of another pandemic wave, inspiring Lizzo, Melanie Fiona and Keke Palmer to belt out the ballad. 

Cox started performing at the age of 12 before becoming a professional backup singer for Céline Dion, but she had to leave Canada for L.A. early on in her career because, as she told q recently, "There was no support for Black music [in Canada]. And sadly, that's what it was. So we took our talents, you know, stateside.... We didn't take no for an answer. We just knew that we had something to offer."

Clive Davis, the producer and A&R executive connected to Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton, heard Cox's music shortly after her move and signed her to Arista Records, and the rest is history, giving us such timeless gems as "We Can't be Friends," "Where do we go From Here," "Who do U Love" and "Sentimental." (Cox would also be featured on a song with Houston, titled "Same Script, Different Cast," and would later sing all of Houston's music, including "I Will Always Love You," in the made-for-TV movie Whitney, directed by Angela Bassett. She would also join the cast of The Bodyguard musical to play Houston in 2020.)

Cox has been nominated for a Grammy Award and won four Junos (nominated for eight), and this year she'll become the first Black woman to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, at the 2022 Juno Awards on May 15.

"Respectfully, you have to give this woman her flowers," says multidisciplinary and R&B musician Tika, whose mother introduced her to Cox early on in their home. "And I'm really happy that the Junos finally were like, 'All right,' you know? But it's well overdue."

To commemorate the induction, we talked to seven Canadian artists who owe a lot to Deborah Cox's legacy, and asked them for their favourite Deborah Cox song.

"That song was HUGE!" - Deborah Cox | 5 Songs That Changed My Life

28 days ago
Duration 5:41
That song was HUGE! Deborah Cox reflects on how songs by Whitney Houston, Sarah McLachlan, Leonard Cohen and Gladys Knight changed her life.

Artist: Rochelle Jordan, Polaris-nominated alt-R&B singer-songwriter 
Song choice: "Nobody's Supposed to be Here"

"Hearing this song was one of the first times that I started paying attention to songwriting. My aunt would play this tape with Brownstone, Sounds of Blackness, SWV and Deborah Cox on it and my cousin and I would sing along. Hearing 'Nobody's Supposed to be Here' was one of those very clear moments where I was like, 'Whoa, this is a story.' It was something I couldn't necessarily relate to, because I was young at the time, but I remember being like, 'Oh, songs are stories.' I was around 13 years old and something just clicked. It's the melody choices, the expansion of the song overall. It's very musical. It's very gospel. It's very striking.

"I think all of those elements together — and I know Montell Jordan also co-wrote the song, that connection is insane — created that spark for a songwriter like myself. There's this memorableness to the song, this nostalgia, this iconicness. You can hear the real intense feeling of what music is supposed to feel like when you hear it. Deborah Cox's legacy is being that figure of soulful R&B from Canada and holding that torch until this day. Honestly, I didn't even know that she was from Canada until my late teens when I was deciding to be an artist. I just couldn't believe that she was from Scarborough. She made it, and just seeing her work with the most iconic of artists and producers and working with her idol Whitney Houston, she was looking at the best of the best and she reflects the best of the best. Legacy is like leaving footprints for people to follow and be inspired by, and that's very much what Deborah Cox has done, I'm sure for many artists, many Black female artists in Canada."

Artist: Reeny Smith, award-winning R&B singer, songwriter and producer
Song choice: "Nobody's Supposed to be Here"

"Growing up, just being a young African-Canadian female musician, it was great to be able to see people who look like you who are actually doing things that you want to do. So for me, you know, being able to see her career and being able to hear the beautiful music that she made and how it affected people, myself included, it was special to see and definitely something that gave me courage to even want to pursue this type of field and really just reach for it. It means everything when you can see what something looks like as it relates to yourself. And then, you know, just building up that confidence and that want-to-go-get-it type of mentality, to actually go out there and try to achieve the same thing. So it's definitely special to have people like Deborah Cox. 

"The first song I ever heard of hers was 'Nobody's Supposed to be Here' and I fell in love with the song immediately. Actually, my whole community in North Preston [N.S.], everyone fell in love with the song. And it had that chorus, it's so similar to a church vibe. So we were all like, you know, just screamin' the chorus and making a big choir out of it. Such a great song, even to this day, it still stands up with the best of them for me. I grew up listening to a lot of R&B and a lot of gospel, and that song just brings it all home for me."

Artist: Tika, multidisciplinary artist and critically acclaimed R&B singer
Song choice: "Nobody's Supposed to be Here"

"She's a massive staple in Toronto history and in Canadian history, especially for Black girls, you know. Like back in the day, I used to work in a hair salon and it was called Atlanta Hair Design at the time, and the owner was from Atlanta, but she came over to Toronto. Her name is Michelle, and I used to sweep the floors and do cash. And Deborah Cox was one of the constant staples that was running on rotation. Auntie Deb in the hair salon. And [Michelle would] always be like, 'Tika! Throw on Debbie!' [laughs]. And I was like, 'No problem, I got you.' You know? 

"She's been there the whole time. And you know, the unfortunate thing about Canada is that Canada is so late to its own party. Like, we've been rockin' with [those] records. But the entire country has not been really seeing and appreciating the greatness of her, which is so unfortunate because she's done a plethora of really groundbreaking things. You know what I'm saying? In the U.S. from being on Broadway, playing the legendary Whitney Houston, like in The Bodyguard — these are not small accolades. These are massive, massive accolades for Canada…. And then it's like, she collects the gays because she has the Deborah Cox 'Nobody's Supposed to be Here' remix, you know? So she's got the R&B community, she's got the Black community. She collected the gays — like what more do you want? I don't know what else this woman has to do for us to be like, 'OK, you are legend. Bow down.'

"My favourite Auntie Debbie song? Oh God, um. It's hard, you know what, I have to go with 'Sentimental.' It's always been my go-to because, the thing about Deborah Cox and why she's such a trailblazer, first of all, 'Sentimental' is a record that is a very jazz-influenced, classic R&B record. It's not a conventional hit in terms of the way that it's written. It's just classic neo-soul R&B. And there's something about it that is nostalgic. It reminds me a lot of the past and by the past, I mean past acts and past groups and bands that have come before. Even the music video has — it's sepia toned, you know, in terms of the way that it looks…. My ear loves 'Sentimental.'  When the drums come in [she snaps to the drum beat] it's just such a vibe! [Laughs]."

Artist: Sammy Jackson, winner of the 2021 Juno Award for vocal jazz album of the year
Song choice: "September in the Rain"

"As a child, I used to hear Deborah Cox's songs on the radio and would always sing along to them. I was thrilled when I learned that she had released a jazz album, as I had always known her as a Canadian R&B/pop singer-songwriter. As an artist who enjoys fusing elements of jazz, pop and R&B, I was happy when I encountered Deborah Cox's rendition of 'September in the Rain' from her album Destination Moon. Although this album is a tribute to Dinah Washington, I thoroughly appreciated how Deborah Cox interpreted the song as her own while staying true to the art form. The arrangement of this tune really complemented and supported her vocals in a beautiful way. This recording showcases Deborah Cox's versatility as an artist and is a great example of how to successfully cross over genres."

Artist: Adria Kain, critically acclaimed R&B singer-songwriter
Song choice: "Where do we go From Here" and "Nobody's Supposed to be Here"

"I grew up listening to her a lot. My mom used to sing when I was younger, especially ballads by artists like Deborah, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. I have strong memories of being in the living room, sitting on the floor and looking up at this black boombox we had on a large TV stand, and my mom would sing 'Where do we go From Here' and 'Nobody's Supposed to be Here.' I'll never forget those moments, and the way the songs used to make me feel even as a child. Both of those songs sparked a challenge in me vocally because she was a powerhouse vocalist with so much range and I've always loved that about artists. That is literally the thing that taught me how to sing, just imitating any challenging vocals I heard until I got it perfect.

"Today, I still find myself singing those songs at the top of my lungs. Deborah Cox was and still is 100 per cent a legend and a force in the R&B world, that I will forever acknowledge through and through. Her being Canadian is something special." 

Artist: Tanika Charles, two-time Polaris Music Prize longlist nominee
Song choice: "Sentimental"

"Deborah Cox was one of the first Black Canadian R&B singers to crossover, and by crossover I mean she went to the States and got to work with Dallas Austin and Babyface. She made it seem possible for someone young and impressionable, like myself, that maybe music is a career that could happen. [Cox's debut single, 'Sentimental'] was a track where I was like, 'She's Canadian? Really? That's amazing.' The harmonies, the groove … she's passionate in all of her songs, but this one, for me, if I can sing along and feel good when I'm singing it, I'm often attracted to a song like that. She has a lot of hits, but that one was the one that I really loved and really connected to. One thing that she does, which my father always said to me, was that she enunciates and you know what she's talking about and her content is amazing. I feel like the way she influenced me was in her consistency and her range; I didn't want to have the same sound, but she inspired me to be strong in my vocals."

Artist:  JRDN, winner of the 2014 Juno for R&B/soul recording of the year
Song choice: "Sentimental"

"I was listening back to some of her [music], especially 'Who do U Love.' There's just some falsetto stuff — and 'Sentimental,' I'm singing these songs and I'm like, 'Why do I know these so well?' You know what I mean? Because she's been an influence in that sense, where I'm singing this falsetto and I'm like, 'Aaah I remember singing these before I ever recorded a song,' and just feeling how that helped me learn how to sing falsettos as an artist as well.

"Canadian artist, Black Canadian artist, powerful female voice, you know, coming up — because I was kind of dreaming about being an artist about '92, '93 where I was like, 'I'm going to do this one day,' you know? So to see artists from Canada be successful in the same genre that I was potentially going to be a part of, I was really hopeful, they inspired me to keep singing, and to see that we can be successful as Canadian artists. So the fact that there wasn't a ton of us, that things have changed over the years, of course [laughs]. But, yeah, definitely an inspiration in that sense."

Deborah Cox wins her first Juno award | Junos Vault

2 years ago
Duration 1:03
"I never expected to leave with one of these tonight..." Check out Canadian singer Deborah Cox's first Juno award win.

Wherever you are in the world, you can tune in to the 2022 Juno Awards on Sunday, May 15. You can watch live on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos

Simu Liu will host the 2022 Juno Awards. (CBC)


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