New mentorship programs are 'life-changing' for Black musicians in Nova Scotia

‘I want someone from Scotia to blow up,’ says Katrina Lopes, a talent manager and mentor pushing for change in her home province.

‘I want someone from Scotia to blow up,’ says Katrina Lopes, a talent manager and mentor pushing for change

Jody Upshaw performs her 1st showcase at Nova Scotia Music Week on Nov. 3, 2022. (Meghan Tansey Whitton/Support4Culture)

"I just want to see people win."

Katrina Lopes is to the point about why she's in Sydney, N.S., for Nova Scotia Music Week this November. The president of KL Management and longtime manager of Shawn Desman was born in Halifax, and went to high school and university in the city before leaving to make a name for herself in the music industry. 

She's never truly left the community, though, unofficially championing African Nova Scotian and Black artists in the province from her Toronto base for years. But this year, Lopes has officially approached music industry associations with a plan to create infrastructure for artists who have systemically fallen through the cracks.

"There wasn't really anyone for me to look up to when I was coming up," she continued. "So I just want to help provide access and open doors and help other people win because I didn't have that."

Anti-Black racism in the music industry has benefitted white musicians for generations, but the gap is much starker in provinces such as Nova Scotia that don't have the infrastructure larger provinces do. The increasing pressure of the Black Lives Matter protests at the beginning of the pandemic forced industry organizations to look at how to fix what was broken. At this year's Nova Scotia Music Week, the event's 25th anniversary, Music Nova Scotia released a report titled "Black Music Matters" based on a survey of 100 respondents, 60 of whom identified as African Nova Scotian and Black artists or industry professionals.

The report detailed how Black musicians feel about the industry, and how organizations are letting them down — and includes next steps as to what Music Nova Scotia plans to do to combat systemic racism and provide the necessary supports. The biggest obstacle recorded by Black musicians in the report was a lack of industry support, infrastructure and networks, followed closely by anti-Black racism. More than half the respondents did not think that the music industry in Nova Scotia either supported or respected Black artists. 

"What I think is so interesting is there's no shortage of raw talent [in Nova Scotia]," said Lopes. "So whatever the community is doing to support the talent is working because the talent is on point. But there's no infrastructure. So what is the industry doing to support? Not a whole lot."

To get music industry associations on board earlier this year, she started small: Lopes ran a mini mentorship program for African Nova Scotian and Black musicians through the East Coast Music Association in the spring, and followed it up in August with a song camp only for Black musicians, funded by Charles Taylor Theatre. 

"I did the song camp because it came out of a conversation with some artists who had mentioned that one, they don't go to very many song camps; two, if they do, they're the only Black person there…. And that's not really so common in Toronto. I think most Canadians maybe haven't been at an all-Black camp, but it wouldn't be true that they're the only Black person in a writing session. So I was like, this is something we can fix."

Her followup pitch for Nova Scotia Music Week was bigger: a weekend of performance coaching from vocal coach Lorraine Lawson (who has worked with Alessia Cara and Roy Woods) and brand mentorship for the Black artists showcasing at Music Week. Lopes also supported the artists during and after the performances, and arranged for music buyers and representatives to be in the room who are well matched to the music that was being showcased.

To feel that we were prioritized, it just leaves a different headspace for us when we approach weekends like this.- Haliey Smith

Haliey Smith, an emerging R&B singer from North Preston and younger sister to singer Reeney Smith, has been performing since she was five years old — an opportunity that comes from a gifted musical family and a Baptist pastor grandfather. Now performing and writing original music under the stage name Haliey, she originally performed music under her given name, Mahalia. Haliey was one of the participants in the Music Week coaching and branding program, and took what she learned to her Music Week performance. She called the experience "life-changing."

"Honestly, I know it made me feel too special, because of course, we've never been offered anything like that," said Smith. "But to feel that we were prioritized, it just leaves a different headspace for us when we approach weekends like this. We look forward to it…. It gives us a reason to walk in dignity and in grace and in class. And honestly, it's great for us to be able to have this information and give it back to the young children in our community that are coming up and are watching us become musicians and they're wanting to do the same thing. Having this information is just like, OK, we don't have to wait for other people to give it to us now."

Jody Upshaw, a 19-year-old R&B singer who's been performing since she was 11 (and who is Lopes's cousin), recently won the spot as Music Nova Scotia's artist in residence — which came with $10,000 attached — and participated in both Lopes's August song camp and the Music Week mentorship program. While Upshaw said she's been showcasing at Nova Scotia Music Week for a "long time," this year felt different.

"Black artists have always felt like there might not necessarily be a place for us here in this organization, or [were wondering] will it ever work, you know what I mean?" said Upshaw. "There's a lot of white genres, white people, traditional music, folk music here in Nova Scotia in general, that a lot of the world thinks that that's only really what's here. But that's so not true at all. And we have so many talented Black artists that deserve huge opportunities here. So it's amazing to have Music Nova Scotia listen to a Black person say that this is what these Black artists need, and giving [Lopes] the power to do what she needs to do for us."

Smith and Upshaw are both effusive in their praise of Lopes, and how crucial getting supportive but honest feedback about their shows has been to both of them — and how affirming it is to be part of the community that Lopes is creating. "Katrina is a gem-and-a-half, an angel, a lifesaver," said Smith; "Any email that I get that has Katrina's name in it I'm like, 'Sign me up,'" said Upshaw, who counts herself lucky to have been mentored by Lopes for years now. 

Lopes said that the mentorship opportunities this year are just a small piece of her bigger vision for what future infrastructure could look like. Industry-wise, she hopes that Nova Scotia can eventually support a label, as well as a management and publishing company that is Black-owned and run. "I'm not doing that," she added, laughing, but she hopes it happens organically.

As far as what she's doing, Lopes has a specific dream for the future: "I want someone from Scotia to blow up. I want it to put Nova Scotia on the map. So I just want to be part of that process."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.