Queering the Canadian music industry

How Rae Spoon, Witch Prophet and other LGBTQ2SIA artists are radically reimagining the business of music.

How Rae Spoon, Witch Prophet and other LGBTQ2SIA artists are radically reimagining the business of music

Ayo Leilani (a.k.a. Witch Prophet) and Rae Spoon have a lot of hope for disrupting the stubbornly homogenous Canadian music industry, and they're turning that hope into action. (Samuel Engelking; Dave Todon)

When Tegan and Sara Quin released their first record as Tegan and Sara, 1999's Under Feet Like Ours, the twin sisters already openly identified as queer. The pop-rock duo has had significant success over the last 20 years, selling more than one million records and navigating the record industry with the necessary combination of skill, savvy and luck.

Tegan and Sara have had a high profile from almost the very beginning of their career (they signed to Neil Young's Vapor Records in 1999) and yet it still took them almost a decade to achieve "mainstream" success. And it was another seven years after their breakthrough when Tegan and Sara made their most anthemically queer album yet, 2015's Love You to Death.

"We're very invested in trying to reach a broader audience and to diversify the mainstream," Tegan  told Charlie Rose, speaking about the personal and political motivations behind their art. "There's not a ton of queer women in the mainstream and we're queer and we saw an opportunity."

If Tegan and Sara were still struggling to see themselves in their culture and in their industry as recently as 2016, even with their myriad privileges (white, cisgender, thin), imagine how difficult it is for independent artists who identify as Indigenous and Two Spirit artists, or racialized and queer, or transgender, non-binary or gender-nonconforming.

Ayo Leilani (Witch Prophet, Above Top Secret) and Rae Spoon have known that struggle. Leilani began making music in 2009 and, under the moniker Witch Prophet, released her debut solo album, The Golden Octave, in 2018. Spoon released their first album, Honking in Minivans, in 2001. Around 2015, Leilani and Spoon founded independent record labels — 88 Days of Fortune, which is now Heart Lake Records, and Coax Records, respectively— that are all about eschewing capitalism in favour of community, transparent and ethical practices, and making space for historically under-represented and marginalized artists.

In just four years, these labels have helped radically disrupt the stubbornly homogenous Canadian music industry. Consider that since the beginning of 2019 alone, Heart Lake Records has released five different offerings, while Coax Records has released nine albums and EPs, almost all by queer, racialized, non-binary and gender non-conforming artists.

Both Leilani and Spoon release music on their own labels, and though they have seemingly arrived at a similar place simultaneously, they have approached Heart Lake and Coax from distinctly different vantage points.

Ayo Leilani

Leilani is a queer Ethiopian-Eritrean woman and mother who co-founded 88 Days of Fortune, a queer hip-hop space and loose collective of DIY artists in Toronto, in 2009. This is also where she met DJ/producer/artist Francesca Nocera, who goes by Sun Sun, her partner and collaborator for the last decade. They started 88 Days partly as a response to rejection from music industry's gatekeepers, but also because they knew there was a demand that was going unfulfilled.

"When we started wanting to perform, and to expand our network and our net worth, we were met with a lot of people telling us, 'You know, nobody knows who you are,'" Leilani tells CBC Music over the phone. "You have to kind of have the cosign from somebody, right? So instead of doing that, what we did was say, 'Well, we're just gonna put on the shows ourselves,' because we know that the scene is here, and it is thirsty for something new. And we did do that. And we proved that that was the case. Toronto was begging for something community-oriented, where it was a queer safe space, where it was integrating all different scenes together to uplift music and DIY artists."

Eventually, 88 Days expanded its platform to release music by some of its artists, but as the various collective members went on to pursue different projects, Leilani says it made sense for her and Nocera to move away from the 88 Days brand and make something that, though founded on the same principles, was a little bit different.

"Heart Lake Records is a queer women-run label, which really focuses on supporting people who look and feel like us and also don't get the platforms that other people do," Leilani explains. "We focus on supporting and releasing music from mostly queer, women-identified people and non-binary people. And our allies, because of course we're never going to say no to working with somebody just because of their gender identity or sexuality or anything like that. But we do like to focus on women and non-binary people typically just because of the way the industry works."

Leilani says Heart Lake helps support artists to get grants and distribution, and they have also sponsored artists without officially signing them. Last year, they released Scarborough-based hardcore rapper Yasmine's debut, No Squad in the Wild, as well as Leilani's Witch Prophet debut. 

"As a queer woman of colour, I continue to thrive as an artist who is committed to telling true stories of my life in hopes for change and to inspire the world around me," Yasmine tells CBC Music."88 Days of Fortune is family. I've been working with them since I was 18 and almost 10 years later they continue to support my work, my growth and have helped get my music and art on multiple platforms, such as NXNE, Nuite Blanche, and most recently Red Bull Festival, just to name a few. They've allowed my music to reach the masses and continue to encourage me as an artist."

Yasmine credits Leilani and Nocera for modelling compassion and professionalism in their work ethic, and for allowing their artists to "be who they are and live in their truth." 

"They have given the opportunity for queer artists to be heard and to let the city know that we're here, too, and we're hella f--king talented and can stand next to our fellow straight artists," Yasmine says. "They have created spaces for acceptance for all. Home should be your safe space and they have always created that for me and for others." 

"Pretty much our business plan at the moment is just support who we really want to see shine, whether that be with resources or financially," Leilani says. "It's strange, because we do a lot of the things that we were already doing with 88 Days. We [even] still kind of [put on shows]. I do a lot of like booking for people and like, sending them showcases, like, 'Make sure you apply for this.' Some [people] I have been supporting without actually saying, 'Here sign this contract and I will do it for you.' It's just really about passion and wanting to see more women in the industry."

Rae Spoon

Spoon is an award-winning, non-binary musician and author who is almost 20 years into a music career that started in country and now encapsulates indie pop, rock, folk-punk and electronic. They founded Coax Records after their Calgary-based label, Saved By Radio, went on hiatus in 2015. Outside Distribution agreed to continue distributing Spoon's records, and so they pushed it a step further.

"When they said yes, I was like, 'Oh, can I actually have a label?'" Spoon tells CBC Music over the phone. "There's not very many labels left, or indie labels, or really many ways to get albums into stores anymore. But there's still a really good, strong independent record culture. So I feel like for independent artists, even though maybe we're not selling tons of records through stores, it's really about being able to extend that. So that's kind of how the idea began. After playing for so many years, I knew lots of indie musicians who were playing regularly, like at festivals, but didn't have that support to have the records available for stores, especially vinyl. If you're trying to distribute your own vinyl, that would be very, very difficult and expensive."

Spoon has been learning the business of being an independent artist for two decades, and along the way, mentors helped pave their way. They were just 20 years old when they met Meegan Maultsaid, a musician, manager, community organizer and artistic producer (Under the Volcano, Rock for Choice).

"Meegan really took me under her wing when I was 20," Spoon says. "I went from living in Alberta to a year later playing at the Vancouver Folk Festival, which would have never happened without her. So, as I was kind of approaching the age she was [when she helped me], I was like, 'Oh, you know, maybe I have space to help some folks out.' I know so many artists in Canada — especially if you belong to more than one category that's oppressed in the music industry — it's a lot harder. There are definitely folks who do super well, but there's not a lot of in-between support for smaller people starting out."

Spoon wanted to expand their own circle, and asked friends for recommendations about artists they should approach for Coax. They were particularly interested in providing resources and support to marginalized artists, but it wasn't that simple.

"I get approached by white cis straight men 10 times more than anybody else for help, because I think they feel comfortable asking for it," Spoon says. "I actually realized that I would have to purposefully try to work with people who didn't belong, you know, to just that one category. But on top of that, I like to try to work with folks who are just trying to learn new things."

It feels like we are creating something new that will serve generations to come.- Nic (LAL)

In 2016, Spoon began working with LAL, a Toronto-based electronic duo comprised of Rose and Nic (Rosina Kazi and Nicholas "Murr" Murray) that has been making music since 1998. LAL's press release describes the pair as a "Brampton/ Bangladeshi queer weirdo" and an "immigrant Barbadian, West-Indian, straight cis Blackman nerd." LAL has released its last two albums via Coax, including Dark Beings, which just dropped on May 17.

"I really liked Rae Spoon's ideas around how to create a symbiotic music infrastructure," Nic tells CBC Music. "It feels really powerful to be on the label with so many super talented artists. Also it feels like we are creating something new that will serve generations to come."

"We work mostly with queer, trans, Two Spirit and/or Black, Indigenous, people of colour and our friends, plus those who have a critical lense," Rose says, noting that LAL has historically found more support in theatre than in music. "Possibly because theatre has a more critical — in our community at least — and lengthy process around creation. I'm not totally sure why, to be honest, but definitely we are part of an ecosystem of artists, activists and community-minded and DIY/grassroots peoples. We aren't interested in [being] super rich or just exploring our own work. Our work centres our experiences in a wider community and we often work together to make amazing art and f--k with mainstream."

LAL observes multiple ways the traditional Canadian music industry has continued to uphold barriers.

"The biggest way would be a sort of idealism that reinforces a type or form that can be commercially successful, or have a career which is almost always informed by the patriarchy, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, ableism, etcetera," Nic says.

"The traditional music industry is mostly controlled by white cis men in Canada, and though we are seeing changes to this dynamic, it's still folks who believe in capitalism, and we don't think this system works for most peoples," Rose says. "We still aren't seeing enough BIPOC and/or queer/trans/Two Spirit  communities in positions of power, but most of us are just now creating and focusing on our own worlds, which we have been doing regardless forever. The lack of accessible venues, DIY and music venues being shut down in Toronto is scary, and I'm not sure if the traditional music industry is aware or is fighting on a political platform to make room for all, not just those who have access and can afford to pay to play."

Rose says the lowest points in LAL's 20 years have been marked by not seeing themselves reflected in the music industry. Coax is helping to change that.

"For me as a singer who is gender fluid/non-binary, big and brown, it has been that I'm too weird or confident for the industry," Rose says. "But more so, I was trying to get into the industry when I actually didn't belong there. The high point for us now is just doing what we do with like-minded folks and building a wider dialogue nationally." 

Among those like-minded folks is Kimmortal, a musician and artist whose bio describes as "a queer, Filipinx second-generation settler based on unceded Coast Salish territories a.k.a. Vancouver." Kimmortal uses they and she pronouns interchangeably, and she released her newest album, X Marks the Swirl, this past April.

"I have been navigating music on a relationship basis with trusted friends in the community, and specifically the queer POC community," Kimmortal tells CBC Music over the phone. "I've heard about Rae Spoon through friends, specifically through one of my good friends who's queer and Asian and someone that's been in the scene a lot. And then also LAL mentioned Rae Spoon and I've always listened to LAL as queer, brown and Black artists in music who are really just trying to change the terrain."

Kimmortal contacted Spoon last year as she readied her first record in five years. Mainly she wanted advice about how to do it right independently, but soon she realized that Coax might be a home that aligned with her own values.

"Rae was just like, yeah, totally, let's do it, this is the process, and it was super transparent," Kimmortal says. "I really like how Rae actually uses Coax as a community service, like giving back, because 100 per cent of the profits don't go to them. That also shocked me. I was like, really? I've never heard of that. That speaks so much to me and that's the kind of people I want to work with in music. I definitely have been approached by other folks who were like, 'We can get you on different markets in Asia and South America,' but they didn't know what I was about. They didn't really care for my message. And my words are why I do what I do. It just felt so right, especially with all the artists under Coax Records. These are folks that I already follow and I look up to and I would love to work with."

Decolonizing the music industry is actually learning what it is to be in community.- Kimmortal

Both LAL and Kimmortal are grateful to work with Spoon, a person who has also mostly operated from a position of otherness outside the mainstream music industry and the status quo.

"It is nice to have a working relationship with someone like Rae who gets the struggle," Nic says. "I also feel like disruption as a way of being is not a choice for us, based on the history of colonization in Canada."

"It's like, should I put my energy into always trying to explain my intention to disrupt?" Kimmortal says. "You don't have to if you're already working with artists that are doing that. You can actually focus more on the art. I'd rather be around people that are already living that truth. It's so much less work."

By removing a capitalist inclination to competition, Kimmortal says, Coax and other independent labels like it are doing substantial community building. 

"Decolonizing the music industry is actually learning what it is to be in community," Kimmortal says. "Shifting that way of understanding, we can rise and shine together and share skills. That's also something for me to rewire in my brain. It's easy to isolate myself for so long, like, 'Oh, I have to do this all by myself.' But when you see people actually want to support and build — there's such a beautiful thing that happens when you're part of group projects. That's even more exhilarating than doing solo work for me these days."

The future of Canadian music

Last fall, Jeremy Dutcher won the Polaris Music Prize for his groundbreaking debut, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. The Two-Spirt, Wolastoqiyik member of Tobique First Nation was the third queer musician in a row to win Canada's largest cash prize for music, and Dutcher's win also marked the fourth time in five years that an Indigenous person won Polaris.

Music is changing this land, and what you see on this stage tonight, this is the future. This is what's to come.- Jeremy Dutcher, accepting the Polaris Music Prize

"It's so exciting, the kind of space that's really opened up in this music scene," Dutcher told CBC Arts. "For Two-Spirited artists, trans artists, queer artists ... anyone under the umbrella. It's really incredible."

Award-winning musician and author Vivek Shraya also spoke about this earlier in the year, in a piece about Tao-Ming Lau, the queer woman of colour behind Blue Crane Agency, the first music booking agent of its kind in Canada.

"I've been making music officially in Canada since 2002, so like, 17 years, and this is the first time I've had a booking agent," Shraya said.

It was also the first time in a decade that Shraya, a trans woman of colour, had any kind of music industry representation at all.

"Because of all the bad experiences I've had, I'm very, very cautious about who I decide to work with," Shraya said. "Between Tao's background in the business and also understanding the barriers that queer people, racialized people, feminine people face, I felt like it made a lot of sense."

Heart Lake Records and Coax Records' founders understand the barriers well, and LAL's Rose only wishes this kind of support had been available earlier on in the band's existence.

"I think if Coax had been around from the beginning of our careers, we would definitely be in a different place, because we would have focused on alternative avenues versus trying to find our space within mainstream communities," Rose says. "We may not be known beyond our communities, but we would have a stronger base and support system nationally and internationally. So this is what LAL is now focusing on."

Spoon has modest goals for Coax's future. Right now they do all of the administration work, as well as helping to write grants and handle all the mail orders. But they're happy to be home a bit more now after 20 years on the road.

"I've been very lucky," Spoon says. "When I started writing books, I kind of diversified my income. So I have a little bit more free time, but I don't have to be on tour every day. I used to have to play, like, 250 shows a year to make a living, and I don't have to do that anymore. I imagine in the future I might hire an admin person. Like, have that as part of what I contribute to the label. But for now, it's just me. And, you know, most of the time I get it right."

At Heart Lake Records, Leilani and Nocera are working on their most ambitious project yet. They purchased a 50-acre farm and forest in Caledon, an hour outside Toronto. They've been renovating the farmhouse on the property for about a year and a half. They live in part of it and are turning the bottom half into an artist residency that they call Stregavilla, which means "witch house" in Italian. The couple wants to start producing outdoor music festivals on the farm, possibly as soon as next spring or summer.

Leilani is also looking ahead at Heart Lake's release schedule, which includes a solo Sun Sun beat album, as well as another Witch Prophet record called D.N.A Activation. There are plans for a new Above Top Secret record, as well as something from Yasmine.

"Ayo and Sun Sun are family and I owe them a lot," Yasmine says. "They took this young, shy, 18-year-old who spat over unrecorded instrumentals and really saw something in me I couldn't even see then. They've always had my best interests [in mind] and have shown that with their actions. In life people don't have to do anything for you and they've just always came through for me and continue to do so. I'm truly forever grateful." 

Labels like Heart Lake and Coax are doing the work. If the traditional music industry continues its exclusionary practices, Leilani says, it'll be to their detriment.

"What they're missing out on is the future," Leilani says."Regardless if they want to acknowledge us or not, we will take over — and we are."

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner