'Where do we put her?': how the music industry struggled with Black pop artists like Fefe Dobson

The Canadian musician first emerged in 2003, and labels struggled to find a place for her.

The Canadian musician first emerged in 2003, and labels struggled to find a place for her

In a recent Instagram takeover for CBC Music, Fefe Dobson looked back on the obstacles she faced as a Black pop artist. (Fefe Dobson/Facebook)

When Fefe Dobson first emerged in 2003 with her self-titled debut album, there were not many other artists who looked and sounded like her. This was still the era in which pop stars were predominantly white and blonde: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson. Even before Dobson inked her first deal, she was confronted with this narrow view of what made a pop star. 

"When they heard my voice and they saw my image, they instantly kind of branded me as 'Brandy Spears,'" Dobson recalls in a recent CBC Music Instagram takeover, looking back at a Canadian label that gave her a nickname that was a combination of Spears and R&B singer Brandy. "That's how they described me. 'She's a Black girl, but she's got a pop voice.'" 

It's a kind of experience that she admits she has "always dealt with, that the image never really matched what came out of me." But Dobson persevered, signing to Island/Def Jam in the U.S. for the release of her first album, which went platinum in Canada and earn her a Juno Award nomination for pop album of the year. She even opened for Justin Timberlake on his European tour, a dream feat for Dobson who calls Timberlake her "first crush ever." 

But when time came for her to put out her second album, the even more rock-oriented Sunday Love, she found herself running into the same marketing problem as before. "We don't know if you can be played on the rock radio, or if you should be on pop radio," her label told her. She would constantly hear the question, "Where do we put her?" That would eventually lead to Dobson splitting from her label, leaving her to return to her home in Toronto and start all over as an artist. 

Sunday Love would, as Dobson reveals, provide lots of "undercover blessings" though. Other pop stars like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Jordin Sparks recorded new versions of her songs, "Start All Over," "As a Blonde," and "Don't Let it Go to Your Head," respectively. Seeing her songs take on new life reignited a spark in her to continue making music, later releasing her 2010 album, Joy. But it was a hard-fought journey for Dobson, who has undoubtedly learned from these incidents, and uses them as fuel and motivation moving forward.

"I've learned a lot of patience," she concludes. "Patience with myself, and to never give up and keep pushing through." 

To watch Fefe Dobson's full Instagram takeover, head over to CBC Music's Instagram page

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.



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