Black History Month: 6 black Canadian culture-makers

February is Black History Month in Canada and we're celebrating six of the cultural movers and shakers who enliven the arts scene in this country, and the icons who inspired them.

We're celebrating 6 Canadian cultural movers and shakers and the icons who influenced them

This composite shows famed Canadian culture-makers, from left to right: filmmaker Clément Virgo, novelist Esi Edugyan, actor Stephan James, musical artist Shad, author Lawrence Hill and soprano Measha Brueggergosman. (Ben Gabbe-Getty, Steven Price/CP, Ben Gabbe-Getty, Frank Gunn/CP, Ben Gabbe & Malcolm Taylor/Getty)

February is Black History Month in Canada, which provides an opportunity to celebrate some of the movers and shakers at the heart of this country's arts and culture scene – and the icons who helped inspire them.

Meet six black Canadian culture-makers and the legends who energized them in this CBC Arts special feature.

Selma star and Canadian actor Stephan James, named his Selma co-star and American media mogul Oprah Winfrey as the black icon who most influenced him. (Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)
Canadian culture-maker: Stephan James, Toronto actor and Selma star.

Most influenced by: Oprah Winfrey.

Why: "[It's] what she's been able to do for so many people, just as a humanitarian, as a giver, as a lover of people. [She is] somebody so charitable, who has been able to have such a large effect on so many different people. That's somebody I definitely look up to."

On working with Oprah on Selma: "She's everything I thought she was. Working with her was a complete honour, she's so personable, and once you get over the whole 'oh, she's Oprah!' … it's kinda normal."

James takes on the role of black American sprinter Jesse Owens in the upcoming historical drama Race. James talks about what he learned from portraying the legendary athlete in the video link above.

Lawrence Hill, the Canadian author who penned the bestselling novel The Book of Negroes named American boxing great Muhammad Ali as his most influential black icon. (Ben Gabbe/Getty Images, Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)
​Canadian culture-maker: Lawrence Hill, best-selling author of The Book of Negroes.

Most influenced by: Muhammad Ali, American boxing phenom.

Why: "He came into his prime as a boxer and as a civil rights activist when I was a young boy. You are always open to influence and to inspiration when you're a child. It wasn't because he was a champion boxer – if that's all he was I wouldn't have paid much attention to him. It's because he had the courage to give up his heavyweight boxing title and refused to go fight in the Vietnam war – a war he knew was unjust."

The Book of Negroes, the six-part miniseries based on Hill's award-winning novel, airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC-TV. Full episodes can be viewed online.

This composite shows Canadian hip-hop artist Shad and American singer Lauryn Hill. Shad says listening to Hill's music in high school was inspirational. (John Woods/The Canadian Press, Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Canadian culture-maker: Shad, Juno award-winning hip-hop artist.

Most influenced by: Lauryn Hill, American singer-songwriter and former member of The Fugees.

Why: "Not just for her incredible music and just how fun it was to listen to — but her courage. The fact that she was a whole person. She's fun and also spiritual and also smart and so having that example of a really whole and complete person in the media, I think that that was important for me in high school."

Why Shad's mother was his true role model: "What was important to her was that I was a caring person and an honest person, a fully human individual. [That's] a really important lesson in retrospect, a super valuable lesson, because this culture and this world is difficult to navigate … especially for a lot of young black people."

Shad, who beat out Drake for rap recording of the year at the 2011 Junos, will perform a concert March 27 in Toronto.

This composite shows Canadian singing sensation Measha Brueggergosman and her father, Pastor Sterling Gosman. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images, New Minas Baptist Church)
Canadian culture-maker: Measha Brueggergosman, award-winning international opera singer.

Most influenced by: Sterling Gosman, her father.

​Why: "He's always been very civic minded: he was a city councillor; he was a deacon; he worked for the CBC. He was also an athlete, but then in his retirement he went to university for the first time and became a pastor. He's been relentless and has never once brought up the issue of race as anything but a thing that either needs to be addressed and overcome – never ignored – but it wasn't ever going to be a factor in his success or failure."

 Brueggergosman describes the evolution of her black identity and what Black History Month means to her in the video link above.

Clément Virgo, the Jamaican-born Canadian filmmaker and director of the The Book of Negroes TV series, identified reggae music legend Bob Marley as his most influential black icon. (Ben Gabbe, Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Canadian culture-maker: Clément Virgo, feature filmmaker and director of the hit miniseries The Book of Negroes.

Most influenced by: Bob Marley, international reggae music legend.

Why: "I'm from Jamaica. Bob Marley is from Jamaica. When I was a child he was a big influence on us in terms of his politics. Growing up, it was a political upheaval in Jamaica and Bob Marley was a voice of peace and of reason. I was too young to have met him, but he would be someone I would've loved to have met."

Virgo's top-rated TV adaptation of Lawrence Hill's novel The Book of Negroes is currently airing on CBC-TV. The six-part series premiers in the U.S. on BET on Feb. 16.

This composite shows Victoria, B.C.-based author Esi Edugyan and Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison. (Steven Price/The Canadian Press, Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)
Canadian culture-maker: Esi Edugyan, novelist and author of the award-winning book Half-Blood Blues.

Most influenced by: Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Why: "I was just blown away by her voice, the strength of that and just how idiosyncratic it was and how she was searching to find ways to write or to articulate certain black expressions. I was completely floored by this. I was given permission, reading this book, to have a go with that myself.  She was hugely influential for me."

Edugyan is working on a new novel that she hopes will be out next year.

Tell us which black artist, musician, author, actor or cultural figure most influenced you in the comments below. Check back for more Black History Month content throughout the month of February.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?