Black Canadian talent celebrate — and are celebrated — at inaugural Legacy Awards

The inaugural Legacy Awards air Sunday night on CBC. The 90-minute live show, which celebrated accomplishments in film, television, music, sports and culture, featured emerging and established Black Canadian talent.

Event produced by the Black Academy is Canada's 1st all-Black awards ceremony

The Legacy Awards co-hosts are Shamier Anderson (left) and Stephan James. The Scarborough, Ont.-born actors and siblings hope that, in creating the infrastructure to support and uplift Black talent, they can break barriers in Canada's entertainment industries. (CBC)

As The Handmaid's Tale star Amanda Brugel arrived at the inaugural Legacy Awards on Sunday night, she reflected on what the new awards ceremony — which highlights the achievements of Black Canadian talent — will mean to future generations.

"I think I'm going to get emotional talking about it," she told CBC News on the black carpet.

"To have space, to hold space for the amount of Black talent that we have here, for future generations, will tell them that they matter, that there is so much room for them, to tell them to aim higher. And I can't wait to see what happens with this in 25 years," she said, gesturing to the room full of Black artists, athletes and actors.

The Legacy Awards are Canada's first all-Black awards ceremony. The 90-minute live show, which celebrated accomplishments in film, television, music, sports and culture, featured emerging and established Black Canadian talent.

WATCH | Legacy Awards honour Black talent in Canada: 

First-ever Legacy Awards honour best in Black Canadian talent

9 months ago
Duration 1:23
The inaugural Legacy Awards took place in Toronto, a first-of-its-kind event in Canada to showcase and honour Black talent in music, film and sport. The event featured performances from Jully Black and Deborah Cox, among others.

The event is produced by the Black Academy, an initiative launched in December 2020 by Canadian actors and brothers, Shamier Anderson (Bruised) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk).

The Scarborough, Ont.-born siblings hope that, in creating the infrastructure to support and uplift Black talent, they can break barriers in Canada's entertainment industries.

"We come from humble beginnings — Scarborough, you know?" Anderson told CBC News. "So for us to be able to do this, hopefully we can keep inspiring other Black and brown boys and girls."

Joking that he and Anderson spent two and a half year "under a rock" while planning the event, which they will co-host, James said, "We're here, and people gotta know it."

"The power of being able to empower our people, put them on this stage, give them an opportunity to give testimony, share their journeys with Black Canadians all over this country. It's a very, very powerful thing; it's something that's not lost on my brother and myself."

Jamaican patties, PSAs and spoken-word poetry

Following an opening performance by Kardinall Offishall, Anderson and James gave a traditional comedic monologue — but then they got serious, sitting down to deliver a cheeky public service announcement to Americans.

"We're here to talk about an issue that's been plaguing Black Canadians," Anderson said. "And that is when Americans are surprised that we actually have Black people in this country," he concluded to laughter from the crowd.

The brothers launched into a rap song describing the unique qualities of the Canadian Black community ("We got more than just The Weeknd, Kardinall and Drake!"), one of several performances that got the audience onto their feet Sunday evening.

Canadian R&B singer Savannah Re arrives on the black carpet of The Legacy Awards, in Toronto on Sunday. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

Later in the show, Deborah Cox took to the stage in a flashy red jumpsuit with a tassled cape to perform her 2008 hit, Beautiful U R. She was followed by Savannah Ré, who sang Solid. The performances didn't stop with music: spoken-word poet Randell Adjei took to the stage with a few verses.

The musical highlight, however, was an ensemble performance of Andra Day's Rise Up by an all-star lineup of five Black Canadian women — Melanie Fiona, Sate, Jully Black, Fefe Dobson and Alicia Mighty — demonstrating a range of musical styles, genres and talent.

Nodding to Canada's Jamaican community, Anderson and James took a moment to eulogize their favourite Jamaican patty shop, Randy's — "as we all know, there's been a patty shortage in our communities across the country," James said — before surprising the crowd as they and a crew handed out the stuffed pastries.

'Guys, look at this room!'

While accepting the Jahmil French award for rising stars in Canadian media, sportscaster Kayla Grey gave an emotional speech. "Shamier, Stephan. Guys, look at this room!" she said with tears in her eyes. "Look at our beauty, our strength."

"I'm so grateful for spaces and nights like this one tonight, because we are reminded of who we do it for, but most importantly, why we do it."

Indeed, James said during a monologue with Anderson that the brothers decided to launch the Legacy Awards after attending many awards ceremonies where there were few Black performers present.

Canadian sprinter and six-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse arrives on the black carpet of The Legacy Awards on Sunday. De Grasse took home the athlete of the year award. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

Many in attendance spoke about the importance of seeing Black talent on screen. The significance of that visibility was best described by Haitian-Canadian filmmaker Fabienne Colas, who received the Visionnaire Award from Canada's former governor general, Michaëlle Jean.

As she accepted her award, Colas described watching Jean — then a news broadcaster — on Radio Canada while she was a little girl in Haiti. Colas said she told her mother that, if she ever went to Canada, she wanted to meet Jean, because she was Black and Francophone like her. 

"You led me and so many other women of colour to dream a bigger dream for themselves," she told the former governor general, the first Black woman to assume the role.

Ika Wong, a reality TV star, won the digital creator fan choice award. Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse took home the athlete of the year award, joking with co-host James — whose breakout role was Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens in the 2016 historical film Race — that he was surprised their sprinting careers "didn't cross paths."

Canadian broadcaster and writer Amanda Parris arrives on the black carpet of the Legacy Awards. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

DJ 4KORNERS, who performed at the event, told CBC News on the black carpet that the show was a symbol of action: "You always hear that ... instead of begging for a seat at the table, build your own table."

"This is our table; we got a table! We made this table."

Black performers have received heightened recognition at mainstream awards shows in recent years, said Canadian broadcaster Amanda Parris. But she added that there is room for other events, like the Legacy Awards, to honour specific talents who are often under-acknowledged by major awards bodies.

"I think having this dedicated space to amplify and to elevate talent and voices that for so long have not been heard or have not been recognized or celebrated to the degree that they can or should be, is a wonderful thing. And it's for everybody." 

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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Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment team and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from Idil Mussa, Jackson Weaver and Laura Thompson