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Carlos Morgan to discuss history of Black music at museum

When Morgan began his music career, people in Canada weren't listening to Black musicians unless they were from the U.S., he says.

Carlos Morgan, a Juno award-winning singer, songwriter, and recording artist, will discuss the history of Black music in Canada in the final in-person lecture of 2023 at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, Thursday, Sept. 21.

Morgan, also founder of Solroc Records, was born and raised in Canada “but I wasn’t educated about the contributions of Black artists and musicians in Canada,” he said. “And they were an integral part of our cultural identity.”

Morgan’s informal music education came from his father, who was an avid music lover. “My parents are from Jamaica and my father had hundreds of records, reggae, R&B and soul music predominantly, from Jamaica, as well as American Black music.”

It was a few years after 12-year-old Morgan started singing in a band that he asked himself why he wasn't seeing or hearing Black artists in Canada. It seemed as if “we didn't have any Black artists in Canada. Why is that? One recurring message was that people don't listen to Black artists in Canada because it sounds Canadian,” said Morgan.

He would hear that sentiment not just from the layperson, but also from people in the music industry, and even Black artists. “They said ‘we're not getting played on the radio. We're not getting signed to record labels, because we sound Canadian.’”

Morgan used to think that Canadian R&B didn’t sound as good as American, but later came to the conclusion that Canada should have its own identity in music. “What’s wrong if we sound Canadian? We're in Canada. Even though I wasn’t able to articulate it in the manner that I am now, my education was growing,” he said.

Radio stations played predominantly American or West Indian/Jamaican music before the 1980s, said Morgan. In the mid-to-late ’80s, Liberty Silver, Billy Newton-Davis, and Erroll Starr received radio play and recognition, but, for Morgan, their music lacked the R&B rhythms and funk that defined Black music. Their sounds, he explained, “were more pop, dance, and almost rock.”

At the lecture, Morgan will focus on four artists who laid a foundation in Canada for Black music.

Oscar Peterson, a Canadian jazz pianist and composer, released more than 200 recordings, and won eight Grammy Awards.

Maestro Fresh Wes is a rapper, record producer, actor, and author. He is one of the earliest Canadian rappers to achieve mainstream success. “Maestro came out with hip hop and then the hip hop scene in Canada started to grow. Maestro is really the only one that comes to my mind who started to shift the landscape for Black music being played on national radio in Canada,” said Morgan.

Lesser known, he said, is Portia White, a concert singer born in Truro, Nova Scotia, who won international acclaim and was considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century. She died in Toronto in 1968.

Eleanor Collins is a Canadian jazz singer, television host and civic leader who, at 103 years of age, lives in Edmonton. She is known as the Canadian First Lady of Jazz

“These Black artists have played an indelible and integral part in the history of music in this country, but it is not widely known,” said Morgan, who also educates on the history of Black music around the province. “I've spoken at a lot of schools, and a lot of the young people today, the furthest they go back to is Drake. They really don’t know who came before Drake.”

“When I mention Gordon Lightfoot, a lot of young people know who he is, as well as Celine Dionne, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell and Burton Cummings. They all know all the white artists,” he said.

Morgan’s debut album Feeling Alright (1997) won him a Juno Award in the Best R&B/Soul Recording category at a time when there “were only eight radio stations across the country that were playing Black music,” he said. The album topped the charts at number three after only two weeks of being released. “When my first album came out, all of the radio stations were playing my music, but they thought I was American, and that's how I got signed by Universal Music Canada.”

Morgan’s new double album, Where I've been, Where I'm going, will be released in March of 2024. “I'm really excited about this record. I've been writing for a long time and working on planning a tour, with my band of nine people, for next year as well.”

Morgan’s lecture can be heard Thursday, Sept. 21, 7:30 p.m. at the NOTL Museum. Lectures are $10 for the public or free for members. Call to reserve seating.