“I think it has a lot to do with racism, to be honest,” Toronto R&B artist, Haley Smalls reflects on the reasons why urban artists from Canada continuously have to go outside the country to get recognized. Canada is not necessarily perceived as a racist place, she says, but “there’s a lot that gets shoved under the rug.”
Smalls has over 200,000 followers on social media and has been able to forge a successful career as an independent R&B artist with a loyal fan base. She credits her past experiences, her management team and her producer, Megaman, for helping her build a strong foundation in a rocky industry.
On the phone from her home in Toronto, she weighs in on systemic racism in the Canadian music industry.
“A lot of the people that are running the [labels and radio stations in Canada] are interested in pushing white artists more than urban artists—period,” Smalls says, as she unpacks the difficulties of maneuvering an industry that is predominantly white.
This is not the first time a Canadian artist has spoken out about under representation in the music industry. This June, Jesse Reyez posted a video to her Instagram that echoes what Smalls is talking about.
“I feel like Canada is home to some of the biggest names in Black music, like The Weeknd, like Drake, like Tory Lanez, you know what I’m saying, and I feel like those artists that I just mentioned didn’t really have a lot of help from Canada,” Reyez says in the interview clip that was originally part of CTV’s Change & Action: Racism in Canada special. Reyez goes on to back up her statement with the following numbers:
● Sony Canada has 90 employees, 8 are Black
● Warner Music Canada has 86 employees, 7 are Black
● Universal Music Canada has 175 employees, 11 are Black
Smalls, who has been recording music since she was 12, has worked with music industry heavyweights. She had her first taste of virality in 2014 when Beyoncé shared a cover of Smalls performing “Pretty Hurts” with her cousin on social media. Since then she has worked tirelessly to establish herself as an independent artist to be reckoned with.
“When you go into the [Canadian] labels and you see the artists that they are signing, there is a trend and you can see that unfortunately race seems to have to do with it,” Smalls says, urging the Canadian music industry to take note of the conversations around racial injustices happening globally and follow suit within their own organizations.
When it comes to grants, Smalls says urban artists rarely get the support they need to survive in Canada. While it’s not always the case, she insists she has witnessed it time and time again. “When you look at the artists that get support, these are artists that don’t even have the kind of fan bases urban artists coming out of Toronto have. It doesn’t make sense why.”
Smalls reflects on an experience she had in Atlanta seven years ago, when she was told R&B no longer existed. “Everybody was saying R&B is dead, the only R&B that exists is ‘blue-eyed soul,’” she says. “The way that people were talking about ‘blue eyed soul’ was as if it were a genre.” It wasn’t until later that Smalls would realize what blue-eyed soul even was: they were talking about white artists singing R&B.
“The industry put a cap on coloured people singing R&B,” says Smalls, and they started promoting the Adeles and Sam Smiths of the world. She reiterates that she doesn't want to take anything away from Sam Smith or Adele, adding that she is in fact a fan, but rather wants to draw attention to a much larger issue. “I’ve noticed the disintegration of coloured R&B, which is where it’s rooted—which is crazy.”
People of colour generally have to work harder, she also says. “The darker your skin, the harder time you have,” she adds, while acknowledging her lighter skin tone.
When talking about the setbacks of systemic racism in the music industry, Smalls remains undeterred. “I use it as motivation,” she says. “I’m inspired by being able to learn and spread knowledge.”
When she’s in a position to help other artists, she says she wants to make sure that musicians get a fair chance by providing opportunities and awareness to groups of people who are being ignored or overlooked. She urges her peers to do the same.
Smalls is a prime example of an artist leveraging social media and digital marketing to be successful as an independent artist. Without a label behind her, she has been able to make a living off of her music streams and YouTube videos. She says she is shocked how many artists don’t understand how far they can get with their own digital marketing.
“Music is a business,” says Smalls. “People look at music like it’s the lottery, but it’s like any other business: if you have a good product and are able to market it, you can be successful.”
At a time when artists are experiencing setbacks due to COVID-19 and are unable to perform live, this songstress encourages artists to learn the business of the music industry.
“Anybody can do this,” she says.
In an email response to kind magazine to Reyez’s comments, Senior Director of Communications at Universal Music Canada, Jennifer Knox says, “To protect the privacy of our employees, we do not publicly disclose this information. Universal Music Canada remains committed to implementing best practices to ensure diversity at all levels of our organization."
The label also released a statement committing to having difficult and honest internal conversations about how they can increase support for the Black community. In the statement, they say: “We use every experience that we go through as an opportunity to learn and improve from. We acknowledge that the Black community—including our employees and artists—are suffering, and we realize how important it is to stand alongside them in support—especially now.”
David Sterling from Warner Music Canada says the label is supportive of Reyez’s message. In his statement to kind magazine, Warner Music Canada says they have heard the powerful calls for change within the music industry, and recognize the need for change when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion.
Steve Kane, president of Warner Music Canada says, "I hear the voices of our artists and employees telling us we need to change, and we stand in solidarity with them. We want to be a force for positive systemic change, and are committed to the actions required to make that a reality."
The record label says they have already begun reviewing hiring practices and making equity and bias training mandatory.
Sony Canada responded to Reyez’s statement via email saying that the number provided by Reyez in the CTV interview was inaccurate, noting that the label employs more Black people than what was stated. In the email statement, Sony Canada says “We recognize that this is a time for listening, learning, and action. As an organization, we are committed to urgent change and accountable action that continues to fully support diversity, equality, and inclusion within our community. We acknowledge the necessity of a meaningful transformation and are actively engaged with our employees and artists in order to create lasting change.”