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  • Writer's pictureErin McCallum

Behind The Curtain: Diana Braithwaite


Diana Braithwaite

           

In each edition of “Behind The Curtain”, the goal is to bring readers something enterprising.  Regular readers of this monthly column know that the method remains the same in each instalment; the exclusive content arrives here via a direct conversation with the artist of interest. Uncovering new insight is best obtained when there is a foundational knowledge of the featured artist’s professional record; looking within an artist’s bio is the source of the curiosities that lend to finding out more. As stated in every edition, it is always encouraged for readers to discover more about the artists highlighted in this column through other available sources; this space takes a focused look at uncovering what can’t be found elsewhere. Covering artists whose biography is long-established - and easily accessible - is crucial in achieving that goal, and this instalment follows the same process. 


In this month’s issue, the investigation features a candid conversation with Canadian singer, songwriter, and mainstay in the Canadian Blues Collective since the 1990s, Diana Braithwaite. This investigation also focuses exclusively on one topic: how the Canadian Blues Collective is answering the call for more representation of black people within the Blues community as a whole. 


It’s a sensitive subject to many, and the topic dates back to when the music was adopted by people outside of the black population. After the killing of George Floyd (May 25, 2020), a spotlight was distinctly pointed at some of the long-existing darker corners of the Blues music industry with respect to race and inclusion – or lack thereof.


Today, as sensitive as the subject may be, it remains relevant - it’s fair to provide readers with current insight from Diana’s perspective. To provide context, Braithwaite delivered the Keynote speech at Blues Summit 10 (the largest Blues conference in Canada, hosted by The Toronto Blues Society) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2022 (June 19th), where she identified issues, and put forward a call to action, in an open and inclusive way  (For those who would like to visit/revisit her Keynote speech in full, it is still available via a YouTube search).  For further context, it is important to mention that Diana is a black artist who is a descendant of the Wellington County (the first African Settlement in Ontario) Pioneers in Canada; she has roots in the Southern United States, and her ancestors escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad.  There is more to know about Braithwaite’s professional career, however, the context provided here lends credibility to this investigation, and justifies the content of this particular feature. 


       The conversation with Braithwaite took place with the predetermined understanding that the purpose was to follow up on her Blues Summit 10 speech, which provided the platform to put her words directly on the record.  The Maple Blues Award winning (Songwriter of the Year), and African-American Women in the Arts Award winning, Braithwaite started by referencing and restating a message that was foundational in her 2022 address:

 

“Blues came out of a time when there were no safeguards in place for us to protect the culture, development, and naming of our music as there was with European classical music. It was fine, well-loved, and accepted music, but because in many cases, we were not in a position to safeguard it, we lost control of the development and defining of what blues was. And it became many things. For a long time, that was the way it was and a lot of people all over the world grew to love and enjoy this amazing, expressive, music called the Blues.  And that was, and is still, a fantastic thing.


        As I mentioned in my keynote speech, ‘We know you can’t put that genie back in the bottle’, so that’s not what this current conversation and development is all about.  It’s not about going back in time.  It’s not about making blues exclusively by and for black people. We need more people to love the blues, not less.   However, we do own it. And that fact will play an important role in moving forward. We have to own something after all we went through.  Our connection to the blues runs deeper than the song, or who is playing on the record.  We will always own the Blues – it’s in our DNA- but all people are welcome and encouraged to enjoy the music, and play the music.

 

I mentioned ideas in my keynote as to how things might play out from here.  There is a whole lot of story and history that has to be understood and figured out.   It’s a new day, there are new ways of doing things. Different from the ways and attitudes in the 20's and 30's.   And it’s up to all of us of all ages and generations in the blues world today to find a way to keep the blues alive and moving forward from here.  Cause none of us want to lose the Blues!”

  

       The message in her speech was also very clear that inclusion of more black people in the Blues community was a necessary component to maintaining the artform.  Another topic that Diana Braithwaite put forward in her 2022 address discussed the importance of keeping the dialogue open (In part: “I hope, when you leave here today, that this address will inspire you to continue the dialogue, ask questions, consider situations, think about things…ask somebody if you don’t know.”) - now that the proverbial elephant was in the room, again.  After almost two years, it makes sense to ask her if she’s noticed any changes within the Canadian Blues music community with respect to these components of her address:

 

          "I have noticed some positive changes, and I’m happy to have played a part in that.  What I’ve noticed is a few subtle things; changes in festival programming that includes more black artists, and importantly, people are a lot more open to the dialogue.  It’s very important to see those changes; people are becoming more aware of it, and paying more attention, and that’s sparking accountability in a positive way.  It’s an ongoing process that is going to take time, but it’s headed in the right direction. Over the past year, I’ve felt enthusiasm about the positive changes I have seen.”

 

           In learning that Braithwaite is encouraged with the changes she has seen, it’s fair to establish a new reference point to readers by asking what she thinks still needs to happen in the ongoing process of respecting the black origins of the Blues while keeping the evolving artform alive in an inclusive way, based on her observations of today:

 

           “I think there are always opportunities to increase awareness across all cultures, but we (black people) have got to be in the mix, and stay involved.  It is important, as we all go forward, to continue communicating, and look at ways to make the music more sustainable.  It’s important that the next generation has an understanding of the culture and originators of the Blues as it continues forward.  In the future, black artists need to be in the picture, and be seen there.  Having leadership roles, being consulted, and represented, is important.  When all of these things start to happen, everyone involved in the Blues industry can feel more confident that the Blues is moving forward in a more positive, sustainable way for everyone to enjoy.”

 

           In revisiting the call to action that Diana Braithwaite put forward with a direct conversation, readers have gained an understanding of her specific thoughts and observations since her Keynote speech.  As previously acknowledged in this instalment, the investigation here is one that covers subject matter that is sensitive to many, however; reinvestigating where that call for change within the Blues community sits today is relevant to all who are interested and involved in the music. 

 

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation.  Every artist featured in this column has a professional record that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations.  In Diana Braithwaite’s case, there is a direct connection to her career and culture, however, there is much to learn about her professional record outside of this column.  In following up on and investigating a topic that looks beyond the featured artist’s press release or bio (rather than within it), perhaps there is a greater suggestion than usual for readers to discover more about Diana Braithwaite via other resources. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective. 



Diana Braithwaite



Photo Credit: Vince Jones.

Erin McCallum

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres. 


Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.


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