Black Canadian artists that shape the contemporary scene

Arts & Life editor Shyenne MacDonald reflects on black Canadian artists who have helped shape the contemporary movement of decolonization through art.

George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s poet laurete from 2016-2017, has proven to be one of the most influential contemporary Canadian writers.

He first came on to the literary scene in 1979 with an honourable mention in the Atlantic Writing Competition, Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. He then won the competition two years later in 1981.

He later came out with his first poetry book Saltwaters Spirituals and Deeper Blues in 1983.

He earned his BA locally at the University of Waterloo and then went on to Dalhousie university to earn his MA.

Afterwards, he completed his formal education at Queen’s University where he earned his PhD.

Currently, Clarke is an English professor at the University of Toronto and has received seven honorary doctorates for his achievements and work.

His writing proves him to be prolific whether it’s essays, poetry, novels or plays.

Themes of his work tend to explore and focus on the experience and history of black Canadian communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which he popularly dubbed “Africadia”.

Clarke is the great-nephew of the late Canadian opera singer Portia White, as well as a direct descendent of the black refugees of the War of 1812.

Among his notable works are Execution Poems: The Black Acadian Tragedy of George and Rue, which he later adapted into a novel titled George and Rue.

Other works by Clarke are: Whylah Falls, I & I, The Motorcyclist and Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path and his final poem as the poet  laurete Rollcall

Sylvia D. Hamilton

Sylvia D. Hamilton is a filmmaker, writer and artist who was raised in Beechville, NS, a rural community founded by black refugees escaping the American south during the War of 1812.

Her work — which often takes the form of documentary films — focuses on African Nova Scotians and explores the lives and experiences of people of African descent.

Through her art, Hamilton uncovers the systemetic racism presently in Canada and the deep roots of it embedded throughout history.

Hamilton is also heavily involved in activism, where she works to provide more educational opportunities to black and indigenous youth.

Currently, Hamilton is a professor at the University of King’s College’s School of Journalism located in Halifax, NS.

Her most notable work is The Little Black Schoolhouse, a documentary film that was written, directed, produced and distributed by Hamilton through her production company Maroon Films Inc.

The film explores the often buried history of segregation in Ontarian and Nova Scotian schools.

Other films by Hamilton are, We Are One, Keep On Keepin’ On, Portia White: Think On Me, No More Secrets and Against the Tides: The Jones Family (Hymn to Freedom Series).


Full name Keinan Abdi Warsame, K’naan is a Somali Canadian poet, rapper, singer, songwriter and instrumentalist.

K’naan spent his childhood in Beirut, Lebanon until a civil war broke out and he moved to New York with his mother and two siblings to join his father who had already been situated there. It wasn’t even a full year before his family left New York and moved to Ontario where they still reside today.

K’naan’s first notable work was in 1999 where he performed a spoken word piece before the UN criticizing its failed peacekeeping missions in Somalia.

This led to his first album Building Bridges, which led to a world tour.

He’s won five Juno awards, his first one in 2006 for Rap Recording of the Year for his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher.

K’naan is also known for his work in philanthropy, which involves actively promoting the Canadian Bill C-393 to help increase medical assistance in countries in Africa, raising awareness for the Eastern African drought in 2011 and performing several charity concerts with close associate Sol Guy.

K’naan rose to international promienence with his single “Wavin’ Flag”, which had been chosen as Coca-Cola’s promotional anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Jully Black

Full name Jullyaan Inderia Gordon, Jully Black has been dubbed “The Canadian Queen of R&B” and a true Canadian icon.

Not only is she a platinum selling recording artist and has been named one of “The 25 Greatest Canadian Singers Ever”.

But, Black was also hand selected to sing for Her Majesty the Queen.

She’s shared the stage with other superstars such as Kanye West, the late Etta James, Elton John and even collaborated with Destiny’s Child back in their heyday.

She also performed in the opening ceremonies of the 2010 winter olympics.

Black grew up not too far away in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto. She is the youngest of seven children and at age 21 was discovered by Warner/Chappel Publishing where she was immediately signed.

She received her first Juno award in 1997 for “What It Takes”, again in 2005 “Sweat of Your Brow”, 2008 Revival and has been nominated for nearly every year since 1997-2013.

Black currently has three released albums: This is Me, Revival and The Black Book and one official mixtape Dropping W(8).

Lawerence Hill

Author of the book — later adapted into a mini-series in 2015 — The Book of Negroes, Lawerence Hill has received international recognition for the honest representation of colonization and Canadian history.

His works of fiction focus on themes such as identity, belonging and a quest for home.

It was in 1953, during the Jim Crowe legislation, that Hill’s mother — who was white — and father — who was black — immigrated from southern United States to Canada.

Before settling into writing, Hill originally trained as an olympic runner until he came to the harsh realization that he would never be fast enough.

He began to pursue a career in writing which led to reporting for The Globe and Mail for a time.

Hill is the recipient of five honorary doctorates, as well Governor General’s History Award. He also won the Hamilton Literary Award for non-fiction with his piece Blood: The Stuff of Life.

He has been inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame and was appointed to the Order of Canada.

Among The Book of Negroes, some of Hills other works are Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On being Black and White in Canada, The Illegal and Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of Book Burning.

Currently, Hill lives in Hamilton, ON and Woody Point, NFLD. with his family and is working on a new novel and his first children’s book.

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