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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Against the Flow

Race, radio and Canada’s musical coming of age

Donna Bailey Nurse

In the Black: My Life

B. Denham Jolly

ECW Press

309 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781770413788

My musical coming of age occurred during the soulful, psychedelic 1970s, against the hypnotic groove of the Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Well before that, when I was eleven, I had split my first allowance between Bill Withers (“Lean on Me”) and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (“If You Don’t Know Me By Now [You Will Never Never Never, Never Never Never Know Me]”). I mostly spent my money on black music, but I listened to everything: John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Van Morrison, Donny and Marie. In the Toronto suburb of Pickering we tuned in to 1050 CHUM and CFTR, top 40 stations that stubbornly characterized their music as “rock.” The Jackson 5, Roberta Flack and Rufus dominated the charts, but the posters and promotional materials rarely highlighted black artists. Rather, they affirmed daily that these were white stations that catered to white audiences.

It was not much different behind the scenes. In 1990 I took a job writing hourly radio newscasts at a station in downtown Toronto. This was during a period of heightened tension between the black community and police. Constable Brian Rapson had shot and injured a black teenager named Marlon Neal. Rapson had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder, but not everyone agreed. One afternoon a reporter covering the story entered the newsroom. He sat down at his desk. “Want to hear my new rap?” he said, to all within earshot. “Rap, rap the Rapson rap/ Kill them niggers/ Kill them dead…”

From where I was sitting behind a glass partition, I called out, “No! Absolutely not!” Everyone turned around, mortified. They had forgotten I was there.

This is the climate into which Brandeis Denham Jolly, president of Milestone Communications Inc., launched his bid to own and operate Canada’s first black radio station, an experience he recounts in compelling detail in a new memoir, In the Black: My Life. The timing for a black station seemed right. For one thing, Contrast, the flagship newspaper of Toronto’s black community, had recently folded. For another, the city’s black population, hundreds of thousands strong, had to tune into Buffalo’s WBLK if they wanted to hear black music with any regularity. Few black Canadian artists received air play. Certainly, the Liberals’ much-vaunted policy of multiculturalism seemed to support the idea of a black radio station.

Jolly was in for a rude awakening. The CRTC awarded the license to Rawlco. The ­commissioners believed a country-music station would best serve Canada’s need for “programming diversity.” It would take a bitter twelve-year battle, as well as millions of dollars, before Canada’s first urban music station would hit the airwaves. FLOW 93.5 went live in February 9, 2001. The station evolved overnight into the heart of a community. FLOW would be the first to bring Drake’s music to Toronto audiences and to promote the careers of musicians such as Shad, Michie Mee and Jully Black. The station played host to international megastars, including Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and Kanye West. Its iconoclastic blend of music—everything from hip hop to reggae to spiritual and the blues—and talk was a startling success. In the Black charts Jolly’s personal journey to that professional apex, from his Jamaican boyhood to his turns as a science teacher, businessman, community leader and ­philanthropist.

Jolly came to Canada in the 1950s to study science at the Ontario Agricultural College, now Guelph University. A significant number of West Indians attended the school, including my father. Indeed, a photo of Jolly in full ’fro confirms him as an acquaintance of my late father’s; they shared a common friend in union activist Bromley Armstrong. But, in the book at least, Jolly comes across as distinct from the majority of Jamaicans I have known, who possess a passionate attachment to their native land. Jolly seems slightly ambivalent about Jamaica. He is not hostile by any means, and speaks of his childhood with fondness. Yet it is clear from reading his account that from the moment he realizes he might live abroad, emotionally speaking, he is gone.

It is hard not to feel a little offended by his lack of sentimentality for the island I love. At the same time his pragmatism surely accounts for the success of his career, not to mention the success of this book, in which he manages, through the events of his life, to coolly deconstruct Canadian racism. Jolly attributes his objectivity to his education: “Perhaps because I have a background in science,” he says, “I try, as much as possible, to see the world as it is, to look for the plain truth, without the decoration of wishful thinking.

His attitude may also derive from the lessons of his father and the ethos of the Jamaican village where he was born, Industry Cove. Jolly came into the world in 1935. He was named for the British governor who happened to pass by the house while his mother was in labour. His father, Benjamin, was nicknamed Cappy (“short for ‘Capital’”) for his ability to make money. Cappy gave his son two pieces of advice: “Don’t work for anyone but yourself. And always own property.” His mother, Ina Euphemia, Hanover Parish’s first female justice of the peace, was legendary for her kindness, but she believed in education with equal passion.

Jolly describes an idyllic childhood outdoors by the sea. His chores included riding his father’s horses to the ocean to cool them off. At Cornwall College he veered toward science to avoid an oppressively British curriculum. His talent in track, soccer and cricket made him a local star. After graduation he took a job at the Frome Estate, the island’s largest sugar plantation. In the 1930s Frome had been the scene of violent labour riots. Before that, much earlier, it was the site of slave labour. For Jolly, however, Frome would be about the future. As soon as he learned estate managers had studied at the Ontario Agricultural College, he insisted on applying. Winning admission meant he would be eligible to study in Canada for five years.

Jolly’s first Canadian winter left him in awe. He writes of the “beauty of the wind-driven snow across the schoolyard, the clean sweep, the sparkle.” And at the OAC he made friends, participated in team sports and earned good grades in the challenging science curriculum.

He was stung, however, that the school forbade white women to date black men. He would meet worse racism in Truro, Nova Scotia, where he was enrolled for the next two years. It was a segregated city, the young blacks full of despair. One lonely evening he decided to attend a social at the Anglican church and was refused admittance. His school principal, who was watching, turned away. Thankfully, his final terms were spent at bustling McGill University in Montreal. Then his student visa expired. Canada’s immigration policy forced him to return to Jamaica. But it no longer felt like home.

Canadian racism is often described as mostly systemic—the largely unintentional result of policies created for the majority. Jolly’s account urges us to question the term. He compares the challenges facing black immigrants to Canada in the late 19th century with his own. A century ago the government was desperate for settlers to populate the spacious country. Yet it was just as adamant that the newcomers not be black. The superintendent of immigration ordered his staff to place black applications at the bottom of the pile. Black candidates were never rejected outright, but appeared to be held up by the system. In this case, systemic racism was hardly ­unintentional.

When Jolly accepted his student visa, he agreed to sign a form promising to return to Jamaica upon graduation. He was warned that any inquiries about staying in Canada could get him sent home. In addition, he was expected to check in regularly with his immigration officer; this made him feel like “a prisoner on parole.” Jolly felt he was being deported: “It seemed completely unacceptable to me that at a time when tens of thousands of Europeans were still flooding into the country, many with little education or immediate prospects … I was being shown the door, even though I was a Commonwealth citizen.”

After two years in Jamaica, Jolly returned to Canada, helped by a friend at the high commission. By the mid 1960s he was teaching science at Forest Hill High School in Toronto. He loved the work, but he had married (he wed a white woman named Carol Casselman in secret) and required extra income. He discovered an opportunity in nursing homes. In short order he was operating two facilities with a total of 56 beds. At school, however, his success became a problem.

“I could feel the attitude of my colleagues changing,” Jolly recalls. “At the time, it confused me. But I have since learned to identify a certain strain of Canadian racism by which more or less liberal whites will treat Black people well, as long as they perceive the Blacks to be beneath them on the social scale. But if a Black person is better off than they are, they can’t handle it.”

They say racism is caused by insufficient knowledge of “the other,” but Jolly’s colleagues had known him a long time. In fact, the longer they knew him, the more they resented him. If ignorance does not cause racism, what does?

Jolly also describes the “taunting racism” of banks. He tried to get around the problem by having his white broker or white lawyer represent him. Occasionally, however, he would deal with the bank directly. In the 1970s, he was building a state-of-the-art nursing home in Mississauga, Ontario. After his mortgage broker had negotiated a million-plus transaction on his behalf, Jolly stopped by the bank to sign for the bridge loan that was part of the deal. The loan officer, upon seeing he was black, refused to approve it. “My adventures with banks continued,” said Jolly, “but I had learned not to trust them or rely on them. I began to protect myself against their arbitrary power by spreading my business around.”

More than ignorance or even intolerance, Jolly suggests, racism is a consequence of arrogance, entitlement and power.

The menace of Canadian racism lies in its subtlety: naturally, the harder it is to see, the harder it is to fight. For Jolly, “it was painful to watch young people who did not recognize that they were being discriminated against and instead blamed themselves and attacked themselves.” At the same time, young black people are vulnerable to overt racism, especially in the form of police violence. Jolly’s activism was fuelled by the 1978 shooting of Buddy Evans. Along with lawyer Charles Roach and Jean Augustine, he formed the Committee for Due Process, which forced the government to hold an inquiry into the teenager’s death. In one harrowing passage, Jolly lists scores of black Canadians shot by police. Many of the names, embedded in black memory, trip off the tip of the tongue: Buddy Evans, Albert Johnson, Lester Donaldson, Sophia Cook, Michael Wade Lawson, Jonathan Howell and Marlon Neal, shot, as previously mentioned, by Constable Rapson.

Racism cannot be expected to bring out the best in black people and Jolly’s anger sometimes gets the better of him. After losing his first radio bid, for example, he describes country music as “the soundtrack to every redneck life.” As well, he loads down passages of the book with extraneous excerpts from black Canadian history, which means what might have been a great book is instead a good one, although indisputably so. As this memoir unfolded, I was more and more drawn to the author, who at first had struck me as detached from his culture. Jolly proved to be a rich black man who employed his faith and his fortune in the service of his people. It is a thrill to see him throw his support behind individuals and ideas the establishment loved to hate, including the magnificently defiant Dudley Laws of the Black Action Defence Committee. The book is filled with lively sketches of legendary black Canadian activists: organizer Harry Gairey, Garveyite Violet Blackman, track star Harry Jerome and publisher Al Hamilton. When Hamilton could no longer afford to bring out Contrast, Jolly bought the paper and for two years ran it himself.

Even before he sold Contrast, Jolly and other members of the Black Business and Professional Association were talking about an all-black radio station that would be a strong voice for the community. The station’s mission involved much more than music. FLOW trained music directors, sales managers, station managers and technicians, offered scholarships to broadcasting students and invested $300,000 a year into developing artists. As the decade wore on, however, media mergers and the encroachments of the digital age announced declining revenues. In 2010 FLOW 93.5 was sold to Bell Media. Jolly was 75. As usual, he knew when it was time to leave.

With the success of FLOW 93.5, urban stations began popping up across the country, although black Canadian musicians must still fight to be heard. As aid in their struggle, Jolly offers this survival guide.

Donna Bailey Nurse is a juror for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.