Deborah Cox has spent nearly 30 years writing hit songs, as well as acting on the big screen and on Broadway. No matter what avenue the Toronto-born artist has pursued, one tenet guided her path: she always did it her way. Never has the word ‘no’ stopped Cox from pursuing her dreams. The 47-year-old started on TV—starring in commercials as a pre-teen—and before she turned 20 she had a six-month gig as a backing vocalist for Céline Dion.
Flash forward a few years. After a move to the United States, famed music mogul Clive Davis liked what he heard and signed the budding star to Arista Records. The songwriter’s self-titled debut arrived the following year. From here, doors opened and closed, but Cox was ready and determined to seize any and all opportunities; she always faced challenges with aplomb and rejections just made her work harder. The multi-dimensional artist’s sophomore record for Arista (One Wish; 1998) was certified platinum in the U.S. and featured a pair of hit singles: “We Can’t Be Friends” and “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” which peaked at No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, remaining there for eight consecutive weeks.
On Sunday, May 15, 2022, at the 51st Annual JUNO Awards, retired NBA all-star and former Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh inducted Cox—who is a three-time JUNO Award-winner—as the newest member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Since 1978 when the Hall was founded, more than 50 Canadian legends have been inducted into this hallowed shrine. With her induction, Cox became the first Black woman to enter the hall; she is also only the second Black musician, following Oscar Peterson, who joined in 1978.
When Bosh announced her name, Cox received a standing ovation from the audience of artists and fans at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage; her family looked on with tear-stained eyes. Later, the newest member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame returned in a stunning white designer gown and performed a medley of songs: “Where Do We Go From Here,” “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here,” “Who Do U Love,” and “Beautiful U R.”
Amplify caught up with Cox nine days before her official induction. The R&B-pop icon squeezed in a few minutes, between a packed media schedule and prepping for her JUNO performance, to answer a few questions.
Where were you when you learned about your induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame?
I had just come home from Atlanta and the set of First Wives Club where I had been shooting the third season of this show for the past three months. The morning I landed I jumped on a Zoom call with Allan Reid [CARAS President], Jann Arden [2021 inductee], my husband, and my publicist Randy [Phipps], who broke the news to me. I thought the meeting was about performing or maybe hosting the JUNO Awards. I had no idea about the induction. I was shocked and overwhelmed.”
As the first Black woman inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, what are your thoughts on this acknowledgement now? What does this mean to you as an artist and for opening the door to more diverse artists getting acknowledged in the future?
You have to start somewhere. Where there needs to be recognition you have to acknowledge that. With this honour, the industry is validating and acknowledging me; the time is now. I’m glad I’m still here to receive all the accolades and the flowers as a lot of people don’t get this far who embark on this journey.
What’s been your secret to not just surviving, but thriving in the music and entertainment industry for the past 25 plus years and ‘making it this far’ when so many others peak early, quit, give up their dreams, or simply burn out?
To not be afraid of challenges and change. A lot of things I’ve done in my career are a result of doors closing. Every time I was told ‘no’ or ‘there is no room for you,’ I took a different path. When I heard ‘no’ for one thing, I always just moved on to the next thing. A lot of my journey has been about defiance — showing it can be done. I’ve also always showed that I can be someone that is versatile. Just because I’m a Black woman, I don’t need to be pigeonholed into any one genre. I don’t have to just sing gospel, soul or R&B. I can also do jazz. I can do ballads and dance music… I’ve always made it known that I can be just as versatile as other artists, but that took determination.
Do you recall the first song you wrote, and how did your creative process/approach to songwriting evolve?
I don’t recall the particular song, but I was around nine or 10-years-old when I started to write a lot of melodic ideas. Basically anything I was going through or feeling, I would write a song about it, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence. Then I met Lascelles [Stephens, Cox’s husband] and he was always encouraging me. After we started writing together, I gained confidence; he told me I had to trust myself, my voice, and tell my truth. He always stressed that I had something important to say and I learned to be unapologetic about what my truth is. That is what gave me the courage to continue writing songs. Through that, Clive Davis received my demos and different A&R reps took notice of my songs and took my meetings.
The music and entertainment industry is not an easy path. How have you navigated this sometimes-difficult road?
Once you get into the industry, you have to be flexible and resilient when it comes to people’s opinions of you. There are always people saying ‘you should be doing this,’ or ‘you should be doing that,’ but if you have real conviction about what you want to do you need to stick to your guns and not waver or buckle under this pressure. If you stick to your guns, you can get far. I always kept that at the forefront of everything I did. I pledged to myself that I would not sell out or compromise. I always said that I was going to earn it, take the time, and make the necessary sacrifices…take the long way around. I never took the easy route.
Unlike some that you mentioned earlier who are not still around, or are near the end of their career when they receive an honour like this induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, at 47, you are still young. So, what’s next?
I just wrapped up filming the third season of First Wives Club. I want to do another musical and I’ve also got a new album ready to go. It’s mixed and we are in the process of readying it for release. In many ways this honour has inspired me even more to keep going. I’m not hanging my hat up or retiring. I feel I still have so much more to say. As I’ve got older, I’ve got more storytelling to share and I’ve learned a lot in this business: as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, and as a businesswoman.
About the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
The Canadian Music Hall of Fame was established by CARAS in 1978 to acknowledge artists that have made an outstanding contribution to the international recognition of Canadian music. Cox will join the ranks of Canadian music icons including Alanis Morisette, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Barenaked Ladies, Jann Arden, Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Oscar Peterson, RUSH, The Guess Who, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, and Shania Twain.
In honour of her induction, National Music Centre has launched a new exhibition celebrating Deborah Cox. The exhibition is open now at Studio Bell in Calgary, featuring artifacts, photographs, and other memorabilia from her life and career. Learn more and plan your visit here.