The JUNOS touched down in Toronto last week, culminating with the 51st Annual JUNO Awards on Sunday night. The event marked the return of the Canadian live music industry and the first in-person awards show after two years of silence.
On a humid Sunday afternoon along Toronto’s lakefront, the parade of limos—from white Hummers to traditional black stretch models—started hours before the show. A handful of fans, lucky to have learned who these stars of the Canadian music industry were, patiently waited in the parking lot. Most were there in the hopes of getting an up-close glimpse of global superstars Shawn Mendes (TikTok JUNO Fan Choice award-winner) or Avril Lavigne. Some of the artists arriving, like Mustafa and Desiree Dawson, obliged fans with autographs and posed for selfies. Others, like Lavigne—who arrived to the red carpet with her boyfriend Mod Sun—turned for a quick wave and walked on.
Canada’s biggest night of music, broadcast for the first-time from an outdoor venue, was marked by a trio of themes: the celebration of women, musical and cultural diversity, and a spotlight on independent artists. There were also 24 first-time winners, including Vancouver’s Jessia, who pocketed the Breakthrough Artist of the Year award, and Montreal’s Charlotte Cardin, who won Album of the Year to add to the three JUNO statuettes she won the previous night: Single of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Pop Album of the Year. There was vast regional representation with award winners hailing from all across Canada.
A few minutes after 8:00 p.m., as fans and artists clamoured to find their seats, the Arkells (Group of the Year) hit the Budweiser Stage. Hamilton’s favourite rock ‘n’ roll sons kicked off the night with their usual high-octane energy and a tight two-song set of “Reckoning” and “You Can Get it.”
Simu Liu hosted for the first time. The 33-year-old actor opened with a rewriting of Molson’s famous “I am Canadian” ad with lines like: “We spell the Weeknd without the extra e,” and “I grew up on ketchup chips and roti.” In just a few years, Liu has seen his stock skyrocket. The former Kim’s Convenience star has written a memoir, We Were Dreamers, starred in TV commercials, and is now known as the newest Marvel superhero from the 2021 Hollywood blockbuster: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Liu did an admirable job in his hosting debut. He was later joined by Tesher, another first-time nominee in the Breakthrough Artist of the Year category, and the pair danced and sang to the 26-year-old from Regina’s TikTok viral hit “Jalebi Baby.”
As he did earlier in the week at the JUNO Songwriters’ Circle, Mustafa (Alternative Album of the Year), gave another arresting performance. Surrounded by 15 members of his Toronto Regent Park community where he grew up, the artist sang “Stay Alive” and left the stage to a standing ovation. Mustafa wore a mock bulletproof vest with the word “POET” in uppercase letters across the front. Afterwards, he explained the significance of this attire to the media: “I grew up actively defending my faith, my community, my words, and my vulnerability… it’s the defence of all of those things that make me what I am and who I am today… the fact that this vest feels provocative for people is all the more reason to wear it. I want it to be a compass and point to the direction of where the suffering is.”
FOR THE LOVE OF LIVE
The 51st Annual JUNO Awards was also memorable because of the return of live music on a grand scale with so many talented artists gathered in-person after far too long apart due to the pandemic. Artists and audience members mixed and mingled, sharing smiles on this moonlight night—collectively rejoicing in the songs. Friends, music-industry colleagues, and strangers shared more than just the music; one woman with a guitar-shaped wine carafe even offered a glass to a fellow fan two rows ahead.
One of the night’s most special moments came midway through the broadcast when former Toronto Raptor and retired NBA all-star Chris Bosh officially inducted his friend Deborah Cox into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. This marked another first; the award-winning singer, songwriter, actor, and fashion icon was the first Black woman to join the hallowed hall. Later, wearing a stunning evening gown and all aglow, Cox performed a four-song medley of her hits—“Beautiful U R,” “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” “Where Do We Go From Here,” and “Who Do U Love”—as her family watched nearby with tear-stained eyes.
Other notable performances on this unforgettable night included: DJ Shub (Contemporary Indigenous Artist/Group of the Year for War Club) joining Snotty Nose Rez Kids for a medley; Haviah Mighty, who made history becoming the first woman to win Best Rap Album/EP of the Year for Stock Exchange and showing why with a rousing performance of her songs “Protest” and “So-So,” and finally, Avril Lavigne offering a mashup of hits old and new: “Complicated,” “Girlfriend,” “I’m With You,” “Sk8r Boi,” and “Bite Me” from her latest album Love Sux.
It was apropos on a night where the indie acts took the spotlight that nearly 18 years since the release of their indie debut Funeral, Arcade Fire closed the show. The 11-time JUNO Award-winners performed a rousing performance of “Unconditional 1 (Lookout Kid)” from the band’s newest record WE, released just nine days ago, giving fans in Toronto and across Canada an appetizer of what to expect when they launch a global tour this fall.
As confetti rained from above the stage, Arcade Fire’s lead singer Win Butler held his acoustic guitar pointed skyward to the full moon. The audience filed out of the venue with permanent smiles. One thing was clear to this scribe—and was echoed by everyone I chatted with throughout the night—just how much we collectively miss these in-person celebrations. Long live live music.