It could be argued the great Canadian pop takeover began at a Los Angeles bowling alley in January of 2010. Attending that day were an angel-faced teen from Stratford, Ontario named Justin Bieber, and Aubrey Drake Graham, the Toronto-born former star of the television series Degrassi: The Next Generation. The two — more friends than collaborators — were gathered to shoot a promo for the former’s upcoming single, “Baby.” By the time the pair performed the song live at the Junos, almost four months later to the day, they were already two of music’s biggest stars.
Just under a decade since, it’s not hard to see the parallels between the young Drake and Bieber and that of this year’s most talked about Junos duet: Jessie Reyez and Daniel Caeser.
Friends brought together as much by geographical circumstance as musical confluence, Reyez and Caeser already possess Billboard Top 40 songs, Grammy nominations, valuable endorsements and paradigm shifting business models despite only having two albums between them. Together, they’re tent-poling a third wave of Can pop — one that’s more sophisticated, diverse and savvy than its predecessors.
If Bieber and Drake were the mould, and the Weeknd, Shawn Mendez and Alessia Cara were their scion, then artists such as Ruth B, Langston Francis, Reyez, and Caeser are the evolution. Previously, artists had to make it as unlikely interlopers in America’s pop behemoth; but this new crop are doing it on their own terms — and on their own turf — by leaning into their pure pop aspirations, their collective diversity, and their 21st-century business acumen.
“With every huge Canadian artist to date, you had to get out of Canada to get popular,” says Langston Francis, who, at 16-years-old, is already signed to Sony and earned over a million streams without a full length release. “We’re trying to make it starting in Canada.”
Artists like Caesar, Reyez and Francis have managed to circumvent old geographic limitations through a mix of shrewd branding and the development of homegrown management, emboldened by the music industry’s recent interest in northern talent.
Recently announced as the new face of Roots Canada’s music-based Sweat Style campaign, following in the footsteps of B, Reyez, Ceaser and others, Francis believes the fact that brands and artists are getting together at an early development stage has allowed for greater artistic freedom for many Canadian artists. “Right now you have literally the biggest artist in the world shouting out intersections in Canada,” he marvels. “Every artist and brand shoutout is an inch toward [Canada] being considered a cool and artistic spot.”
Likewise, Canada’s mixed salad nationality perfectly aligns with the current shifting tide in pop music. Practically none of the current crop of artists are Caucasian: Reyez is of Colombian descent; Caeser, Jamaican; B, Somali. Musically, they also tend to eschew any overarching trend, choosing to lead with their distinct personality — as with Ruth B or Reyez, who posses an effecting emotional, fiery lilt reminiscent of Rihanna at her feistiest — or singular talent, like Caeser, a church rejecting neo-soul singer with the occasional funky outburst, a style closer to cool, affected lullabies than the clean, trappy production often referred to as the “Toronto Sound.”
“Bieber, Drake and the Weeknd paved the way, but there’s a different level of acceptance in Canadian music right now,” Edmonton singer-songwriter Ruth B, whose single “Lost Boy” went triple platinum in Canada and was a Top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 stateside, explains. “Just look at how many genres are represented (in the charts).”
In other words, we’ve come a long way from that bowling alley.