The merits of institutional, award-based recognition will likely be debated until the sun explodes. Grammy awards can be affirming legacy-builders for the next generation of culture-shifting pop behemoths and encouraging symbols of gratitude for deserved records. However, more often than not, the Grammys are more about outdated, tone-deaf industry standards of respectability and popularity, an archaic institution that feels incapable of keeping a tab on pop culture’s constant mutations.
So, it is refreshing to let your guard down momentarily and revel in something like the Canadian Folk Music Awards (CFMAs), a place that seems to better understand its music and audience, and a chance to reward artists that are peripheral to the mainstream rather than confirming what has already been cemented by streams, charts and late-night TV appearances. The frequently underappreciated Basia Bulat is nominated in three categories — contemporary album of the year, contemporary singer of the year and English songwriter(s) of the year — for her spellbinding fifth record Are You in Love? while Catherine MacLellan is nominated in multiple categories for 2019’s COYOTE.
While well-deserved, these cross-category nominations reveal an issue in classification that plagues award programs big and small. As has been a topic of conversation surrounding the Grammys for years — clumsily addressed by a series of category redefinitions last year — artists of colour are most often relegated to genre-specific boxes while broad appeal artists are able to cover wider categorical ground, resulting in multiple nominations and multiple wins. The rule isn’t set in stone — Indigenous artists Riit and Leela Gilday are nominated in more than one category and Manitoba’s William Prince is nominated in almost every major category — but it is still up for debate whether these cultural or identity-based categories, like the confusingly broad “world album of the year,” serve to include or isolate.
Still, this year’s CFMAs do a better job than most at providing a wide range of artists in both sound and exposure. William Prince continues his climb to greater recognition for last year’s beautiful Reliever, lion-voiced Crystal Shawanda is nominated for the fiery Church House Blues and OKAN’s florid jazz-fusion Sombras is up for world album of the year. Again, definitions and categories become confusing — whether every album nominated this year can even be called “folk” is unlikely, but it is still a welcome crop of artists largely absent from the popular Canadian music scene at large. The show is, of course, being livestreamed, and will feature performances from multiple nominees — hopefully, by the next time it happens in person, we will all have figured out a better way to name and reward the music we love.
The Canadian Folk Music Awards will take place April 10 and 11 at 8:00 p.m. ET and will be accessible “online, worldwide and free of charge” on Facebook and YouTube. For more information, please visit folkawards.ca.