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People seen on a stage, one holding a guitar and one holding a microphone.
William Prince, Julian Taylor, Allison Russell, Aysanabee and Shawnee Kish perform a tribute to the late Robbie Robertson at the Juno awards, in Halifax, on March 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

The art of musical tribute, including Maestro Fresh Wes hip hop sampling, moved fans during Junos 2024

Annual music award ceremonies — like the recent Juno Awards of 2024 in Canada — afford opportunities to pay tribute to artists who have passed away and acknowledge the living art of creative musical and cultural interpretation.

At the Junos 2024, memorial tributes were given to musical greats Robbie Robertson and Gordon Lightfoot. Yet another form of memorialization — and musical re-interpretation — was witnessed via hip hop sampling when Maestro Fresh Wes performed in celebration of his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame as the “godfather of Canadian hip hop.”

Performers seen on a stage with the image of a person projected on a screen behind them.
William Prince, left to right, Julian Taylor, Allison Russell, Aysanabee, Shawnee Kish and Logan Staats perform a tribute to Robbie Robertson at the Juno awards, in Halifax, on March 24, 2024.

Awards events carry on older traditions

“In Memoriam” features at annual awards ceremonies allow contemporary industries to remember artists who have gone before, including by appreciating contemporary music that pays tribute to and builds upon earlier artists’ legacies across genres and styles.

Honouring the memory of prominent figures is a practice that dates at least back to the monuments of ancient Egypt and Greece. Funerary monuments in Europe have been erected to mark the final resting place for arts celebrities, while composers have dedicated memorials in sound — like Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” for noted Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni.

Read more: Josephine Baker: what it means to enter France's hallowed Panthéon

“In Memoriam” segments of yearly awards events have carried on this tradition. Still images or video clips of the departed appear in a (quick) montage over an appropriate musical accompaniment, with special tributes occasionally interspersed. The choice of music is typically determined by its combination of a contemplative vibe with a broad audience appeal.

The Oscars established the “In Memoriam” as a regular feature in 1994 and the Grammys and Emmys were not far behind.

Not without controversy

Although intended as a moment of reflection in the midst of the excitement of an awards show, the “In Memoriam” segment has not been without controversy. According to the former executive director of the Academy Bruce Davis “it is the single most troubling element of the Oscar show every year.”

For any performing arts field, the number of deceased far exceeds those who can be featured in the segment. An internal adjudicatory body must select names for the program. The exclusion (or inclusion) of names inevitably draws complaints in what Vanity Fair called “the toughest Oscar vote of all.”

A man in cowboy hat with guitar.
Stompin’ Tom Connors performs at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in 2002. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

In recognition of the selectiveness of the process, the program/sponsoring organization provides a fuller list of departed members on their website.

Controversies — perhaps unsurprisingly — do erupt surrounding arts memorializations. Prior to the death of folk musician Stompin’ Tom Connors in 2017, Connors forbade the Junos from including him in the “In Memoriam” portion of the program. Connors famously returned six of his Juno awards in 1978 to protest the fact that Junos were being given to Canadian musicians who didn’t live in Canada.

Canadian cultural workers tribute

The Canadian arts scene is smaller than in the United States, which means awards ceremonies like the Junos can be more comprehensive in their memorialization of Canadian cultural workers who have passed.

During the 2024 opening night awards, for example, the Junos honoured a long list of Canadian music industry professionals who died the previous year while Manitoba singer Begonia solemnly performed her piece “Butterfly.”

During the televised portion of the awards the following night, an all-star band featuring Aysanabee, Allison Russell, William Prince and Julian Taylor performed moving renditions of “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Weight.” The performances honoured Canadian music legends Lightfoot and Robertson, respectively, and were viewer favourites.

Aysanabee, Allison Russell, William Prince and Julian Taylor perform musical tributes at the 2024 Junos.

Maestro Fresh Wes performance

Another form of memorialization was on display at the 2024 Junos in a performance by Maestro Fresh Wes. Wes, inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, became the first hip hop musician to receive the honour.

Read more: The Juno Awards finally celebrate hip hop, but is it too late?

Wes performed a medley of his hits including “Underestimated,” “Let Your Backbone Slide,” and “Stick to your Vision.” These songs sample diverse sources including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “Funky Drummer” by James Brown and “These Eyes” by Canadian Music Hall of Famers The Guess Who.

As Wes noted in a CBC interview in August 2023, his sampling of Canadian rock records started before “Stick to Your Vision” became a hit: Wes’s “Drop the Needle” sampled from the song “Dance Desire” by the 80s P.E.I. band Haywire.

Maestro Fresh Wes performs at Junos 2024.

An integral part of hip hop music and culture, sampling is a potent form of cultural memorialization — a way of remembering and honouring the musical past and mobilizing it in the service of contemporary musical and cultural expression.

Tributes to Black Canadian artists

A man holding a trophy award simling.
Maestro Fresh Wes receives the trophy signifying his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards, in Halifax, on March 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Wes has explored hip hop’s capacity for cultural memorialization in other ways as well. Take, for example, the track “Nothin’ at all” from his 1991 album The Black Tie Affair.

The song lifts up Black and Indigenous solidarity and also lauds the accomplishments of several Black Canadians including musicians Oscar Peterson and Salome Bey, fellow Canadian hip hop pioneers Michie Mee and “Mr. Metro” (Devon) and boxers Egerton Marcus and Lennox Lewis.

The track calls for solidarity among people of African descent and other racialized communities, while offering a trenchant critique of institutional racism in Canada. “Nothin’ at all” concludes with the lyrics: “Therefore we as a race should support / Black achievement, never let society distort / Your mind away from comprehension / Cross-cultural pride is what I’m tryin’ to strengthen …”

Powerful form of cultural memory

In an 2020 interview with historian Sean Carleton for Canadian Dimension, Wes noted:

When we come together collectively and listen and learn from each other’s struggles, we can make this place better for everyone. That’s what I was saying in the early 1990s. That’s what I’m still saying today. Without togetherness, we’ve got nothing at all.”

Through his sampling practices and lyrics, Maestro Fresh Wes has explored hip hop as a powerful form of cultural memory that promotes solidarity and pride among Black communities — and across racial and cultural boundaries in Canada.

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