Getting her due south

Rejected by labels at home, Canadian diva Deborah Cox is a fast-rising star in the U.S.

Lynn Saxberg
The Ottawa Citizen

The day of the Grammy Awards was uncommonly cool and rainy in Los Angeles, but Deborah Cox was still glowing from a chat with Whitney Houston at the pre-Grammy party the night before. Fast-rising Canadian star Cox and American pop diva Houston finally had the chance to talk about a song they're scheduled to record together this week. To Cox's delight, Houston was nearly as excited about the duet as she is. It will appear on Cox's next album and be one of the handful of new tracks on Houston's forthcoming greatest-hits set.

"It's funny because we spent a great amount of time last night and got a chance to really talk about how we feel about working with each other," says Cox on the phone from her hotel room.

"The two of us are just elated. Because we know there have been so many comparisons in the past, you know, it's really about showing camaraderie between the two of us."

Signed to Arista Records in 1995 by noted starmaker Clive Davis (the executive behind Houston's success and Carlos Santana's comeback), Cox is not only labelmates with Houston but also has a similar R and B and gospel-influenced pop style. In fact, Cox has carved herself a comfortable niche in Whitney's territory, at the top of the charts.

Nobody's Supposed to Be Here, the first single from Cox's million-selling 1998 second album, One Wish, spent a record 14 weeks at No. 1. on Billboard's R and B single charts. The song ended 1999 on the top 10 of Billboard's Hot Singles chart and was the industry magazine's second most popular

R and B/hip hop single, a notch above Houston. The album's second single, a duet with R.L. from Next called We Can't Be Friends, also reached No. 1 on the Billboard R and B singles chart.

What's more, the 26-year-old Toronto native was nominated for a best new artist American Music Award and last year became the first Canadian to win a Soul Train Lady of Soul award, over Lauryn Hill and Janet Jackson.

The awards, magazine covers and video exposure have all helped boost Cox's profile.

She was part of Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair tour last summer, and appeared on fall covers of Chatelaine and Elm Street magazines. She's also been featured in U.S. publications ranging from People to Black Hair, and is trying her hand at acting, with upcoming appearances in a Nash Bridges episode (with Don Johnson and Cheech Marin) and the Canadian film Love Come Down with Lorenz Tate.

But the former Celine Dion backup singer was a little disappointed at being overlooked at the Grammy Awards.

"I felt like I had two really great songs that could have been acknowledged, but I'm not sure they made the deadline," she says.

The Canadian music industry has taken note of Cox's success, awarding her with three consecutive Juno awards for best R and B recording (but no nominations this year). Still, Cox found it frustrating that she had to leave Canada to prove herself. After a round of rejections from the major labels in Canada, Cox and her songwriting partner, Lascelles Stephens, who's now her husband and co-manager, left for L.A.

"I got responses from Warner Brothers and Capitol, and basically at the time they said they had met their quota for the type of music that I was

doing, so that they weren't interested," Cox says. "It was at that point that I started to shop my demo stateside ... and I finally got a meeting with Clive Davis. I feel like I've given everybody a fair shot at signing me."

But the times, they are 'a-changin' as Canadian rap acts such as Choclair, Rascalz and Saukrates make their mark. While mainstream R and B has a long way to go, Cox feels her success is helping to open the doors.

"It seems like rap music has gotten a lot more recognition than, I would say, R and B has in this country," Cox says. "But the good thing is that changes are being made and I'm pleased to say the records I put out have contributed to change, so I'd like to see more of it."

And at least Cox is showing that it is possible to be Canadian, perform

R and B music and get somewhere. When she was growing up, she would have loved to have had a black Canadian woman as a role model.

"Those were times that were very racist in the industry," she says.

"I mean, Liberty Silver, she came out for a minute, and I remember Billy Newton Davis, but there just weren't that many to see any kind of diversity in the style of music. I remember at that point we didn't even have a Juno category.

"I had to find my own way of finding inspiration. Thankfully my parents really exposed me to a lot of different things and showed me that that's not the norm. It's unfortunately a part of life, but it's really not normal."

Through her parents, Cox discovered artists such as Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight. Later, the radio exposed her to Houston, whose music was another major influence.

The thought of inspiring young people is one reason Cox is keen to perform at events such as Friday's Stop Racism concert and awards show. She also believes strongly in the cause.

"I'm constantly trying to show in different ways how I feel about racism and how I think it's very limiting," she says. "I think that there are still a lot of boundaries that are put out -- not only music, but in all areas of life, and I think it's time for those things to change, for those stereotypes to change.

"The situations that I've been in have always been sort of people treat you different because they think of the stereotypes people have of black people in general. You know, you walk in to a store, and you have the sales clerks follow you around as if you're going to steal something, and people not wanting to have you participate in certain things. I remember auditioning for countless number of different productions that were going on in the city, Toronto, where I grew up, and just being overlooked because of the colour of my skin."

"So there are some things that you just kind of grow up with and you just get a thick skin towards all of the negativity that's put towards you. Instead of reacting with a negative response, I've always turned it into a positive thing. I use that as ammunition to go out and do something positive."

Two of her most positive recent experiences were a missionary stint in Mozambique with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that invites high-profile Canadians to work with people living in poverty; and a trip to South Africa last fall that saw her perform in Johannesburg and Capetown. "That was completely rewarding because I've always wanted to go to South Africa and this record allowed me to do that."

Racism Concert to Be Aired on Ytv

Tomorrow's $1-million Stop Racism Concert and Awards Show will be broadcast on YTV on March 21, the International Day for the Elmination of Racial Discrimination. It will also be shown on television in other countries, and broadcast on the Web by MuchMusic.

The event is part of the federal government's Action 2000 millennium initiative, which includes a cyberpetition at the Web site and a Tour Canada challenge that invited youth teams across the country to take part in activities to help stop racism.

The 10 winning teams will receive awards at tomorrow's event, the climax of a week spent talking about their activities in other Canadian cities. There are also youth teams from other countries participating.

In 1966, the United Nations declared March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to mark the 1960 massacre of 70 anti-apartheid demonstrators conducting a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were shot and killed by police.

The show tomorrow features performances by teen pop group The Moffatts, American R and B singer Monica, Inuit chanteuse Susan Aglukark, Toronto rockers Big Sugar, Canada's reigning queen of R and B, Deborah Cox, Quebec rappers Dubmatique, rockeurs La Chicane, the Montreal-based West African ensemble Allakomi, and Vancouver's alt-rock goddess Bif Naked.

Video messages from Bill Cosby, Sarah McLachlan, Lou Diamond Phillips and David Suzuki are to be screened and there will be an

opening address by Hedy Fry, Canada's secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women. Other speakers include actor/director Anthony Sherwood and novelist Joy Kogawa. Hosting the event is MuchMusic's Juliette Powell.

Tickets are $23, plus applicable surcharges, available at the Corel Centre box office, and through TicketMaster, 755-1111.

Showtime is 8 p.m.



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