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Deborah Cox to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame

Deborah Cox is feeling a sense of déjà vu with all of this attention.

The Toronto-raised singer, whose powerhouse vocals on 1990s hits “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” and “Who Do U Love” made her part of R&B music royalty, is pushing through a press day to celebrate her upcoming induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

Something about it has triggered a flashback, she pauses mid-stride to tell a group of makeup artists and handlers around her.

“This reminds me of the first album,” she says of a media blitz that made her a star.

“Child, it was like back-to-back-to-back.”

Cox will need to react to herself with the flurry of activity that defined her rise to fame.

After a few years of laying low, she’s launching a comeback of sorts with a new album and other plans on the horizon.

Cox will set it all in motion at the Juno Awards, broadcast live on CBC from Toronto’s Budweiser Stage on May 15, where on top of being inducted she’ll deliver a live performance of the R&B hits and dance floor classics that built her name.

“I never in my wildest dreams would’ve thought that I would be in this place,” she says of the recognition.

“I’m still mindblown.”

While it’s a momentous occasion for Cox on a personal level, her induction marks a significant historical moment for the Canadian Music Hall of Fame itself.

Cox is the first Black woman to join the music hall of fame since its inception in 1978 and only the second Black musician to receive the honor after pianist Oscar Peterson was inducted that same year.

She joins a group of largely white rock, country and pop inductees. When asked whether her addition to her could be seen as an effort to diversify the roster, she’s coy.

“I don’t know. It’s complicated,” she says after some thought.

“I’m happy about the recognition. It’s a start. That’s where you start,” she adds.

“I’ve never separated being a Black woman from being a Canadian. I was born here in Toronto, I was raised here in Toronto. I wave the flag everywhere I go.”

At 47, Cox is a seasoned performer with stints in Broadway’s Elton John-Tim Rice musical “Aida” and a current role on BET’s “First Wives Club” series. But many listeners might be surprised to learn she’s Canadian at all, considering much of her success happened stateside.

Trying to launch an R&B music career in Canada during the early 1990s was almost impossible for any artist and Cox certainty had her share of rejection at home.

The country’s radio formats didn’t have much room for “urban music,” and even Toronto was years away from the launch of its first urban contemporary station Flow 93.5 in 2001.

That left Cox in a tough spot, she recalls. Early attempts to get signed by Canadian labels went nowhere. Eventually, she turned to singing backup for Celine Dion on one of her tours of her.

She left that job when Arista Records president Clive Davis came calling. He signed her to her label in 1994, putting her name alongside her marquee talent, Whitney Houston. By the next year, her self-titled debut album was on shelves and in heavy rotation on R&B radio in the United States, where her name de ella was often uttered in the same breath as the “I Will Always Love You” superstar , which at times Cox says was intimidating.

“At the beginning of my career, I felt, ‘Why are they pitting me against this icon?'” she says.

“The vision that Clive had is he understood that as a vocalist I could sing all these different styles of music. So, I think he saw the similarities. I think he saw the essence of her and her influence on me.”

Cox and Houston would later duet on the 2000 single “Same Script, Different Cast.”

While Cox’s debut album was a steady seller, it was her 1998 sophomore effort “Dream On” that sent her career soaring on a global scale.

In Canada and overseas, a remix of her single “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” by producer Hex Hector made her an instant dance floor diva. The song picked up support on MuchMusic and was beamed nationwide on the popular Friday night dance show “Electric Circus.”

Cox says she doesn’t resent having to route her dreams through the United States, partly because she doesn’t believe Canada had the support system for her at the time.

“That was a time of change and I think change happens when you’re doing something very different, when you’re OK with meeting the challenge,” she says.

“For things to change here I had to make an impact outside where there was a real infrastructure.”

One dance hit turned into another and before long Cox found that she couldn’t release a single without recording vocals for a remixed version too.

“People were just like, ‘So you’re going to do a remix, right?'” she remembers.

“My thing is, I serve. I’m here to give the people what they want. So, if you want a dance version outside of it. I’m going to do that.”

Cox turned out several more dance hits, most memorably a club remix of “Absolutely Not” and vocal contributions to “Leave the World Behind,” a 2009 collaboration between electronic-dance producer Laidback Luke and Swedish DJs Axwell, Ingrosso and Angello, the trio known as Swedish House Mafia.

All together, Cox has 13 singles that went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.

Looking back, Cox says it took “a lot of sacrifice and stepping back” to balance her career with family life in Florida where she’s married to her manager and has three kids.

“I wouldn’t have the family I have today if I had been that hamster on the wheel,” she says.

“Now that I’m older, I like being able to just do my own thing, walk into a Starbucks. As much as I love the adoration for the music and the fans, I do love anonymity too. There is a value to that .”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2022.


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