Honey Jam Celebrates the Endurance of Its "Forever Sisterhood" of Emerging Canadian Artists

"Once you do the program, you are always an alum, and we support and promote our alums forever," says founder Ebonnie Rowe

Photo: Powered by TD

BY Veracia AnkrahPublished Mar 9, 2022

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, long-running artist development program Honey Jam has continued to support women in Toronto's artistic community — alumni and new members alike.

"I couldn't keep wandering around aimlessly in my pyjamas in downtown Toronto, bewildered," Honey Jam founder Ebonnie Rowe tells Exclaim! "I was like, suck it up, get it together — they need us now." A lot of people were doing virtual stuff, but it wasn't really resonating with as much impact with the artists. They needed and craved in-person contact."

When the city re-opened with strict capacity restrictions, Honey Jam hosted creative talks with producer Doc McKinney, artists Fefe Dobson, Serena Ryder and Charmaine, Gossip Girl's Jordan Alexander and LiveNation's Erik Hoffman, launched a songwriting camp in Nashville, hosted various workshops and more. "It felt like we had gone to Disney World," Rowe remembers. "The look on the faces of everyone just so thrilled to be in the presence of other humans was a wonderful thing."

Honey Jam's creator is a resilient force, whose daring energy can be felt through the phone. It's no wonder she's managed to keep the collective championing of women — many of whom are women of colour in a country and industry that often undermines their agency — going strong since 1995. Her approach through the pandemic is a testament to her powerhouse spirit. Rowe explains, "A lot of people had written off the year, but that just wasn't an option. We did as much as we could within COVID protocols and managed to still have an amazing season, both last year and this one, because we aren't rolling over for the virus."

Artistic expression and community got many music fans through the thick of the pandemic and are continuing to keep many of them afloat, especially online. "Even posting these gatherings on social media, the number of likes and engagement was so much higher than ever before, and others felt inspired and empowered by seeing us," Rowe recalls. "The show must go on, as they say, and that's what we did." 

As the celebration of Honey Jam's 25th anniversary approached, Rowe maintained momentum despite ever-changing restrictions, and she decided to not downplay the monumental milestone. She says, "I didn't want anyone to look at it and say, 'Oh, that's what we had to settle for because of COVID.' That was not happening. I needed to get excited, inspired, and I needed the artists to feel that way [as well as] the people tuning in."

The larger-than-life Honey Jam 25th anniversary showcase took place on October 1, 2020, at the El Mocambo. Rowe remembers, "The legendary venue had just undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation, and it was state-of-the-art. We dressed up and acted like it was one of the major music awards. Catering, what we called 'The Queen Lounge,' with a throne, a cake, sparklers. Over 12,000 people tuned in to the livestream and posted videos of themselves dancing and singing along. It was a fantastic time!" 

Since 1995, Honey Jam has fostered a multitude of female Canadian artists across a range of genres. Some of Canada's most iconic talent performed on the showcase stage, including Jully Black, Melanie Fiona and Nelly Furtado. Stella Meghie, writer and director of the 2020 film The Photograph, used to be a hip-hop artist who took part in Honey Jam in the early 90s.

According to Rowe, artists never really graduate from the program — rather, they remain part of the family. "It's kind of a sorority," she says. "It's a forever sisterhood. Once you do the program, you are always an alum, and we support and promote our alums forever."

This family includes singer-songwriter NEFE and hip-hop up-and-comer DJ Love Jones, who represent a cross-section of the program: one artist who has had years of experience in the program and one who is just getting started.

Rowe describes NEFE — an acoustic soul artist from Guelph who made her Honey Jam debut in 2014 — as an OG. "She has been a part of almost everything we've done," says Rowe. "She was one of the artists we took to Nashville last summer and has had quite a range of Honey Jam experiences."

As a veteran of Honey Jam, NEFE speaks to the incomparable bond she's found in the community. 

"Honey Jam is an experience that stays with you for life," she tells Exclaim! "The female empowerment, inspiration, support and lifetime bonds are unmatched. Once you become a part of the Honey Jam fam, your experience in life and the music industry is never the same. It is one of the only solid foundations and true sources of connectedness I've had on my journey through the music industry, especially with a male-dominated playing field. I will be forever grateful for the effect Honey Jam has had on my journey."

DJ Love Jones is a first-time member of Honey Jam who made her debut in the program's 26th showcase this past August. "She's going to be 13 and her story is incredibly inspiring. She is young and talented with a strong personality," Rowe shares.

Over email, the emergent DJ affirms Rowe's enthusiastic sentiments: "My dreams came true after auditioning with the Honey Jam family. My journey with Honey Jam has been amazing throughout. It has given me a realistic experience to showcase my talent in the performing arts I am extremely thankful for their ongoing support of my career as a young artist. Thank you so much Honey Jam for everything."

Both NEFE and DJ Love Jones, artists of Honey Jam past and present, can attest to the encouraging community they've found in the sisterhood, made possible in part by funding provided by organizations like TD Bank Group (TD). 

"Diversity and inclusion have always been part of what TD stands for long before it became a buzzword," Rowe says adamantly. "We've enjoyed working together for more than a decade, and it has not just been financial support. They have provided performance opportunities for the artists, space in the TD Towers for us to host events in downtown Toronto prior to COVID, and their staff have come out and supported our events. It's a great relationship that we are happy to have with them. We value their support and it has been essential to our growth and development over the years."

"Ebonnie's efforts to advance equality in Canada's music industry by amplifying diverse voices, celebrating creativity and mentoring the next generation of female artists has been transformational for so many," said Amy Hanen, Associate Vice President, Social Impact, Canada, TD Bank Group. "One of our goals through the TD Ready Commitment, our corporate citizenship platform, is to support organizations that provide the tools, connections and resources that can help break down barriers in the arts and culture sector which can be difficult for emerging and diverse artists to navigate. We are so proud of our longstanding relationship with Honey Jam and believe that the ripple effects of their mission will positively impact the Canadian music industry for many more years to come." 

To commemorate 27 years and prepare for the next 27, Rowe shares her response to an interview question asked at the inception of Honey Jam in the early '90s: "What does success mean to you?" Years later, her response holds weight: "Success would mean that we wouldn't need to exist. That there is no need for a group to advocate specifically for women, especially women of colour because we'd live in a utopian society where we would be on a level playing field and everyone would have an opportunity based on merit — a meritocracy where there is no racism, sexism or any of the -isms. Clearly, we are not there yet, but we've definitely made impactful strides and we are going to keep pushing." 

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