“I sang the truth”: Why Jully Black changed the lyrics to “O Canada” during the NBA All-Star Game
The singer has been praised by Indigenous leaders, federal politicians and even Drake for her musical land acknowledgement. Now, she wants to see the anthem changed for good
This past weekend, Toronto singer Jully Black performed the Canadian national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City—albeit with a slight revision to the lyrics. Black replaced “our home and native land” with “our home on native land,” a nod to Canada’s colonial history. The ever-so-subtle change broke the internet, with #ourhomeONnativeland trending on Twitter. Some commenters considered Black’s revision a much-needed acknowledgement of an ongoing genocide; others decried the change as a politically motivated attack on a beloved anthem. Here, she weighs in on her decision to swap the lyrics and why she’s ignoring the critics.
First off, how did you land the all-star anthem gig?
When the Raptors were in the playoffs, in 2019, a few higher-ups in the basketball world told me I might have an opportunity to sing the anthem before one of the games. It never happened. At the time, I was disappointed, but everything happens for a reason: in December 2022, I received an email from the NBA, asking if I wanted to perform the anthem at the 2023 All-Star Game.
Is it true that, for a while, you had stopped singing the Canadian anthem altogether?
Yes. When the graves of Indigenous children were discovered on the sites of former residential schools, I decided to stop. I could no longer sing it and truly believe in what I was saying. I have many Indigenous friends. It’s been hard seeing their pain. And they’ve always edited “O Canada” or opted to not sing it. In 2021, I was given the opportunity to sing the anthem on Parliament Hill for Canada Day, but I turned it down. I still hosted the event and fulfilled my obligations. I just thought, How could I possibly sing this song with pride?
What inspired you to change the lyrics this time around?
Over the past few years, I don’t think I’ve been to an event without a land acknowledgement. In Toronto, people say, “We’re on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.” I thought of what I did as a musical land acknowledgment. I consulted various Indigenous friends. I told them, “This is what feels right in my spirit, in my soul.” Their response was very emotional, and they thanked me for my sacrifice. I didn’t even think of it as being rebellious. I sang the truth. My parents immigrated to Toronto from Jamaica in 1968. We’re settlers. Because I’m a first-generation Canadian, I find it easy to see that this is not our land.
Were you worried about blowback?
No. Knowing it was on live TV, I was more worried about establishing my cadence, slowing everything down so that I pronounced every word clearly. I wanted to do my country proud. The blowback wasn’t on my mind.
As you know, there was plenty of criticism online. One commenter called it “absolutely disgraceful,” and another said that you were trying to create “controversy and division.” Thoughts?
It makes me wonder: When was the last time those people sang the national anthem? Do they get up in the morning and sing it as a mantra? My guess is no. Those who are responding negatively are the ones looking for attention—they’re the ones causing division. I saw other people’s reactions on the news: many Indigenous leaders, chiefs and people had their hands over their hearts, saying thank you. That’s much more important.
What other feedback did you get?
The rapper Chuck D tweeted out that it was the most soulful rendition of “O Canada” he’d ever heard. Drake sent me a text that night, which said, “You were incredible. It’s time to celebrate you.” It felt really good to have him reach out directly. The Washington Post and the BBC both wrote about the performance. I gained about 10,000 Instagram followers. I also spoke with someone from the WNBA, who said they want me to perform at the league’s first exhibition game in Toronto, on May 13, Minnesota versus Chicago.
— Chuck D (@MrChuckD) February 20, 2023
In 2018, in a bid to make “O Canada” gender-neutral, the lyrics were changed from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Are you hoping for a similar outcome?
I hope they change the word from and to on. But, regardless, I won’t sing it the old way anymore. The precedent has been set. I won’t name any names, but I’ve received messages from Canadian politicians at the federal level, saying that they plan to bring it up in policy meetings. They want it to be a conversation. Some people have said that the performance should be a Canadian Heritage Minute.
Other than the anthem, any cool highlights from the weekend?
There was an awesome party, thrown by Adidas. There was an event called NBA Crossover, which had all things NBA and WNBA—the history, the trophies, everything. I saw Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who’s a friend. I hung out with Simu Liu, who’s killing it with Marvel right now. And I bumped into Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia. It felt good to see so many Canadians there celebrating.
Are you a hooper?
I played in high school at Oakwood Collegiate Institute. At five-foot-ten, playing forward, I was tall compared to the other players. I was good at shooting and boxing out. One year, we went all the way to the provincial semi-finals. That’s my claim to fame.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.