Recording artist Deborah Cox proud of Caribbean roots and husband's support
April 17, 2019
The best view comes after the most challenging climb.
Canadian-born recording artist Deborah Cox can attest to that.
As a young girl growing up in Toronto Housing in Flemingdon Park, she envisioned performing on stage in front of large audiences.
“That was my escape,” the multi-talented artist said. “On the one hand, it seemed unattainable, but watching my mom persevere under difficult circumstances gave me determination. Everything wasn’t perfect and there was no manual to try to figure things out. It was just a matter of being relentless and not taking no for an answer.”
All artists face rejection and it hurts badly. How you handle it will determine if you sink or swim.
Drowning wasn’t an option for Cox who was a background singer for five-time Grammy Award winner Celine Dion.
“There were plenty of ‘no’s’,” said the married mother of three children who was the recipient of a Luminary Award at the 10th annual University of the West Indies (UWI) Toronto Benefit Gala on April 6 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “Over the years, I built up the nerves to really think outside the box. I have learnt to be open and comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s key.”
With tears coursing down her cheeks, Cox thanked her husband – Lascelles Stephens – for his unconditional support.
The high school sweetheart, who was also her manager, was in the sold out audience of about 500.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without you,” Cox told him. “We have come a long way from a little co-op apartment in Scarborough, having endless sleepless nights writing songs together, sending out demo tapes throughout the country and having mom type and fax lyrics. We were just relentless. I thank you as you are the backbone and without you and your vision, none of this would have worked.”
Becoming a mother, she said, was a life-altering experience.
“It changed my perspective,” noted Cox who has recorded six award-winning and critically-acclaimed albums and has written for and been recorded on numerous soundtracks. “It motivated me to use my platform to inspire young people and that starts with my own children. We are raising a boy and two girls and, in the climate we are in right now, we have to stand up and remind them of their greatness.”
Gala co-chairs Donette Chin-Loy Chang and Wes Hall joined UWI Chancellor Robert Bermudez, Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles and Scotiabank senior executive Brendan King in presenting the award to Cox whose mother, Guyanese immigrant Jeanette Cox, attended the event.
“This honour is humbling,” the Grammy Award-nominated multi-platinum R & B/Pop recording artist and actress noted. “It has come full circle for me. It’s from home and it’s from my people. I stand here so proud to be Canadian and so proud to be of West Indian descent. Because of that, my perspective has been to have no limits and while I think of my humble beginnings, my mother and her struggle and all the island people that came to this country with a dream, the drive and the determination, I know that that same spirit is in my DNA.”
Four-time Grammy Award winner Damian “Junior Gong” Marley was also presented with a Luminary Award. He’s the youngest son of reggae legend Bob Marley and Canadian-born Jamaican Cindy Breakspeare who was crowned Miss World 1976.
He thanked the gala committee for raising funds to send Caribbean students to UWI and said his mother, who was at the gala, always stressed the value of a good education.
“For me, it was no music unless your grades are up,” said Marley who has been growing his dreadlocks – they are almost touching the floor -- for the past 23 years. “As a kid, I used to go to UWI for extra classes to up my grades, particularly in Maths. I don’t have a university education and, in the field I am in, it’s not compulsory. But I can see where the education I have has helped me in my career. I thank my mom and step-father (Senate of Jamaica President Tom Tavares-Finson) for ensuring I got a good education.”
Luminary Awards are presented to persons of Caribbean heritage who are outstanding achievers at an international level in their respective fields or have brought prominence to issues affective the Caribbean.
Vice-Chancellor Awards were presented to cancer researcher Dr. Juliet Daniel, retired provincial court judge Gregory Regis and Joy Spence who is the world’s first female master blender.
The awards honour people of Caribbean heritage who have risen to the pinnacle of success in their field.
By being bestowed with the prestigious honour, Daniel hopes it will inspire Caribbean youths to keep their eyes on the prize, dream big and pursue bio-medical research.
“You don’t have to be a cancer researcher although that would be great,” said the McMaster University Professor. “We need more Black researchers to actually study the various chronic diseases that are disproportionately affecting people of African ancestry.”
In acknowledging the honour, Spence reminded attendees that Canada is the number one market in the world for Appleton Estate Jamaican rum.
“By simple Maths, Canadians love good rum,” she said. “It’s an honour to have promoted Jamaican rum all over the world.”
Regis used his acceptance speech to thank the UWI Vice-Chancellor for leading the case for reparatory justice for hundreds of years of slavery imposed by England.
“It is imperative that UWI double its resolve and efforts to continue to be an institution dedicated to keeping the people of the Caribbean integrated and united,” added Regis who was a media practitioner in St. Lucia.
Hotelier Gordon “Butch” Stewart accepted the Chancellor’s Award on behalf of Sandals Resort Ltd. that he founded.
Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist Mohamad Fakih was the recipient of the G. Raymond Chang Award.
The UWI Toronto gala patron died five years ago.
Fakih, who donated $10,000 for UWI scholarships, was ecstatic to be receiving an award in Chang’s name.
“Raymond Chang was generous with his time, wisdom and money,” the Paramount Fine Foods founder said. “But above all, he had a generosity of spirit. He believed in people, their work and their potential. It is good to be reminded of people like him, particularly in these times when we look around and find ourselves thinking that the bad guys are winning.”
The UWI Toronto fundraising gala originated after a luncheon meeting on the Mona Campus in Jamaica 11 years ago.
About $2 million has been raised for scholarships that have benefited 500 students from across the Caribbean.
Jermaine Nairne, one of the first scholarship winners, is a senior policy researcher at the Mona campus and one of Jamaica’s youngest Justices of the Peace.
“This evening, I can assure you that having invested in me, I have given you – the supporters of this gala – a return on your investment,” the product of a 17-year-old mother said to a loud round of applause. “I stand here as a product of the generosity of so many and as one whose journey has been made much more bearable because of others like you paying it forward. Your support is phenomenal and truly transformative in that you literally change the trajectory of the lives of students. In giving a handout, what you do is to take both corrective as well as proactive action. Your support reaches into the past to correct generations of poverty and secondly it reaches into the future to clear socio-economic roadblocks that would have otherwise perpetuated that lack in generations to come. For that, we are immensely thankful.”
As a proud scholarship winner, Nairne has taken the lead to improve the lives of others.
“I have ensured that I maintain a presence of mind to develop those over whom I have been charged with responsibility and those with whom I have come into contact with, be it in my capacity as a researcher, lecturer, volunteer in different national organizations and initiatives or even my personal life,” the UWI Toronto gala committee member added. “For me, the responsibility transcends a description given to me on paper. My life goal is people development. It is about exposing young people to leadership in meaningful ways, including cultural and emotional intelligence, helping them embrace failure as part of the process of innovation and creativity and more importantly letting them know they have to take responsibility.”
UWI part-time Social Work student Howard Brown received a scholarship last year that will allow him to graduate in October.
“Without that scholarship, it would have taken me a little bit longer,” said the 32-year-old Open Campus student who learnt four days before the gala that he would be coming to Toronto to speak on behalf of this year’s scholarship winners.
Brown knows everything about having to wait for good things to happen.
Just before graduating from high school in Clarendon, his 36-year-mom succumbed to cervical cancer. He had to abort plans to pursue higher education and care for two younger siblings.
“At the time, we were moving between aunts,” said Brown whose mom was diagnosed shortly after she graduated from nursing school two years earlier. “Me and my siblings got some accommodation and someone helped to pay the rent for us while I sought employment.”
He worked in a wholesale establishment and clothing store before landing a job at a travel agency as an accounting clerk.
“It was hard to make ends meet with the money I was making and I realized the only way I could improve the situation was by going to university,” Brown pointed out. “Tertiary education allowed me to empower myself and rise above challenges. After I graduate, I am looking forward to making a contribution to youth development in Jamaica.”
Brown is proud to be the first in his family to attend university.
“Though my father didn’t finish primary school and didn’t have the financial resources to support me, he encouraged me to seek tertiary education,” he said. “I know my mom is looking down on me even though she’s not around to see my success.”
Scotiabank has been the gala’s lead sponsor from the inception.