Singing an Immigrant’s Tune to Success

CIC News
Published: December 27, 2011

Canada's cultural mosaic continues to be a model for immigrant success, allowing newcomers to prosper across a broad spectrum of fields, from entrepreneurship to culture. On occasion of the Holiday Season, we profile three singers, representatives of different immigrant communities, who each combine aspects of their heritage with the Canadian experience.

Filipina Maria Aragon, K'naan from Somalia, and American expatriate Win Butler of Arcade Fire, have all broken out of the Canadian musical scene to gain widespread international success.

Maria Aragon and The Filipino Community of Manitoba

Maria Aragon was only ten years old, the child of Filipino immigrants to Winnipeg, when her cover of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” on YouTube brought her to world attention—leading to her performing with Lady Gaga in Toronto.

Lady Gaga is considered to have been the most successful singer in the world this past year.

Maria is one of four children, the only one born in Canada. Her family arrived to Winnipeg in 1997, speaking little English. They are now part of the third largest Filipino community in Canada, which numbers 40,000.

The early Filipino community in Manitoba, which began in the 1950’s, was composed mostly of garment workers and caregivers. While the Philippines continues to be a key source of immigrant caregivers, new arrivals are more varied. Working in such fields as information technology, the community is diversifying as the Philippines has also become a key source of skilled labour under the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program (PNP).

The community has also traditionally brought members of their families to Canada via Family Class Sponsorship.

As a representative of this community, Maria has seen her stardom only grow. She has sung for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British royalty, and with several international celebrities. She has also kept a strong connection to her parent’s homeland, visiting the Philippines and even signing a recording contract there.

As a celebrated singer, Maria contributes to the growing diversity of the Canadian Filipino community: an ambassador for successful immigration.

K’naan: Rapping Peaceably about Canada and Somalia

K’naan’s journey and eventual success in Canada mirror’s some aspects of Maria Aragon’s, but certainly had some unique challenges and eventual breakthroughs.

K’nann was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and left dramatically as his country descended into war. With his family, he eventually joined the largest Somali community in North America, in Toronto.

Through some struggling—as recorded in a song of the same name, K’naan eventually was discovered by Canadian music superstar Nelly Furtado. Furtado herself is the child of Portuguese immigrants.

K’naan is described as an anomaly, being a best-selling rap artist who advocates peace and non-violence, despite his tough early experiences.

As a representative of African and Somali success in Canada, K’naan has really scaled the heights—addressing the United Nations, and having his song, “Wavin’ Flag”, chosen as Coca Cola’s official song for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Win Butler, American Expat

Win Butler is an American expatriate from California, who married a Canadian and settled in Montreal. With his band Arcade Fire, Butler won the most coveted award in music in 2011: (The American) Grammy for best album.

There has historically always been a lot of exchange over the Canadian-American border, whether culturally, economically, or, indeed, through immigration.

More traditionally, Canadian performers have travelled south to break into the large American market, but Butler is evidence that it can work the other way around. Arcade Fire, still very much based in Montreal, has become a world-wide phenomenon, reaching #1 on the charts all over the globe, performing with the likes of U2, and even being handpicked to perform for American President Barack Obama.

Win Butler came to Canada by way of studying at Montreal’s McGill University, where he met fellow Arcade Fire member Régine Chassagne. Butler and Chassagne eventually married. Chassagne was born in Montreal to Haitian immigrant parents, and Arcade Fire sings an homage to this in an appropriately titled song Haiti.

Many iternational students, including Americans, come to Canada to study. There are several options for them to immigrate, including:

Other foreigners studying in Canada choose to put down roots, such as Butler, who, by marrying a Canadian, become eligible for Family Class Sponsorship.

While it may be hard for other American expats in Canada, or anyone for that matter, to reach the level of success of Win Butler and Arcade Fire, Butler proves even for ambitious Americans Canada remains a surprisingly good option.

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