The Creationists

Creating the Honey Jam with Ebonnie Rowe

February 03, 2021 Steve Waxman Episode 23
The Creationists
Creating the Honey Jam with Ebonnie Rowe
Show Notes Transcript

Honey Jam began its life as a concert to celebrate the launch of a magazine issue. Now, 25 years later, Honey Jam provides opportunities for female artists to get invaluable access to mentors and performance coaches, as well as the chance to showcase their talents for industry insiders. In the beginning, though, there was no way that Ebonnie Rowe could have dreamed that Honey Jam would still be around a quarter of a century later.

Long before starting Honey Jam, Ebonnie was studying at the University of Toronto when a tragic event led her to reassessing her life, which then put her on a path to help affect others in a positive way.

If you'd like to find out more about Honey Jam and its history, please visit If you or someone you know would like to get involved in the good work that Ebonnie does, please email her at

Read the full transcript at

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Honey Jam began its life as a concert to celebrate the launch of a magazine issue. Now, 25 years later, Honey Jam provides opportunities for female artists to get invaluable access to mentors and performance coaches, as well as the chance to showcase their talents for industry insiders. In the beginning, though, there was no way that Ebonnie Rowe could have dreamed that Honey Jam would still be around a quarter of a century later.

Long before starting Honey Jam, Ebonnie was studying at the University of Toronto when a tragic event led her to reassessing her life, which then put her on a path to help affect others in a positive way.

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Steve Waxman: Can you talk a little about the Each One, Teach One mentorship program you started around the time you were leaving university?

Ebonnie Rowe:  I was studying English literature. And then I got a call that a friend of mine had died suddenly and I dropped out of university. I just immediately had a sense of my own mortality and thinking, 'If I was to pass today, what has been my reason for being on the earth.' And somehow, studying Chaucer and Shakespeare didn't seem very relevant at the time. And so I wanted to do something impactful in the time that I had in the world. Before I was taken. And that's how the mentor program started.

Steve Waxman:  So what were the first steps to starting the program and what was your goal?

Ebonnie Rowe:  A reporter for CITY TV was doing a news story on black youth and crime and he asked if I wanted to tag along as he went around to different places. I brought some friends with me and he took us to a community center in Regent Park. This is almost 30 years ago and we had to go through metal detectors. That really struck me. And the way that the kids looked at us like we were aliens, and I just saw this great divide between these kids that were living in the projects and the limited opportunities that they had and the crime that they saw around them, and then seeing people who look like them succeeding in life. And I was haunted by that. And the counselors that we met with said, "We don't need any more people disappointing these kids, so don't get overwhelmed by what you see, and then make promises that you cannot fulfill so that you can have something on your resume. If you're going to do that just give us a check." So that really struck me. So I thought, well maybe we should do a fundraiser, and give them some money, because we're all so busy. But I was haunted by the way that the kids looked at us, and I just thought, I want to find a way to bridge the gap. And in my sleep, I just started mapping out what the form would look like. I used to work out to a Public Enemy song, and in the chorus he would say "Each one, Teach one." And so I just kind of made it up as I went along. Having no experience in that area, it was just something I had a passion for and figuring it out. So I reached out to different people, had meetings, and asked them what they thought about the idea. Obviously I needed to have mentors, before I could tell anyone about it. So I went to people that I knew and held a fundraiser. So I didn't sit and think about it and say 'Oh, this is my grand goal.' I just kind of hit the ground running. And in the end we wound up having, I think, between 250-300  young people sign up to be in the program, and it ran for over 10 years,

Steve Waxman:  What kinds of things were you talking to them about?

Ebonnie Rowe:  It was a profession based program. This is for black youth specifically. So, if you decide that you want to be an accountant, we would find a black person who was an accountant. The idea is to have a mirror image to see someone succeeding where you want to be. Someone that you're not exposed to in your neighborhood. So, just the act of taking that child to the office of this accountant, that might be on the 30th floor in the Bay St. financial district where they have never been just that act was so impactful. Seeing them there in a suit in an office and showing them. Opening them up to new possibilities for their lives and for their future and introducing them to people who care about them who they might be able to shadow for a day or a week, who can talk to them about the educational requirements of that profession, those sorts of things.

Steve Waxman:  So how do you end up meeting DJ X and what led to the conversation that you eventually had with him about lyrics in rap music?

Ebonnie Rowe:  We would do Youth Days at the University of Toronto. It would be entertainment. It would be workshops. So, the legendary music video director Director X, he was 17 at that time, and he would do some of our youth workshops for us. And so DJ X was providing the music, and I would listen to his shows, and some of my female mentees would complain to me that their five year old brothers were calling them the B word and the H word, not knowing what it was but because they would hear Ice Cube say it or Snoop say it. Back then in the 90s, college radio was the Wild Wild West and they didn't have to have a clean version of tracks and the shows would play in the middle of the day. So, I have a fairly bold personality so I just went up to him and told him this and he was surprised. You know, these are unintended consequences, but he had not thought about. And he said, "Well, why don't you come on my radio show and talk about it." This was the most popular hip hop radio show in the country. It was three hours. And I said, "Okay." And then he said "Well I'm gonna give you the whole three hours. You produce it, and talk about those issues." I was like, wait, I don't know anything about this. But, you know, I believe that if you complain about something and then somebody gives you a voice you don't cower or say you're too busy or you don't know you figure it out. So I figured it out and we did this show and listening at the time was the editor of Canadian entertainment magazine called Mic Check. He contacted me and said "We want you to edit an all female issue of our magazine." Again, something I have no experience doing. And then the wrap party for the magazine was called Honey Jam. And that is how Honey Jam started. It was just supposed to be that celebration of the magazine, and then everyone said 'Oh my god, that's so amazing when is the next one?" And I said, "Wait, what? This isn't what I  do." But I thought, okay let me just try it for a year and see what happens. And here we are.

Steve Waxman:  So were you involved in programming that first Honey Jam?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Of course. I was the editor of the publication so I chose all the writers and the subjects and put the whole thing together, and then put the party together. And some of the artists that we featured in the magazine performed and some DJs as well. It was in a tiny little bar that was owned by Dan Ackroyd. It was called Ultrasound near to the Queen and John area. It held, I guess, about maybe 80 people comfortably. So that's where the first one was.

Steve Waxman:  So when people started asking you, when's the next one did you jump at it right away or did you have to think about it? What was the next step to get to yyear two?

Ebonnie Rowe:  After my look of bewilderment? I went home that night and I thought about it. I don't think I really responded to them when they said that I think I just kind of laughed. And then I thought about it and how well it was received and how there wasn't anywhere else for the artists to really get some shine, because all of the type of performance opportunities were really geared towards men and the women weren't taken seriously. Especially those that were doing hip hop. So I just felt that it was kind of a community responsibility that I shouldn't just let it die when it raised all of these hopes and let's try it and see if it can have some longevity. There was no real long term plan, you know, just making it up as you go along. By day I was a legal assistant. I was running the mentoring program. And then this was another thing.

Steve Waxman:  And when did you sleep?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Never, ever. I was running on adrenaline.

Steve Waxman:  So, year after year, how would you go about choosing artists? Was it always up and coming artists or did you sprinkle in some established artists as well from time to time?

Ebonnie Rowe:  In the early days, this was like a community gift. And it was for fun, and for love. So if you said to me, 'Ebonnie, my little sister can sing,' I'd be like 'Great, send her down,' and we'd find out when she hit the stage. (laughing) What changed everything was in 1997 when Nelly Furtado performed. And then the expectations rose. There were many more eyes on us. We had to get more professional, more serious, have proper auditions, all of that. So that happened fairly quickly. And then it was always emerging artists. Once an artist like, say, Julie Black who performed in 1995 and then once she got popular we invited her to come and perform as a guest. And that's really the only time. All the other times it was emerging artists.

Steve Waxman:  I'm wondering what does it take to mount Honey Jam?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Passion. In the beginning there was no money. I was just funding it from whatever was leftover from my salary as a legal assistant. And that was maybe for the first 10 years or so. So, yeah, I was just very very passionate and driven and committed. That's what it took because there was no money or staff. I mean that's what it takes until this day. Even though there is more sponsorship support now, it still isn't the level where we can have proper office space and full time stuff and that sort of thing. So it still takes a lot of commitment, and the same drive and passion to get up every day and to make these things happen.

Steve Waxman:  Is it a year long endeavor for you to find a venue, to find sponsors, to find people making donations of goods and services and things like that?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Yeah, 24/7/365. And I laugh when, after each concert, which is usually the end of the season, people will say, 'Oh, so now you can finally relax.' And I'll be like 'Wow, you have never run a program before.' There is never any relaxing. I say it's kind of like having a newborn. There's no relaxing. They always need something. You've always got to be working, whether you're pounding the pavement for sponsorship like you said, looking for venues, looking for opportunities for the artists, doing programming for the following year, doing your wrap up reports with sponsors. There's always something going on. 

Steve Waxman:  Do you find with some of the artists, some artists more than others bring more to the opportunity of getting on that stage in front of the people in as much as they bring a little bit more show to the business of getting on that stage?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Absolutely. People are at different levels of development and experience and confidence and having a team around them. What they all are is talented, and it's all different genres of music and all different cultures of women. But they're at different stages in their careers. They're all emerging artists, but some, you know, it's their very first show, some it's their biggest show, and some of them have a little bit more experience. But it's not usually a huge divergence in levels where someone who's watching the show would think 'Oh my gosh, this person was so much better than that person.' We give them the tools, leading up to the concert where they go for vocal and performance training, so that they are all going to be the best that they can be to showcase themselves on the stage.

Steve Waxman:  Well, to that end, I know the culmination is the concert and you bring up sending them to vocal and performance training, but do you also provide access to them to industry leaders who are helping them understand the music business a little more and what they might need to move forward or the next step in their careers.

Ebonnie Rowe:  Yes, absolutely. We traditionally do a full day of workshops at the Harris Institute on many different topics. We'll have panels come and speak, and then we do a mentor cafe, which is kind of like speed dating, where we'll have maybe 20-25 mentors in all different areas of the music industry and it's like musical chairs. You make your way through the room and you spend ten or fifteen focused minutes, get to ask your questions. These people are very difficult to reach and so many young artists, reach out to them and say "Hey, can you have a coffee with me." There's just not enough time in the world for them to accommodate that many requests so they love coming and spending two, two and a half hours and meeting 20-30 different artists during that time, and having a focused impactful conversation with them.

Steve Waxman:  Absolutely that's just fantastic. I think that's so important for these artists to get a chance to hear from the professionals about what might be expected from them on the other side. So I'm wondering, do you have any particular memories over the 25 years that have stuck with you?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Wow, there's so many highlights. When Nelly's first album Whoa, Nelly came out, and I'm reading the liner notes, and, she says, “I'll always remember the Honey Jam.” That was pretty special. Every year, my most favorite thing is when I call the artist to let them know that they made it from the auditions and hear them screaming and being excited. One time I called someone while they were at the gym on the treadmill and they fell off the treadmill. I love watching the vocal and performance workshops, which to me is magical. To see how Elaine Overholt, celebrity vocal performance coach, transforms them with her instructions. It's magical to me to watch that happen, so that's definitely a highlight. All of the successes of some of our alums like seeing Melanie Fiona getting her first Grammy. And I love when they return to Honey Jam to give back. So, she would come back and give an artist talk where she talks about her whole journey in the industry, advises the girls, taking lots of selfies with them, and having those experiences is just so life changing for them to talk to someone who's reached the pinnacle of where they want to be and who cares enough about them to donate their time to sit there and talk with them and explain things and answer questions. That's always heartwarming. Yeah, there's a lot. The concert itself and watching them shining on the stage. Seeing how they bond together as artists from the minute that they meet, that's a wonderful thing to me that happens every year, because it's not a competition. They bond immediately and they support each other and that support lasts really for a lifetime.

Steve Waxman:  That's amazing. That's really really amazing. So, when does the audition process actually begin?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Usually in June and the beginning of June. And then the concert is, traditionally, in August.

Steve Waxman:  How many people on average, do you think you have coming in for auditions?

Ebonnie Rowe:  So, these days it's probably about 100 between the live auditions and the online auditions. But before shows like Idol and all these different reality star type shows, when we were kind of the only thing that was happening at the time, there would be hundreds of people that would audition. And people from outside Canada, this is before the internet, sending VHS tapes tapes by FedEx. But we're just looking for about 15 per year. So there's never been a problem getting enough artists for that and then we also support our alums for as long as they are doing music and doing things.

Steve Waxman:  Can you talk a little bit about the challenges that you faced and had to overcome in this particular year, this year of COVID-19?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Well, that was the challenge, wasn't it? COVID-19 was the challenge. I spent some months in depression. We had so many spectacular plans for our 25th anniversary. And everyone that I reached out to in the industry said to me, "Oh, 2020's canceled. Just forget about it and just focus on the following year." They were telling me this in March. At the beginning of the year they had already given up. It was very discouraging. And I just keep calling people hoping that one person was going to say, "I'm going to rise above this and I'm going to do something." So once the weather started getting better in the spring and I started feeling a more positive energy, I was just determined. Also after hearing from my artists and seeing their different social media posts and how they were suffering and not really embracing the virtual world or being fatigued of it because it's so impersonal and they were craving direct face to face human contact. So I was determined that we were going to provide that somehow once it was safe. So the minute that we moved into stage three, I just hit the ground running. And we were able to get in two artist talks. One was Serna Ryder and one with one of our alums, Jordan Alexander, who was recently chosen to be one of the leads in the Gossip Girl reboot, so we're super excited for her. We also did a songwriting camp. And we did vocal performance workshops over zoom. We did some one on one mentoring, and we did the concert. So, you know, we just pushed and pushed and pushed. Things had to be different. Protocols had to be followed. But we needed to for ourselves and also just to show the world that just keep it moving. Do what you can and don't give up.

Steve Waxman:  Well, you seem to have been able to lock into the El Mocambo and get a world class stream happening, which was amazing and looked terrific.

Ebonnie Rowe:  It was, oh my gosh. I knew I was not going to do a Zoom Honey Jam. And I was like, either we're gonna do it, or it's gonna be spectacular and the best Honey Jam ever, or we're not doing it. I wasn't going to do a 'Well, we settled for this.' And so, when the opportunity with the Elmo came along, I was so excited because they are this legendary, prestigious high-end venue, state of the art everything, fresh renovation. And so I needed to be excited. And I was. So once we got that sorted, we had to then scramble to confirm the artists, get the house band and get the rehearsal spaces booked and get everything moving.

Steve Waxman:  Well, it looked really fantastic and it sounded great, which is even more important because it's tough to get good sound over the internet when you're playing live music.

Ebonnie Rowe:  Yeah. And a lot of people have smart TVs so many of them would send us shots of themselves and their families sitting around the big flat screen TV. So, yeah, it was amazing.

Steve Waxman:  Did you get any kind of audience count for what the stream was?

Ebonnie Rowe:  Yes, it was over 10,000.

Steve Waxman:  That's way more than a couple hundred people that could fit into a club.

Ebonnie Rowe:  Exactly. And it may be way more than that because each of those people could have been in a house with five other people. And there's no way to measure that, right. So it's exceeded beyond our wildest dreams. It was the most amazing Honey Jam experience ever. The audience reach, you know, my goodness. So yeah, we're still buzzing about that.

Steve Waxman:  What's the plan moving forward? Have you started working on next year and what that might be?

Ebonnie Rowe:  We're still figuring things out. You know, there's a lot of post event stuff to do. There are other reports to do. And then looking at the following year and how things are gonna roll out, a lot of which is being controlled by COVID. So, we're waiting to see what happens there and wanting to get some input from the artists as well as to what types of things are most important to them and how we can make some of those things happen.

Steve Waxman:  So, in closing, you've carried Honey Jam for 25 years, do you have a plan in place for someone to take the reins and move forward with this when it's time for you to finally get some sleep?

Ebonnie Rowe:  I don't. I would like to. It requires so much. You have to be so willing to give all of yourself and make so many personal sacrifices. I think it would be easier to find someone if I had a level of funding to make a salary attractive to someone to do it. The thing is that you need to have consistency and continuity. What will tend to happen is someone will get excited and they'll see oh, we went to meet with Erykah Badu or the different more glamorous things, but when it comes to the grind of it, the behind the scenes of work of it, when they see how much that it is then  sometimes the attention span will wane. And that's not what's required. That's why you have to be so passionate about it that you will have that 'stick with it-ness,' against all odds, which takes a specific type of personality and commitment. So it's definitely something that I think about, and I'm always looking to have someone kind of be an understudy and work with me to eventually take it over. I just haven't found someone yet who I know would miss the party, stay up late and do all the things that you need to do for something like this. To keep it going.

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If you'd like to find out more about Honey Jam and its history, please visit If you or someone you know would like to get involved in the good work that Ebonnie does, please email her at