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Celebrating Black Innovation: Denham Jolly

The first song B. Denham Jolly played on FLOW 93.5 when the radio station was launched was Bob Marley’s Roots Rock Reggae. Why did he choose this particular song? “It was a celebration of a twelve-year struggle…we wanted to dance and sing and celebrate” Jolly told a CBC reporter in 2017.

FLOW 93.5 was founded in Toronto in 2001, and although Toronto is now the most ethnically diverse city in the world, it still took more than a decade for Jolly get Canada’s first Black-owned radio station on air. The station has helped to launch countless careers of Black Canadian artists; Jolly has claimed that it was even the first commercial radio station to play Drake’s music.

Born in Hanover, Jamaica, Jolly had a number of careers before he started working in radio. He worked as a science teacher, as an owner of nursing homes, and in the publishing business. In the spring of 1982, Jolly purchased The Contrast, the weekly newspaper known as “the eyes, ears and voice of Canada’s Black Community”.

Although he was already a successful businessman when he decided to launch a radio station, Jolly faced a number of obstacles. Over the course of twelve years, Jolly made three bids to the CRTC to license the station. Jolly had a vision of a radio station that played a mix of hip hop, reggae, jazz, R&B, and gospel. Although it took over a decade to finally make his vision a reality, it was worth the struggle when the station finally launched. Even as he pursued other business ventures in life, Jolly always focused on amplifying the voices of Black Canadians. This work included personally funding scholarships at Ryerson University for students of colour. Reflecting on these charitable efforts in 2017, he said, “It awakened a whole generation of people to what they were capable of”.

In addition to his charitable and business interests, Jolly was a respected community leader and civil rights activist in Toronto. In 1983, he founded the Black Business and Professional Association to support and publicize the success of Black professionals. In 1988, he was a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee, an organization that advocated against police violence towards Black people in Toronto.

Jolly attributes his commitment to community investment to a lesson he learned from his parents, who taught him at a young age to help others whenever he could. While the battles that Jolly took up decades ago are still being fought today, his ambition and spirit of generosity have sustained a lifetime of activism and social innovation.

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