Godspeed You! Black Emperor was formed in 1994 in Montreal, Quebec, by (guitar), Mike Moya (guitar), and Mauro Pezzente (bass). The band took its name from God Speed You! Black Emperor, a 1976 Japanese black-and-white documentary by director Mitsuo Yanagimachi, which follows the exploits of a Japanese biker gang, the Black Emperors. The band initially assembled after being offered a supporting act for another local band named Steak 72. Thereafter, the trio performed live on a few separate occasions, before ultimately deciding to produce an album. The cassette, All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling, was self-released in December 1994 and limited to thirty-three copies.
After the limited release of the cassette, the band quickly expanded and continued to perform live periodically. According to Menuck, joining the group was quite simple: "It was like if anyone knew anybody who played an instrument and seemed like an okay person, they would sort of join up." In short order, the group's numbers ebbed and flowed. Local musicians would often join the band for a handful of performances, then depart. The revolving door nature of the group's membership frequently caused it strain before the release of F♯ A♯ ∞. After that release, the group stabilized around a nine-person lineup with Menuck, Moya and David Bryant on guitars, Pezzente and Thierry Amar on bass guitars, Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron on drums, and Sophie Trudeau and Norsola Johnson on violin and cello respectively. Moya would depart in 1998 to focus on HṚṢṬA, being replaced by Roger Tellier-Craig of Fly Pan Am.
Although various members of the band are often pinned down as anarchists, for a rather long time no one in the band explicitly subscribed to this label; however, as of 2014, Menuck was calling himself an anarchist. In any case, there is a strong political component to the band's music. For example, the liner notes to Yanqui U.X.O. describe the song "09-15-00" as "Ariel Sharon surrounded by 1,000 Israeli soldiers marching on al-Haram Ash-Sharif & provoking another Intifada," and the back cover of that album depicts the relationships of several major record labels to the military–industrial complex. Several of its songs also incorporate voice samples which express political sentiments, most notably "The Dead Flag Blues" (on F♯A♯∞) and "BBF3" (on Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada).
Members of the group have formed a number of side projects, including Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, Fly Pan Am, HṚṢṬA, Esmerine, and Set Fire to Flames.
The band released the CD versions of its first two albums and EP on the Kranky record label, and released the LPs through Constellation Records. All editions of their subsequent studio material have been released through Constellation.
In 2004, long-time guitarist Roger Tellier-Craig left the band on amicable terms to devote more time to Fly Pan Am.
The group was once misconstrued as being a band of terrorists. After stopping at a local gas station for fuel in the town of Ardmore, Oklahoma, during their 2003 tour of the United States, the station attendant working that day believed the group of Canadians to be terrorists. She quickly passed a note to another customer asking them to call the police. When the local police appeared, the group was held until it could be questioned by the FBI. Although the police were suspicious of the band's anti-government documents and some photos it had (such as those of oil rigs), they found no incriminating evidence. After background checks were run, the ensemble was released from custody and continued on its way to its next show in Saint Louis, MO. later spoke to the crowd during their appearance in Missouri about what happened to them and speculated that their origin was a motive for being released quickly ("It's a good thing we're nice white kids from Canada"). The incident was mentioned in Michael Moore's book Dude, Where's My Country?.
In 2010, the band reported it was reuniting for an All Tomorrow's Parties music event in the UK as well as further US dates. Mike Moya re-joined the band for the reunion, while original cellist Norsola Johnson declined to participate. The band played a full North American and European tour in 2011, and more dates in the UK including an appearance at the ATP 'I'll Be Your Mirror' music festival in London.
The following year the band appeared at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and the 2012 All Tomorrow's Parties I'll Be Your Mirror festival in New York. Drummer Timothy Herzog began touring with the band after the departure of Bruce Cawdron.
In 2013, the band won the Polaris Music Prize, but it criticized the cost of the ceremony during the time of austerity, stating, "Maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords."
On March 31, 2015, Godspeed You! Black Emperor released its fifth album, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. On September 22, 2017, the group released its sixth album, Luciferian Towers.