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A Tribe Called Red, Wab Kinew, Tanya Tagaq on the indigenous music renaissance

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

“My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” — Louis Riel, July 4, 1885

When A Tribe Called Red won the 2014 Juno Award for breakthrough group of the year, it marked an all-too rare moment when an award given out for artistic achievement actually meant something in real life.

The fact that ATCR, a trio of DJs from Ottawa, simply won an award — by way of their well-attended live shows, two critically acclaimed, Polaris Prize-nominated albums and international praise — was not surprising or extraordinary. They deserved it. The way in which they did it, however, was.

ATCR (consisting of Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, Bear Witness and Dan "DJ Shub" General, the latter replaced by DJ 2oolman) are all young First Nations artists, and the music they make incorporates powwow music with electronic dance music, resulting in a new genre they dubbed “powwow-step.” However, when they submitted their album Nation II Nation to the Juno Awards, ATCR specifically chose to not submit it to the Aboriginal album category. They instead opted for the more mainstream breakthrough category, which, up until their win, was dominated by white rock and pop groups. Their submission was steeped in meaning — political, cultural, spiritual. Their win was revolutionary.

“To native youth everywhere on Turtle Island, know that this moment, right now, is proof that whatever goals you strive for in life, they’re completely attainable, so aim high,” Campeau told the crowd after ATCR’s win, the significance clearly not lost on him.

A resurgence. A revolution. A renaissance. Idle No More. Call it what you will, but we’ve reached a significant moment in the history of Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and it’s reflected not just in the proliferation of indigenous music, but also in its mass acceptance by the mainstream. A Tribe Called Red are only one small piece of it, but their success represents a key turning point for a movement being led by young, indigenous artists across the country who are not only changing preconceived notions of what it means to be part of the First Nations community, but challenging the mainstream to re-evaluate their relationship with it. Buffy Sainte-Marie sowed the seeds in the ’60s; today, the seedlings cover the entire country.

“It’s a natural evolution,” says Wab Kinew, a musician, broadcaster and educator described by many indigenous musicians, including ATCR, as a brother and mentor. “What's changed is that in the mainstream Canadian public, there is an increasing sense that it’s time to get the relationship right with indigenous people. Because artists and fans of art are usually among the more progressive voices, you're seeing the leading edge of that transformation. The indigenous music renaissance is the symptom of a broader cultural change where indigenous people have more support amongst the average Canadian.”

‘Any music that an indigenous person makes is indigenous music’

But what does the indigenous cultural revolution sound like? For starters, it sounds like electronic dance music mixed with powwow, but it also sounds like industrial, metal, country, folk, rock, blues, pop and hip-hop. Sometimes it’s traditional, sometimes it’s modern, but more often than not, it’s both. And it’s this intersection of old and new that has come to truly define the moment.

“New artists are creating a brand new musical territory for the new indigenous person to stand on and to claim and to play on and work on and dance on, and that's not an easy thing to do in music, to create something that’s new,” says Janet Rogers, a Mohawk spoken-word artist, Victoria’s poet laureate and a host of Native Waves Radio on CFUV.

For Tanya Tagaq, who mixes Inuk throat singing with electronic and industrial music (her album, Animism, won the 2014 Polaris Prize a month after this article was published), “what we're making right now is going to be the new tradition,” she says. “I get people trying to hold on to what already exists, but at the same time, if you don’t allow things to move forward, we're never going to find our actual placement in society."

For Inez Jasper, this "new tradition" means straightforward pop music while maintaining a strong, cultural pride in her Sto:lo roots, whether lyrically or aesthetically, as in the music video for “Burn Me Down.”

For Joey Stylez, it means anything from dance club-ready hip-hop to a song like 2008’s “Living Proof,” a scathing condemnation of the residential school system.

For Digging Roots, it means combining blues, rock, jazz and hip-hop while singing in both Ojibwa and English, as they did on the stirring title track for their recent album, For the Light.

For Kinnie Starr, it means advocating for queer and Aboriginal rights with music that spans anything from hip-hop to alt-rock.

For JB the First Lady, it means laid-back hip-hop with socially conscious lyrics about empowerment, from the perspective of an Aboriginal woman.

And for Leonard Sumner, it means combining hip-hop and country to tell stories about reservation life, as he did on 2013’s Rez Poetry.

Campeau defines it simply: “Any music that an indigenous person makes is indigenous music.”

The examples are endless, as are the genres in which the artists are creating music. In fact, sometimes the only thing tying them all together is the fact that they are indigenous musicians, which is not insignificant. One could easily argue that simply the act of being an indigenous musician is political.

‘You can buy a Tribe Called Red T-shirt and not give up any land’.
When Sumner first started playing the large folk festival circuit, he describes the experience as “a little weird.” At first, he thought he was internalizing the added pressure of being an indigenous musician playing to a crowd that is largely white, but his suspicions were confirmed by one of the organizers.

“A festival producer told me, ‘You know, Leonard, a lot of these people that are going to be attending may not have ever even spoken to a First Nations people before.”

Sumner broke the ice with a joke, and says the performance went well, the audience open to the perspective he was showing them. Some even came up to thank him, or at least tell him they appreciated what he was doing.

Nowadays, he says, it’s uncommon to be the only First Nations performer on the bill, and before we spoke, he was looking forward to the Calgary Folk Festival, which also included ATCR and singer-songwriters Nick Sherman and Kristi Lane Sinclair.

“If you are the only one, it’s OK as long as you’re legit and not there to be a token,” says Sumner. “I’ve earned my way, but I have wondered, am I only here because they need a First Nations? Sometimes it's a difficult dance to be in, but I’m happy to do it.”

As are many First Nations musicians, who never downplay the significance of playing for a non-indigenous, or, for lack of a better word, mainstream audience. Like ATCR refusing to put themselves in a niche by submitting their album to the Aboriginal Juno category (Starr, it’s worth noting, did the same), the message only becomes louder when more people are listening.

And it’s not that all of a sudden the mainstream started paying attention. It’s the direct result, explains Kinew, of a generational mindshift.

“Indigenous from our generation are very progressive, participating in the mainstream while at the same time having a strong connection to the culture,” he says.

The results are twofold: not only is the new generation of indigenous musicians willing to engage in the mainstream, but a new generation of music fans is willing to listen with an empathetic ear. What easier way to show that you support, say, the causes of Idle No More, than to simply support musicians tied to it?

“You can buy a Tribe Called Red T-shirt and not give up any land,” says Kinew. While he’s careful to note that he’s joking and doesn't want to diminish anyone’s support, the joke, however, is firmly rooted in truth. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to listen to good music and nod your head. It’s the job of the artist, however, to transform it into something else.

“The young people who are 19 and 20 going out and dancing to Tribe all night, when they're 35 and 40, I think indigenous issues will play a role in how they vote,” says Kinew. “It's a real formative experience for a lot of people. It’s healing, and has the ability to change the way our society thinks.”

Tribe’s Bear Witness also recognizes the opportunity: “If non-indigenous communities can come to our shows and listen to our music and feel it the same way that we all do, we're beginning to create a common ground. It’s a non-verbal space, but a common ground just the same.”

‘Unapologetic about being native’
While indigenous musicians are by no means obliged to represent their culture or to be political, more often than not, they are. Not unlike hip-hop, which developed on the streets of New York as the voice of the disenfranchised, the majority of indigenous music today is what could be called “message music.”

“What happens in the music is reflective of what’s taking place in the communities, and what happens in the communities is always, always political,” says Rogers, who also produced the CBC Radio documentary Bring Your Drum, which explored 50 years of indigenous protest music. “Indigenous artists are always producing message music, and that’s going to be a constant if we’re writing about our truth.”

With artists like ATCR and Tagaq, whose music is instrumental-driven, it’s resulted in them speaking out on social media. For ATCR, it’s tweeting their distaste for audience members who show up in warpaint and headdress (which quickly put a stop to that) or filing a human rights complaint against an Ottawa football team that wanted to be named the Redskins (they ultimately were called the Eagles). Tagaq challenged critics of the Inuit seal hunt, a means of survival in the North and notably different from the commercial hunt in Newfoundland, by posting “sealfies” on her Twitter account, i.e. photos of her and her baby beside dead seals. People reacted viciously, as they always tend to do on social media, but a conversation was started.

“Confrontation leads to conversation,” says Campeau.

For others, like Sumner, and Sainte-Marie before him, the politics are as important to the music as the notes he plays on his guitar.

“It’s important to remember that when you're releasing music or when you’re saying something, as an artist, you have the potential to change people’s opinions,” he says. “Whether it’s racism or politics, or even just the human emotion, people are listening, now more than ever.”

There’s a powerful video of Sumner performing his song “They Say” at an Idle No More protest in Winnipeg in 2010, below, with pointed lyrics like, “Wanna tell me how to live and how to react?/ The devastation of my culture, trying to keep it intact,” eliciting cheers from the crowd. On the studio version of the song, he ends it with a minute-and-a-half hand drum song, vocalized by Kinew.

“One of the key lyrics of that song is ‘They can’t silence our songs,’ so it was very important to me to include that Anishinabe element on it,” says Sumner. “I’m more proud of that song than anything else I’ve done.”

Which goes back to the idea of a new generation of First Nations who are not only willing to embrace the mainstream, but to stay connected to their culture.

“We're very unapologetic about being native,” says Campeau, adding that it’s creating much-needed role models, not just in music, but in general. “Positive native role models, there are a lot now in mainstream media and pop culture, which we didn’t have growing up. Like Waub Rice reporting the news on CBC, Joseph Boyden winning Canada Reads [for The Orenda] and Wab Kinew defending it. We're all a part of this thing that’s happening, and we are trying to be something positive that the native youth can look up to.”

Tagaq would take it one step further, saying that they’re role models everyone can look up to.

“We’re getting to the point where it's going to be cool to be us, and that's so exciting,” she says. “There is a way to take this massive shame and pain and agony and process it into something that’s better than any gold you're going to find. We've got possession of it and it's one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. So ya, revolution.”

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG