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A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, Iskwe, more: a vibrant new era of protest music

Andrea Warner

At the end of 2014, Rolling Stone published a readers’ poll of the 10 best protest songs of all time. Almost all of the songs were from the ’60s, and all were penned and performed by white men. Surely Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” came in at number 11.

Aside from what this reveals and confirms about RS’s core readership, the results of this poll reflect a commonly held misconception: that protest music basically lived and died with the ’60s.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Powerful activist anthems existed well before the ’60s and have continued to be creative, empowering calls to action from minority communities fighting for justice and survival, and advocating for social change.

In 2011, Six Nations writer/artist/broadcaster Janet Rogers explored 50 years of Canadian indigenous protest music on CBC Radio’s Inside the Music. Bring Your Drum featured interviews with a variety of songwriters including George Leach, Alanis Obomsawin and Murray Porter, as well as music from Sainte-Marie, Peter Lafarge, Tru Rez Crew and more. You can listen to the fascinating documentary here. In 2014, with the increasing popularity of Juno Award-winning artists like A Tribe Called Red and future Polaris Music Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, CBC Music’s Jesse Kinos-Goodin explored the indigenous music renaissance and the activist nature that’s prevalent in much of these contemporary offerings.

Earlier this year, Sainte-Marie released Power in the Blood, a wild, bold, jolt of a record that’s full of inspiring, incendiary protest tracks. Also in 2015, Iskwé and Enter Tribal have both released chilling, powerful songs dedicated to the more than 1100 murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. In July, A Tribe Called Red released a fiery remix of Sainte-Marie’s 2008 track, “Working for the Government.”

These songwriters are part of a vibrant new era of protest music. It’s time to really listen to what Canadian indigenous artists have to say. Scroll down to find out more about these incredible musicians and what’s actually happening in Canada and around the world.

Kinnie Starr, “Save Our Waters’ ft. Ja$e Einino

Tell me who will save our waters?
Save them for our great granddaughters?
Save them before all is dead and done?

Hey hey! Oh hoh!
Oh please oh please don't say no!
Hey hey! Oh hoh!
Oh please oh please don't say no!

Them just go splitting the land,
split the land for bitumen.
They carve her up and
spit her back in poison.
And faster then them rivers can run,
leaks spring up and tailings come undone.
Grandfathers watch the young ones die.
While water catches flame.

Enter Tribal, ‘Sisterz’


Why no sense of urgency 
Why no state emergency
Should have been called when it was two or three 
A hundred to a thousand, yeah you feel me
Government criminalize indigenous men and blame them
And say it’s not high on our radar 
How far will you let it slide
Just another form of genocide

Iskwé, ‘Nobody Knows
Inspired by the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, and the more than 1100 murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.

Lay me down now, lay me to the ground
Lay me down, lay me down in the shade
I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid

Nobody knows where we’ve been
Or where we go

A Tribe Called Red ft. Buffy Sainte-Marie, ‘Working for the Government’

Hot war Cold war
M-m-m-money and guns
It's all the same to him he
Workin for the government
Your country My country
Gun for hire y'all
Mercenary 101 he
Workin for the government

Christie Lee Charles, ‘My People of the Sea’


My people of the sea, it’s time to be free
My people of the sky, it’s time to fly
My people of these mountains, no more days we’re counting
My people of the grass, the time has passed

Buffy Sainte-Marie, ‘Power in the Blood

There is power in the blood, justice in the soul
When that call it comes, I will say no no no to war
Power in the blood, justice in the soul
When that call it comes I will say no no no to war
There’s military interest, GMOs in paradise
bio-weapons high up on the call sheet
Young soldiers driving tanks
but old thieves they drive the banks
and you never see a uniform on Wall Street
There is power in the blood

Leonard Sumner, ‘They Say’


They Say they wounded my soul
They Say this land is their home
Dig up my ancestors' bones
But they can't silence my song
No they can't silence my song

Sometimes it hurts to be indigenous
Born in this nation
It's not enough to talk about decolonization
Inner battles with myself I'm continually facing

CerAmony, ‘Looks Like Change’

We’ve had lots of time now
To make up our minds now
Cause change is coming around the bend
No time for indecision
We've got to kill this division
Or change will bring about the end

Derek Miller, ‘For Chief Spence’


The Crown won't budge on the lies and abuse
The PM turns his back and tries to light the fuse
The world is shrinking down on in the night

Wab Kinew, ‘Heroes’

Why did Tommy Prince fight for all Canadian people
When right here at home he wasn’t considered an equal
Overseas he fought with the heart of a warrior
Then came back home to be treated like a foreigner
So yeah, I’mma live real lavish
For all the times that you called my people savage

Murray Porter, ‘Is Sorry Enough?

You took away our children
Stole their mothers' love
Laid waste to our traditions
Wasn't that enough?
Separate from my culture
So many years, so alone
With no mothers and no fathers
In a world so far from home

This piano-driven blues song about the devastation of residential schools is heartbreaking. Click here to listen.

Tanya Tagaq, ‘Fracking

There are no lyrics, but this is one of the most powerful, political, disturbing compositions ever. Click here to listen.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner