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Polaris 2017: 5 things you didn't know about A Tribe Called Red's We Are the Halluci Nation

Jennifer Van Evra

The 2017 Polaris Music Prize will be handed out in Toronto on Sept. 18, and leading up to the big day, CBC Music is offering up five things you might not know about each of the shortlisted albums.

The prize "honours and rewards artists who produce Canadian music albums of distinction." Past winners have included Tanya Tagaq, Arcade Fire, Feist, Caribou, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more.

One of this year's nominees is A Tribe Called Red for its album We Are the Halluci Nation, which mixes powwow drums, driving dance beats and samples that reflect on Indigenous politics and culture, from the devastation of residential schools to the smallpox epidemic to the systematic injustices that persist today. Here are five things you might not know about it.

1. It was inspired by American Indian Movement activist John Trudell

When A Tribe Called Red set out to create its third full-length, DJs Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill and Ehren "Bear Witness" Thomas approached American Indian Movement activist, musician and poet John Trudell to record a poem for them. He did, and he also brought a second poem about an imagined “Halluci Nation” — a concept that ended up becoming the backbone of the entire project.

“It's about a state of mind. It's about people treating people like humans. It's about knowing how you're connected to the world around you and the earth and the sky and all of that. But what that means exactly to every person is different," said ATCR member Bear Witness, whose mother left home at 16 to join the American Indian Movement. “It's about that state of mind where individuals get their power back."

Trudell’s poem also became the intro and outro for the record, and the poet's reading turned out to be one of his final recordings. Trudell died in 2015, before the album was released.

2. It features many high-profile collaborations

The album includes collaborations with top artists, including Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Saul Williams, Tanya Tagaq, Joseph Boyden, fellow Polaris nominee Lido Pimienta, Australia band OKA and Swedish-Sami singer Maxida Marak. “Having true collaborations with actual culture sharing, there’s no appropriation. It’s really collaborating and creating art from two perspectives and we just happen to both be Indigenous,” said Campeau, speaking of the collaborations with Indigenous artists. “And on all those tracks, with all of the Indigenous people we play with, it really shines through.”

3. It marks new musical breadth

We Are the Halluci Nation represents a sonic leap for A Tribe Called Red, thanks in large part to the musical training of newest member 2oolman, and offers a broader range of musical directions. "It's one thing to be able to make club bangers, but to make progressions into the song is another thing," said Campeau in a CBC Music interview. "So 2oolman, coming from his very trained background with pianos and stuff and knowing progressions, really changed the game. You can hear it on the album. We went from club music to not really club music anymore. Even though you could listen to it in that capacity, it's not the same as what it was."

4. A Tribe Called Red worked with Black Bear, a drum group from central Quebec

A Tribe Called Red travelled to Manawan, a First Nations reserve in central Quebec, to record with the drum group Black Bear. (Manawan means "place where we gather eggs" in the Atikamekw language.) "It's been a dream of A Tribe Called Red right from the beginning to work with a drum group and get to direct a drum group," said Bear Witness in a video interview. "They're so good. They're my favourite drum group right now," said 2oolman. "They pulled me right in."

5. The album is about the past, present and future of Indigenous peoples

We Are the Halluci Nation tackles Canada's history of colonization and the dark legacy of residential schools, while also looking at the present and future. "We need this music and popular culture that defines us. Because it’s time now for us to come out and finally have the opportunity to depict ourselves, to show ourselves in the way that we want to be seen. There is this history of Indigenous people being portrayed always by the outsider, always looking in," said Bear Witness in a video interview. "We’re here to represent Indigenous people in the realest way, that we’ve never had a chance to show ourselves before."

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