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How Indigenous artists are achieving music sovereignty

Lindsay Monture

In remote Indigenous communities, some of the most creative, talented minds dream of opportunities to express themselves — but they don't have a music store, or guitar lessons, or studio equipment. In order to access these things, you need to move into the city: away from home, your family, friends, culture.

Sadly, this is the reality for many Indigenous artists across the country. Even if they can make their art, finding their audience in the industry is another challenge.

“There are a lot of people working to kick doors open for us now, so maybe the next generation can spend their time creating instead of fighting for space,” says Gary Joseph, co-founder of Haudenosaunee-owned multimedia studio, based in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. “That’s the dream anyway.”

Joseph is one of the many Indigenous artists who has worked his way through these obstacles to establish himself, proving just how resilient and determined Indigenous people can be. Many of them are now looking to give back to their communities, making it easier for the coming generations to have the freedom to explore the arts — and follow their dreams without having to be far from home.

Below, we look at five Indigenous-owned and operated music labels and agencies that provide greater platforms for Indigenous voices.

Aakuluk Music

Nunavut’s very first record label, Aakuluk Music, was founded in 2016 by Andrew Morrison, Nancy Mike and Steve Rigby of Inuktitut throat-singing, alt-country reggae band the Jerry Cans. Before the label's founding, artists in Nunavut often had to travel south if they needed to access the resources necessary to create, produce and distribute their work. Now, Aakuluk Music can take care of all those services, helping artists in the music business while exposing the rich culture of the North to the world.

“Inuktitut is still very much a part of people’s lives up here but there’s still pressure for people to make music in English in order to be heard outside of Nunavut," says Andrew Morrison, lead singer of the Jerry Cans, married to fellow band member Nancy Mike. Morrison explains that artists in the North commonly infuse language and culture into their work, and it can be difficult for non-Indigenous record labels to take a chance on something they don't understand. "That’s something we wanted to challenge because it’s important to us. We’ve been trying to develop and expand our markets across Canada and internationally to turn people onto Inuktitut music".

Although Mike is the only Inuit member of the band, the Inuktitut language plays a large part in the Jerry Cans’ music. Morrison taught himself how to speak Inuktitut fluently and contributes to the preservation of the language through songwriting and supporting Inuktitut artists signed to Aakuluk Music. For him, helping to open doors and insisting on educating industry leaders on Northern culture — as well as addressing the relationship with Canadians and Indigenous peoples — makes the work worthwhile.

“There are more and more artists that are pushing back and trying to educate industry people on what should be acceptable,” says Morrison. “I honestly think there are a lot of people across the country who are interested in the sounds and the art of Indigenous people in the North, and there are a lot of industry roadblocks that are stopping these artists from expressing themselves. We have some of the most unique sounds in the country, and even the world. Nunavut is one of those interesting places for people to hear that, and so we should have every opportunity to share those stories.”

Artists signed to Aakuluk Music include the Jerry Cans, Northern Haze, Ivaluarjuk, Riit and Agaaqtoq.

Related: The North: 10 emerging acts to watch

Revolutions Per Minute

Revolutions Per Minute is an independent Indigenous record label based in Toronto that started out as a digital platform in 2011 to promote and curate Indigenous music. In 2016 it grew to present live music series and became a record label, booking agency and artist management business. Since becoming a label, RPM has signed Ziibiwan, Mob Bounce and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

“ gave us our first major platform in 2010,” explains Craig Frank Edes, a.k.a. the Northwest Kid of West Coast hip-hop duo Mob Bounce. “Around that time I was onto new-to-me Indigenous acts, through Over time we manifested those connections and were able to network with this community as a whole.”

Before signing to RPM, Mob Bounce was hustling its music through easily accessible sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Now, the group is producing a more polished work, developing a wider network and getting new opportunities to perform.

“Being signed to RPM kind of helped solidify my artistry as a profession,” says Ziibiwan. The 22-year-old Anishinaabe electronic producer says he went through an artistic metamorphosis in the process of creating his Time Limits EP, which was RPM’s first release. “The amount of shows and opportunities that surfaced after signing was pretty substantial, which helps build character and stability. I think that sense of confidence in your work really helps you produce better content.”

“It's nice to see Indigenous people creating their own institutions that are for us, and by us,” says the Northwest Kid. “Native labels can see past the surface-level stuff, and nurture the potential in people that non-Natives might have otherwise skimmed over. They tend to have a better pulse on messaging, and can be an integral part in seeing and nurturing the intent of fellow Indigenous artists.”

“Indigenous organizations usually have an understanding around the healing our communities are going through,” Ziibiwan explains. “There's a lot of generational healing happening and sometimes opportunities have to be created for that. Most artists also are very woke and usually want to commentate on very various topics that may be seen as 'controversial.' Being a part of a team who understands the discussion you're trying to make is important, which is another reason Indigenous perspectives are needed in these fields.”


Thru the RedDoor

Thru the RedDoor is a Haudenosaunee-owned multimedia studio in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario. Founded by Gary Joseph and Shane Powless, it began as a video production studio, but it didn’t take long until they made the move to include music production as well.

“I’ve always wanted to do music, it was my first love,” says Joseph. “When I was a teenager that’s all we ever did was play music, and it’s such a big part of producing good videos for ourselves and our clients. It made sense to make that investment to become a more complete production facility.”

He realized the studio needed to invest in some young talent from the community to take care of the music production end of things, so they hired music engineer Brody Joseph (who recently won an Indigenous Music Award for best producer/engineer with Derek Miller for Logan Staats’s “Goodbye Goldia”) and songwriter Chase Jarrett. Over the years, Thru the RedDoor has supported the rising music careers of young local artists like Lacey Hill, Logan Staats, and Chilly Chase, and have also worked with such talents as Derek Miller, Jace Martin, Nick Sherman, Don Amero, Cheri Maracle, Cris Derksen, Brendt Diabo, DJ Shub, IsKwé, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

“It gives us a lot of freedom to do what we want, when we want to do it, to have everything in-house. It’s an awesome feeling to not have to ask permission to do stuff, or wait for a grant to come in,” says Joseph. “This is our way of giving back to the community that supports us.”

Most of the services provided by Thru The RedDoor stays within the community, with an emphasis on working with Indigenous youth, offering them as many opportunities to learn about the arts as they can. The organization has hosted youth empowerment summits, bringing in artists like A Tribe Called Red and Once A Tree’s Jayli Wolf to encourage youth and share their passions and experiences in making it as an artist.

“It’s important to us to do youth programming as much as we can”, says Joseph. “There is an opportunity for these kids coming up now to have meaningful careers in the creative industries, to have a voice like we’ve never had before. There are a lot of people working to kick doors open for us now, so maybe the next generation can spend their time creating instead of fighting for space. That’s the dream anyway.”

The Darren Ross Agency

Six Nations has another organization in the community to support their local talent: local blues/funk musician Jace Martin founded the Darren Ross Agency in 2015.

“The first obstacle was to identify the voids in the Indigenous entertainment industry and try to help fill those voids,” says Martin, whose music career that spans more than 25 years. He toured with Crystal Shawanda from 2009 to 2012, spending a lot of time in Nashville. While Martin was there, he found himself learning firsthand about the music business.

“Darren Ross Agency came out of necessity,” Martin explains. “We specialize in connecting artists with opportunities that are not necessarily available to Indigenous artists and emerging artists. Through connecting and building relationships, we can begin to build a bridge that will allow Indigenous artists to be thought of for performance opportunities."

The agency supports talent such as Derek Miller, Stevie Salas, Shawanda, Shane Yellowbird, Murray Porter, Missy Knott, Logan Staats, Lacey Hill and more.

Dream Warriors Management

Dream Warriors Management started after founder Tanaya Winder of the Duckwater Shoshone, Pyramid Lake Paiute and Southern Ute nations gave her first TEDxABQ talk in 2013. She began to book more speaking engagements and ended up meeting with Sicangu Lakota rapper Frank Waln while on the road. Winder opened for Waln on tour, and soon the two decided that Winder would start to manage Waln's bookings. She later picked up Ojibwa hip-hop artists Mic Jordan and Tall Paul as clients. Eventually the collective transformed into Dream Warriors Management.

“Once we came together I fell into the reasons I wanted to start it," explains Winder. "My instincts were telling me to bring us all together and once we came together I began to understand more and more why. I wanted to bring together artists as a collective and family to support and uplift each other. We wanted to create a model from an Indigenous perspective with a cultural grounding to show that you can still honour who you are, where you come from, your people, and your community by pursuing your passions and gifts.”

Winder says she wants to show others that they can create their own definition of success — and that there is room for everyone to be successful. While Dream Warriors represents musicians, it also takes on clients who are motivational speakers, entrepreneurs and filmmakers. The organization has also created a scholarship for Native American high-school students and undergrads who have an interest in studying the arts.

“I say the more Natives we have in all fields the better," says Winder. "We need more representation. So when it gets difficult finding or accessing resources it’s important to network — find good friends, people and allies who are willing to help connect you to different opportunities. I think sometimes we can get afraid to ask for help, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there and put in the work. Nothing is promised and nothing comes easy. You have to work for it each and every day.”

More to explore:

A brief evolution of Indigenous protest music

Re-listen to past episodes of CBC Music's Reclaimed

Reclaimed makes its return to CBC Music this November