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Polaris 2017: 5 things you didn't know about Tanya Tagaq's Retribution

Jennifer Van Evra

When Tanya Tagaq performed at the 2014 Polaris Music Prize gala, a list of names belonging to 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women scrolled on a screen behind her.

It was, to say the least, a powerful statement — and one that became the focus of Retribution, a searing album that confronts violence against women, residential school abuses and environmental destruction, as well as the racism and oppression endured by Indigenous peoples for generations.

Tagaq’s third studio album, Animism, won the Polaris Music Prize in 2014, and now the outspoken Inuk performer is a finalist for the 2017 prize. Leading up to this year's big gala on Sept. 18, we’re offering five things about each of the nominated albums. Here are five things about Retribution.

1. Retribution is about rape, murder and injustice

According to Tagaq, the album is about rape — of women and of the land. It also demands justice for the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and for Indigenous peoples whose land and rights have been taken away for centuries.

“My daughters and I are four times more likely to be murdered or have violent acts upon us,” she said in an interview with CBC Music. “I don’t feel like I’m OK with that; I don’t feel like you’re OK with that. I don’t feel that anyone’s OK with that. So why not discuss it? Why not bring it out? Why not make it normal? I just want equality. I want people to live an equal life, and I want safety for people. It’s not coming from anywhere else than that.

“So it’s pretty easy to address it and talk about it because people’s ears and hearts and minds are open. We have to utilize that.”

2. It includes a haunting cover of the Nirvana song ‘Rape Me’

Retribution comprises nine original songs, and ends with a chilling cover of the Nirvana song “Rape Me.” Tagaq sings it slowly and in first-person, and alternates the word “rape” with “hate,” “kill” and “beat.”

“Considering missing and murdered Indigenous women; considering the Jian Ghomeshi case; watching Kesha go all through that legal battle; being honked at when I'm walking down the street with my kids. Just everything pointed to, ‘OK, you wanna make us uncomfortable? This is what it feels like,’” Tagaq said. “It’s the hurt that comes from what we're expected to endure on a day-to-day basis that isn't necessarily put on the male species.”

"Number one though, the reason I picked the song was to address missing and murdered Indigenous women,” she told CBC's Unreserved.

3. Almost half of the album was improvised

According to acclaimed violinist, composer, producer and longtime Tagaq collaborator Jesse Zubot, much of the album was improvised. In advance of the recording, Tagaq shared several themes she wanted to address, and they loosely talked about them.

“I'll just kind of have it sit in my mind but we won't really obsess about it too much,” he told CBC Music. Then he and Tagaq spent a few days recording improvised sets in the studio, with instruments placed as they would be for a live show.

4. It features many special guests

Retribution also features Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyulyush and Inuk singer Ruben Komangapik. Rapper and former CBC host Shad also appears on "Centre," a track that links Earth and the female body, and looks at how they are pillaged without consent.

Tagaq’s young daughter, Inuuja, appears on the first track, as do field recordings of her father drilling ice. Veteran improviser and composer Christine Duncan and the Element Choir also feature prominently.

5. Tagaq hopes the album will help lead to real change

Tagaq is regularly referred to as “outspoken.” But she says her need to speak out boils down to personal responsibility, and she hopes her message can help lead to lasting change.

"I've been labelled an activist, but I'm just trying to survive and make sure that the people I love and care about are okay. I wouldn't be a responsible human being if I didn't point these things out," Tagaq said in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

"If enough of us talk about this and speak out about it, and write about it and make art about it, inevitably there will be a collective shift in our consciousness and that will spark change. It's a really beautiful thing, this cracking open of the consciousness. But it can be a slow process to wake up."

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