This year I decided to celebrate Canada Day by sharing some amazing Indigenous music artists with all of you. There is a lot I could say about the issues facing the First Nations of Canada but I am by no means an expert. If you want to know more about the history and issues faced by the First Nations I highly recommend this course on Coursera offered by the University of Alberta (be my study buddy).
I did my best to pick artists that mixed traditional music of the First Nations with more modern music or sang about issues facing Indigenous people, I also included a few more traditional artists as I think it’s very important their voices are heard. I’ve made a playlist on Spotify featuring all the artists mentioned in this list as well as a ton of others. Feel free to follow as I’ll be updating it as I continue to listen to new music and find new artists. You can find it here
BUFFY SAINTE MARIE
How do I even begin to explain Buffy Sainte Marie? No list like this would ever be complete without. She is a trailblazer not just as an Indigenous artist but as an artist period and an activist. She is the very definition of a bad ass. In 1969 she made one of the world’s first electronic vocal albums. In 1982 she became the only Indigenous person to win an Oscar (for Best Original Song). She was a cast member on Sesame Street for five years where she became the first person to breastfeed on television. She was blacklisted from American radio stations by (then) President Lyndon Johnson. She has written songs that have been recorded by the likes of Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley. She recently came out with her first children’s book called
Songs to check out: Universal Soldier, Starwalker, Up Where We Belong
JB THE FIRST LADY
Jerilynn Snuxyaltwa Webster aka JB the First Lady is a hip-hop/spoken word artist currently living in Vancouver. She sees music as a way of capturing oral history and often writes about challenging subjects like residential schools and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. She is a founder of the First Ladies Crew, an Indigenous women’s rap and hip-hop group based in East Vancouver (which also features Rapsure Risin, Dani and Lizzy, Christie Lee Charles and Mama Es). They use their music as a way of empowering young Indigenous women and teaching history.
I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform live at a protest and it was honestly one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen.
Songs to Check Out: The Most Unprotected Girl, Exi$tence, Spoken Word Reconciliation
A TRIBE CALLED RED
A Tribe Called Red is an electronic DJ collective known for their genre-bending mix of hip-hop, reggae, dubstep and First Nations music. They often describe their music as “powwow-step,” a type of contemporary powwow music for urban First Nations in the club scene. They are currently made up of members Tim “2oolman” Hill and Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas. Many of their songs address issues facing First Nations in Canada. Bear Witness said the group was formed because they wanted to throw parties for their community – “to take over and Indigenize the club space is a really political act … As First Nations people, everything we do is political.” Their name is a nod to A Tribe Called Quest who used their music to address issues affecting African Americans.
Songs to Check Out: Electric Pow Wow Drum, R.E.D., Native Puppy Love
Jeremy Dutcher is a trained operatic singer who blends his training with his Wolastoq First Nation roots. His first album included rearrangements of early 1900s wax cylinder field recordings in the Wolastoqey language (there are only around 100 speakers left). “Many of the songs were lost because our musical tradition was suppressed by the Canadian government. I’m doing this work as there’s only about a 100 Wolastoqey speakers left. It’s crucial that we’re using our language because, if you lose the language, you’re losing an entire distinct way of experiencing the world.” Dutcher identifies as Two-Spirited and helped developed Egale Canada, which is currently Canada’s only LGBTQA+ human rights organization.
If you recognized his name it might be because I had posted about him last year when he won the Juno for Indigenous music album of the year. Dutcher made a passionate where he critiqued the Trudeau government but was played off once he said the word “reconciliation.” The Arkells who won for best rock album ended up giving their speech time to Jeremy so he could finish his speech.
Songs to Check Out: Honour Song, Mehcinut, Pomok naka Poktonskwes
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer. Throat singing is a type of singing where the singer manipulates the resonances in the vocal tract in order to make a melody. Typically called katajjaq and done by two women, Tagaq developed her own solo version of the once dying art. She also sings acapella and folk music. In addition to music, she is also an artist and released her first book Split Tooth a few years ago.
Songs to Check Out: Snowblind, You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind), Retribution
Sadly Kelly Fraser passed away last year, something I didn't realize when I first decided to include her on this list. According to her family she had suffered through childhood traumas, racism and persistent cyberbullying. You can feel a lot of her pain in Fraser’s music and it’s very powerful but also beautiful. Her music addresses a lot of issues faced by First Nations people and blends traditional Inuit music with contemporary pop.
Songs to Check Out: Fight for the Rights, Stay Strong, Forgive Yourself
Drezus combines traditional Anishinaabe and Nehiyaw teachings in his hip-hop and rap music. He often holds youth and community workshops and gives speeches regarding his journey. Prior to finding music he had been to jail several times in jail and dealt with a lot of violence. He wants to use his voice and hopes others learn from him and be inspired to push themselves. "I would tell them that they are all young warriors and have a special place in this world as light givers. Put the phone down and go shoot some hoops, feel the sun, snow, rain or whatever and just be thankful to be alive. There is always a way out of whatever seems to be bothering you or preventing you from being happy. Be yourself, love hard and work harder. Be proud to be. One day while you’re out chasing your dreams that light will find you and it will show you a whole different world full of opportunities and goodness. Go get it."
Songs to Check Out: Warpath, Red Winter, Get Up
THE JERRY CANS
The Jerry Cans are from Iqaluit and have made a commitment to making music that honours and dialogues with their home communities. They combine electric guitars, drums, throat singing, and violin to make songs about anxiety, desperation and grief. Their songs are everything from folk to country to Arctic post-punk. In 2016 they created the record label Aakuluk Music to release albums by Nunavut based artists. They also released a children’s book in 2017 called Mamaqtuq! based on their song of the same name. The book is bilingual written in Inuktitut and English.
Songs to Check Out: Northern Lights. Mamaqtuq, Nameless
Also known as the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers they are a dance and music group focused on reclaiming their languages and traditional values through their art of singing, drumming, dancing and storytelling. They make traditional music and have also collaborated with DJ Dash to make electronic versions of their songs. Dakhká Khwáan means Inland People/Nation, a name given to them by the late Dakla’weidi elder, Mrs. Eliza Bosely.
Songs to Check Out: Raven Strut (DASH Remix), Chikoot Series Story, Deconstruct Reconstruct
Also known as the Northern Cree Singers the group was formed in the early 1980s in Maskwacis, Alberta. They are regarded as one of the best acts in modern Native American powwow groups and named one of the most respected powwow groups in the world. They have collaborated with many other artists including A Tribe Called Red, DJ Shub and Tanya Tagaq.
Songs to Check Out: Song for the Soul, War Cry, Thank Heaven I’m an Indian Boy
Sources: Spotify, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and me!