‘Take the mic’: Indigenous Music Awards nominees draw on histories, culture to create music and tell stories

For newcomers to the music scene, just being nominated at the Indigenous Music Awards can already be a win.

The nominations for the awards — which will be presented Friday night as part of the Manito Ahbee festival in Winnipeg — mean their name and their music is making it to the big stage.

“It’s so awesome … finally to be recognized for what you’re doing, and bringing reggae to Indigenous people and … hip hop to a whole other level,” said Yellowsky, who is up for the best new artist award.

CBC News spoke with Yellowsky and some of the other Indigenous Music Awards nominees, each of whom draw on their different histories, backgrounds and cultures to create their music and tell their stories.

‘Poetry in motion’ for rapper Yellowsky

Cree and Chilean artist Yellowsky, from Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan, uses his diverse background to create what he describes as a “fusion.”

“I came from singing, to rapping, to all of a sudden I’m doing reggae, and now it’s a mixture of reggae and hip hop,” he said.

But the best new artist nominee almost didn’t pursue a music career, because he didn’t know how to play any instruments.

“I felt like I was not as good as anybody,” he said.

‘As soon as I seen a rapper, I was, like, “Yo, that’s what I want to do,”‘ says best new artist nominee Yellowsky. (Amus Productions)

He got encouragement, though, from his mother — even though she was working through her own trauma as a residential school survivor.

“She gave me that strength,” said Yellowsky, who was raised by his mother and his aunties, who were also residential school survivors.

“I grew up with that struggle, but lots of love,” he said.

He said his mom told him he had two options: stay wounded or get up and make something out of his life.

Growing up, he sang along with Spanish music. He knew he loved to sing, but without an instrument he didn’t think music would work for him — until he heard rap music.

“As soon as I seen a rapper, I was, like, ‘Yo, that’s what I want to do,'” he said.

“Then I started rapping and it was easier. It was easier than singing, I thought for myself, because it was like poetry in motion.”

‘Like restarting life’ for Once A Tree

Jayli and Hayden Wolf are also newcomers to the awards. The married couple from Toronto make up the duo Once A Tree. Their album Phoenix is up for best electronic album at the Indigenous Music Awards.

The two met and fell in love in 2012. Both raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they decided to leave the religion and their communities at the same time. Both agree the move was right for them, but leaving their friends and family and the community they always knew wasn’t easy.

“It was like restarting life,” said Hayden. “Everything we ever knew was in that religion.”

“Coming out of that and losing your family and all of your friends and learning that everything you’ve ever known is a very conditional love … it was like a death,” said Jayli.

Hayden and Jayli Wolf, who perform as Once A Tree, say making music is their dream. (Submitted by Once A Tree)

Having each other as a support system was important and they bonded over their similar upbringings.

It was a struggle, but ultimately a transformative period for the couple.

“Being open to this new world where Jayli and I could really pursue what we loved and not feel guilty about it was really a special time for us,” said Hayden.

For Jayli, it also opened the door to learning about her First Nations heritage. She is Saulteau, from Saulteau First Nations in northern British Columbia. But that was a side of her heritage that she didn’t always know.

We were going to do music and it’s sort of just been something we’re not giving up on. This is our dream.– Jayli Wolf

“I think it’s really changed my perspective because … I’ve been really getting more educated on the history of this country and just understanding the struggle and the plight that Indigenous people are going through,” she said.

She now has plans to visit her home community to meet with the rest of her family and learn more about her community and culture.

In the meantime, the duo plan to continue making music.

“Music has always been something I wanted to do ever since I was a little girl but I knew it was something I could never fully pursue [while being a Jehovah’s Witness],” said Jayli.

Hayden says it’s been a coping mechanism for him, and provides an outlet for expression.

“I’m not always the best at expressing myself but to write it out and pour your soul into lyrics and a melody is really healing for me,” he said.

“We were going to do music and it’s sort of just been something we’re not giving up on,” said Jayli. “This is our dream.”

Quantum Tangle want Indigenous kids to take the mic

For best pop album nominees Quantum Tangle, hearing more Indigenous voices in the music scene is important.

The 2017 Juno Award winners combine the diverse backgrounds of Inuit artist Tiffany Ayalik and Métis and Anishinaabe artist Greyson Gritt, to create their music.

Their songs often discuss Indigenous injustices. Both Gritt and Ayalik grew up hearing about these issues and as they got older they knew it was important to talk about them.

“These are things that we reflect on and talk about every day,” said Gritt.

“These are things that are super important to us, so when you have the gift of singing and storytelling, I think it means that you have the responsibility to really think about what it is you’re going to say and what you’re going to share, and reflect about the ways in which you want to impact society.”

‘When you have more representation and people can see themselves in those positions, the more you see people being able to take the stage, take the mic, take up space,’ says Grayson Gritt of the duo Quantum Tangle. (Kayley Mackay)

Ayalik and Gritt draw on their histories and backgrounds when creating their music (“folk and blues with a dash of electronic synth,” says Gritt). It’s something Gritt (who uses the non-gender specific pronoun they) feels is important — especially for Ayalik, who is a throat singer.

“Throat singing was outlawed and made to be illegal and it was turned into this shameful thing,” they said.

Throat singing has become more popular in recent years, bringing international attention to northern Canadian communities.

Ayalik and Gritt know the importance of teaching others about the culture. They lead workshops with youth to talk about culture, language and history, but also to show the youth that they’re both successful and happy Indigenous artists who are using their own cultures and histories to tell stories.

“It’s ultimately more representation,” said Gritt, “and when you have more representation and people can see themselves in those positions, the more you see people being able to take the stage, take the mic, take up space.”

The Indigenous Music Awards will be presented Friday, May 18 at the Club Regent Event Centre in Winnipeg.

CBC Music’s Jarrett Martineau and singer-songwriter Beatrice Deer will co-host, and the awards show will feature performances from Indian City, Kristi Lane Sinclair, Redbone’s Pat Vegas, and Tom Wilson, among others.


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