Cultural Appreciation of Contemporary Indigenous Music in Canada
Music has been a surviving element of Indigenous identity following their systemic oppression and cultural genocide under settler-colonial Canada. The periods of 1965-1975 as well as the late 1980s-early 1990s, marked the rise of technological music production, Indigenous-owned record labels, and the proliferation of contemporary Indigenous music in Canadian society. In the 21st century, a new wave of Indigenous artists use their distinct music styles to challenge colonial misconceptions and stereotypes of Indigenous culture, as well as to represent themselves. As part of an “Indigenous Music Renaissance”, these artists are gaining an increased cultural appreciation through music awards and recognition in mainstream Canadian culture.
Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural appreciation
The concept of cultural appreciation has not yet been officially defined. However, it has been contrasted with cultural appropriation, the non-consensual use of a marginalized culture’s social artifacts by another dominant culture. Appropriation is harmful as it subjects the appropriated culture to stereotypes, leading to non-recognition and misrecognition of the culture.
On the other hand, cultural appreciation occurs when dominant cultures engage with aspects of a minority culture respectfully and from an informed perspective. For instance, Indigenous scholar Niigaan Sinclair defines appreciation as “engagement based on responsibility and ethics” as opposed to “theft based on power and privilege”. In the context of this Wiki page, appreciation will be framed as the growing recognition of Indigenous cultural self-representation in music by settler-Canadian peoples.
Defining Contemporary Indigenous Music
Contemporary Indigenous music can be loosely characterized by its diverse range of musical styles and genres. It typically blends elements from conventional genres (such as country, folk, rock, blues, jazz, hip hop, electronic music, and classical) with tribal or pan-tribal features of an artists’ indigeneity. Some of these features can include drumming, powwow singing and beats, throat singing and Indigenous vocables. However, not all contemporary Indigenous music is identifiably Indigenous. A Canadian study on Indigenous music in 2019, reported that 15% of music from the artists surveyed, was classified as “other”. Therefore, artists use modern recording technology to create their own music genres and subgenres like “powwow rock” and “powwow step” (see Section 18.104.22.168."Tanya Tagaq" and Section 22.214.171.124 "A Tribe Called Red").
Contemporary Indigenous Music in Canada
Importance of Music in Indigenous Culture and Identity
Canada’s colonial policies of cultural assimilation (seen in the Potlatch Ban, Residential School System and Sixties Scoop) outlawed traditional ceremonies like Sun Dance, resulting in a loss of culture. Despite this, non-ceremonial music and dance continued. For Indigenous people, music-makers preserve traditional knowledge and tribal memory, whilst music itself is a medium for cultural self-expression. Therefore, the continuity of music in contemporary forms, is part of a “conscious creation and recovery of an Indigenous worldview”. In this way, contemporary Indigenous music is important for the survival of Indigenous culture and the reclamation of Indigenous identity.
The Rise of Contemporary Indigenous Music in Canada
Contemporary Indigenous music began to develop in Canada between the mid-1960s to 1970s. It coincided with the heightened awareness of Indigenous political and social issues of the Red Power Movement in North America. Notable artists of this time include Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, and Tom Jackson.
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Indigenous music industry expanded in parallel with a global boom in the “world beat” and “world music” industries. In 1985, the passing of Bill C-31 amended the Indian Act so that it formally recognized Indian identity. The resulting Indigenous population explosion rapidly expanded the consumer base for the Aboriginal recording industry and the powwow industry. Furthermore, modern recording technology facilitated the growth of Indigenous-owned and operated recording studios such as Sweetgrass Records, Sunshine Records and Arbour Records. Indigenous music was also broadcasted on Aboriginal-owned radio stations such as CKRZ 100.3 FM and various other newspaper publications. Additionally, artists like Kashtin and Susan Aglukark found mainstream success, signing contracts with prominent record labels like Sony and EMI Canada.
Indigenous Music Renaissance of the 21st Century
The Indigenous Music Renaissance refers to an emerging generation of Indigenous artists who are breaking through the contemporary music scene in Canada for their musical creativity and talent. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red are among some of the high profile figures, whose music has been recognized and appreciated in the mainstream.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Cree American-Canadian singer/song-writer who rose to fame during the folk music revival period of the 1960s. She is well known for her politicized lyrics and activism for Indigenous rights in her anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier” and song “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone”. Combining music technologies with elements of the traditional Indigenous Powwow Music, she created a distinct subgenre called “powwow rock”.
In 1994, Saint-Marie co-established the Indigenous Music Album of the Year category within the Canadian Juno Awards, marking initial efforts to recognize Indigenous artists in mainstream Canadian culture. She has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame, alongside winning multiple Juno Awards. Due to her success in both American and Canadian music mainstreams amidst the colonial contexts of the 1960s, she is considered “the matriarch of contemporary Indigenous music”.Many Indigenous artists such as Tanya Taqaq and A Tribe Called Red look to Sainte-Marie’s legacy as inspiration to represent their heritage in mainstream Canadian music.
The Path to Appreciation through Challenging Colonial Stereotypes
Indigenous culture is often subjected to colonial stereotypes which portray them as exotic and primitive. This white, Eurocentric representation of Indigenous people is known as the “Imaginary Indian”. Indigenous music is recognized as a medium for storytelling and activism. Therefore, contemporary Indigenous artists use music to challenge western depictions of indigeneity, in order to reassert native agency and cultural self-representation in the mainstream.
Tanya Tagaq is a Canadian Inuk throat singer, who challenges stereotypes through her blended music style. She uses traditional Inuit throat singing (also known as “katajjaq”) in a pop-electronic-experimental music context. This has been described as a characteristic of aesthetic cosmopolitanism, where artists of different ethnic backgrounds enrich their local music with transcultural elements from the environment in which they are located. For example, in her cover of the song “Caribou”, she combines the Inuit word “Tutu” with techniques of overdubbing and mixing.These techniques create music that simultaneously engages with Indigenous heritage-based values and Western cultural music codes. In this way, Tagaq’s music challenges mainstream media’s stereotypical representations of Indigenous music as frozen in time and ‘incompatible’ with contemporary mainstream music.
Tagaq’s throat singing has been widely recognized in Canada: her album "Animism" won the Polaris Music Prize in 2014 as well as the Aboriginal Recording of the Year at the Juno Awards in 2015. The resurgence of Inuit throat singing since its ban by Christian missionaries during colonization, is regarded as a “radical, political act of cultural revitalization” for Canadian Inuit communities.
A Tribe Called Red
“A Tribe Called Red” (ATCR) also use their music to counter stereotypes of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and to support Indigenous activism. Their sonic signature “powwow step” fuses Electronic Dance Music (EDM) with samples of traditional powwow drumming and singing, and dubstep.
In club scenes, such as their well-known (now discontinued) “Electronic Powwow Night” in Ottawa, the group’s lively beats create a “decolonial aesthetic” where Indigenous audiences can dance to the music and challenge colonial depictions of Indigenous bodies. Similarly, in live shows, ATCR displays their own distorted visual montages of stereotypical “Imaginary Indians” from Hollywood Westerns to evoke notions of both pain and humour amongst audiences. They use these displays to simultaneously highlight and minimize their indigeneity, so that the power of such stereotypes in appropriating and marginalizing Indigenous peoples, is reduced. The group's ability to challenge settler-colonial depictions of native identity has resonated with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.
ATCR’s music also underpins Indigenous activism in, and outside of Canada. Their lead single, “The Road'', is a tribute soundtrack to the Idle No More Movement, reaching over 50,000 views in the first five months after its release. Another single, “Land Back”, supports the Wet’su’wet’en peoples’ land sovereignty protests concerning the Coastal GasLink Pipeline controversy.
The group has gained widespread recognition and appreciation in mainstream Canadian society, winning three Juno Awards and being nominated for the Polaris Music Prize in 2013 and 2017. Their debut album, "A Tribe Called Red", has also been featured in Washington Post’s Top 10 albums of 2012.
Recognition in the Canadian Music Industry
There are several awards and award shows that commemorate Indigenous artists. The Indigenous Music Awards (formally known as the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards) is an annual event hosted in Winnipeg, that recognizes Canadian Indigenous artists in multiple genre categories. Other national awards such as the Canadian Country Music Awards, the Canadian Folk Music Awards and the East Coast Music Awards also have Indigenous-specific categories.
Furthermore, four Indigenous artists (Tanya Tagaq-2014, Buffy Saint-Marie-2015, Lido Pimienta-2017 and Jeremy Dutcher-2018) have won with the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, which is awarded to the best full-length Canadian album.
Several Indigenous musicians have also won accolades in the Indigenous Music Album of the Year category of the Canadian Junos (see Section 2.1 "Buffy Sainte-Marie") As a co-founder of the award, Buffy Sainte-Marie addresses its significance for Indigenous artists:
“You don't get that category because someone feels sorry for you or because they respect your ancestors. It was not a cultural mandate. You have to prove that you have the numbers.”  – Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Highlights from the National Indigenous Music Impact Study
The National Music Impact Study is the first study conducted by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) on the Indigenous music community and industry of 2018. It details the successes, and further opportunities for the growth of Canadian Indigenous music. Amongst the artists, record-labels and companies surveyed, the report observed that:
- Indigenous music contributed a total of $78 million to Canada economy in 2018;
- 54% of the artists music receives almost 3000 plays across all digital platforms;
- On average, record labels sold 101 albums and 24 individual songs recorded by Indigenous artists in 2018 (excluding Canada’s major labels);
- Music/Booking agents, venues, bookers and promoter companies booked 32 live performances on average in 2018, two-thirds of which (67%) were booked for Indigenous musicians;
- All events featuring Indigenous musicians, booked by venues, festivals and powwow committees, had an average annual attendance of 11,000 people.
Looking Ahead: Opportunities for the future
Greater Broadcasting of Indigenous Music
Five newly licensed Indigenous-themed radio stations launched in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa in 2018. The stations in Ottawa (95.7 FM) and Toronto (106.5 FM) are under the domain of First People’s Radio Inc. and have a minimum of 25% Canadian-Indigenous music in their programming. Additionally, Indigenous music is widely available on popular online streaming services like Spotify and iTunes.
CBC Music also has several Indigenous music playlists and radio shows like Indigenous Canada and Reclaimed, featuring a variety of genres as well as hit tracks from the Juno, and Indigenous Music Awards.Their podcast Unreserved also incorporates an Indigenous soundtrack.
Digital Drum is also a new media platform launched by the APTN that provides coverage of Indigenous music, award ceremonies and festivals. It hosts Indigenous Day Live, a festival and live concert featuring Indigenous music, on National Indigenous Peoples Day. With an annual attendance of over 45,000 people and over 1 million viewers tuning in via multi-platform broadcast, it is one of the largest national celebration of Indigenous culture.
Multiple companies and Indigenous-specific record labels such as Rising Sun Productions, Turtle Island Music and Musique Nomade, are supporting Indigenous artists. Alongside increased funding opportunities, there are more frequent Indigenous-featured music festivals that are providing artists with collaboration opportunities within the music industry. Additionally, the First People’s Cultural Council has launched an Indigenous Music Initiative as well as an Indigenous Music Retreat to support the career development of Indigenous musicians.
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