Holding space

Jeremy Dutcher, the Arkells and dreaming of reconciliation in the music industry

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Jeremy Dutcher won once, but spoke twice.

The winner of the 2019 Juno for Indigenous Music Album covered a lot of ground in his 60-second acceptance speech, celebrating his fellow competitors, commenting on the constricting structure of the Indigenous award category itself and delivering a diatribe against Justin Trudeau’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and lands. Dutcher was just about to begin speaking on reconciliation when music played him off stage.

The irony of an Indigenous artist being interrupted while speaking about colonial violence was not lost on Canadian rock band the Arkells, who won Rock Album of the Year. The band gave up their speech slot so Dutcher could finish speaking.

When he returned to the stage, Dutcher said, “This is what holding space looks like.”

Colonialism is fundamentally a form of violence against space and those who inhabit it. Dutcher’s choice of words – “holding space” – evokes a different kind of relationship: holding space as a pause; holding space as a gentle gesture; holding space as reserving something for someone else.

The Uniter spoke with three local Indigenous music-makers about their music practices, watching Jeremy Dutcher speak and what holding space might mean in the music industry.

DJ Ren

Dutcher’s second speech concluded with him speaking, untranslated, in Wolastoqey: “Nihkaniyayon ktpitahatomonen, ciw weckuwapasihtit - Nit leyic (When you lead us, think of all of us, for the ones yet born - may that be the truth).”

For local Indigenous DJ Renata Meconse (DJ Ren), hearing these words was significant.

“I have a shared experience with a lot of other Canadians in that we didn’t understand the language, but we understood what that meant,” she says.

“It was important for him to acknowledge his territory, his culture, and by listening and by being open to that, we, too, were being a part of what should be happening.”

Meconse agreed with Dutcher’s critique that the Indigenous music category treats the music made by Indigenous musicians as “niche,” erasing their contributions to the evolution of any number of musical genres.

Indigenous artists are “kind of limited (to) that one category,” she says.

“That kind of puts them all against each other just because of their Indigeneity ... In terms of reconciliation at the arts level, there’s opportunity to expand on how Indigenous artists are recognized and acknowledged.”

Meconse’s own DJ practice begins with her love of music across many genres, her steadfast support of Indigenous music-makers and her desire to create great dance parties.

“When I did a gig with Folklorama with the First Nations pavilion, I made sure to include Indigenous music in the music that I played,” she says.

“I made sure that I wasn’t just playing one certain type of music, or just pow wow music. I made sure that I played music that I thought people would dance to, or that people would like to feel upbeat about. I did research looking into what sorts of artists are out there across Canada, making sure that I included that in the music that I played.”

Meconse would like to see this approach practised more widely in the arts scene, making music made by Indigenous artists something that is common and expected.

“In terms of reconciliation at the local level, I think it’s really important to encourage integration of Indigneous music in other events,” she says.

Strife Asaakeezis

Ava Sun / Rainbow Moonchild is a Two-Spirit Indigenous artist, a rapper, singer, producer and mentor working in both Anishinaabemowin and English under the alias Strife Asaakeezis.

“I do all my own stuff, right from the ground up. Every high-hat, every kick, (I) play guitar, sing, layer all the vocals, clean them up, equalize them,” she says.

“I’ve taught a lot of people how to make beats, how to produce, how to use their voice, how to sing, how to rap.”

Ava Sun says their recent work is focused on sending a positive message into a chaotic world.

“Life inspires me. Everything about life, the ups, the downs, the crazy dynamics, all the simplicity,” they say.

“These days I’m working on a lot of positive-based music with good messages, all original music.”

The reasons behind Rainbow Moonchild’s desire to make positive music resonate with the final lines of Dutcher’s speech, where he called leaders to “think of all of us, for the ones yet born.”

“When you look around at the world today, there’s so much division between people. People are confused, people are not seeing with their hearts, they’re just seeing with their eyes,” she says.

“The people that suffer the most aren’t really adults. They’re ... the youth. I’m trying to have that (hip-hop) quality sound that’s going to draw on that crowd, but then feed them and plant good seeds, so ... my kids and everybody else’s kids don’t have to come up with all the crazy shit that I did.”

Ila Barker

When DJ Ren was researching Indigenous Canadian artists, it’s unsurprising that one of the names she came across was Ila Barker.

Having released her self-titled debut album in 2013 with two No. 1 hits on the Indigenous Music Countdown, currently acting as the Indigenous music development program co-ordinator for Manitoba Music and working on a new single, the folk-soul singer-songwriter is quickly becoming a force on both the artist and industry sides of the music scene.

For Barker’s upcoming album, she decided to centre Indigenous women as her collaborators.

“What I’ve come to bring to fruition is I’m going to do the whole project Indigenous and female,” she says.

“It’s really really easy to just grab the first white male producer, grab the first recording studio owner, and it takes a little more thought and a tad more effort to find out who the movers and shakers are that are Indigenous and that are women in our industry.”

For Barker, watching what happened at the Junos created a sense of possibility where there had been none.

“Seeing (Jeremy Dutcher) up on the stage accepting his award made me as an artist feel like I could get up on that stage and be there. Seeing him on the stage made me see myself there, in the sense that it seemed like this big, faraway, mythical thing to be at the Junos, and now that I’ve seen a relative be on stage and accept one that he’s won, I see myself having that in reach.”

“Educate yourself”

When Dutcher re-took the stage, he picked up where he had been cut off.

“As I was saying,” he said.

“Réconciliation. Reconciliation. It’s a lofty goal. It’s a dream. It doesn’t happen in a year.”

For Barker, holding space for Indigenous artists in Winnipeg is the responsibility of those in positions of power.

“I think that’s up for the space-holders to speak about and not us,” Barker says.

“I think it’s up to them to figure out how to recognize their own privilege and figure out how they can practically give some of that up. For far too long, the onus has been put on Indigenous people to educate and to inform and give our opinions ... The time is now for us to say, ‘Well, no, you need to go figure out what’s going on yourself, educate yourself and figure out what your part in reconciliation is.’”

Strife Asaakeezis’s music can be found on YouTube, SoundCloud and ReverbNation. Stay tuned for new music from Ila Barker on Instagram and YouTube @ilabarkermusic or at ilabarker.com.

Published in Volume 73, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 4, 2019)

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