Music/Interviews

A Tribe Called Red are reclaiming nationhood

August 30, 2017

Ian Campeau speaks on festivals, call-out culture, and kicking ass on Twitter.

“Can you hear me? My baby’s screaming in the back over here. I’m just running some errands.” Ian Campeau keeps himself busy. He’s a full-time father, husband, Anishinabek First Nations member, Leafly Ambassador, unapologetic social justice advocate and Twitter callout king, who alongside Bear Witness and 2oolman, produces proud and polemic prize-winning music for the modern electric pow-wow party in A Tribe Called Red. Guy even grows his own vegetables. I almost felt bad for calling.

In 2017 alone, Tribe took home the Jack Richardson Juno Award for Producer of the Year (Juno number two) and this year’s MMVA Video of the Year for “R.E.D.,” copped their third Polaris nomination in five years (their second time on the shortlist since 2014’s Nation-II-Nation.) They are currently touring the shit out of Canada and the United States, stepping on and off the summer festival circuit. Despite the momentum from 2016’s We Are the Halluci Nation sending their party non-stop across North America, ATCR still holds Electric Pow-Wow, a monthly party at Babylon in Ottawa.

“At the time, Bear and I were working at a club in Ottawa, and Adam—who owned Babylon next door—had been a close friend for years,” Campeau says. “We needed to reserve that space for Indigenous people, wanted to show people there’s Indigenous DJs doing something. So we approached Adam with our idea. We thought we should probably try and think of music to go with it. The group then came out of the music. It was well-received, we started getting blogged about. And then it took off.”

Since those first Babylon parties nine years ago, A Tribe Called Red have since joined Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tanya Tagaq to help break down a culture wall that kept Indigenous artists from mainstream Canadian attention, and have created spaces for First Nations artists. This year, the trio played Northern Lights Festival Boreal, the Central Park Summerstage, Higher Ground, Festival d’Ete Quebec, Kaslo Jazz, and Summer Music.

“Did everybody get the headdress memo?” I asked.

“Absolutely everybody got the headdress memo. At least for our shows, you know? The big test for us was Coachella two years ago. I’m not necessarily walking around the festival grounds, but I don’t see them anymore.”

At the end of August, A Tribe Called Red return to Quebec to play at Festival de Musique Emergente (or FME). Festival organizers have partnered up with the Pikogan Pow-Wow committee to launch art installations that keep new relations in mind, notably, craft kiosks, Indigenous artist performances, and ceremonies like Makwa: a First Nations art show that symbolizes a dialogue between two engaged communities: the First Nations of Abitibi-Témiscamingue and the non-Indigenous communities of Quebec (and beyond) that will attend FME.

When it comes to initiatives like Makwa to catalyze reconciliation through genuine cross-cultural engagement, Campeau is hopeful. The power of summer festival platforms to sway Canadians in rethinking how they understand First Nations artists raises two key questions: is a shared model workable, and more importantly, sustainable in the long run?

Absolutely everybody got the headdress memo. At least for our shows, you know?

“It’s a great model. There’s been situations where A Tribe Called Red functioned as a catalyst between the two communities,” Campeau muses. “Specifically, there was a case where we played in BC shortly after a recent fishery dispute had settled in court that landed in favour of the Indigenous people. A lot of non-Indigenous people were upset and it caused friction between the two communities. But our show seemed to mix them together.”

I was nodding my head. Reconciliation is for every Canadian.

“If you’re going to carry the pride of your ancestors, you need to carry their shame. It’s non-indigenous reconciliation,” he continues. “You know, I’ve talked to major journalists, who—up until three or four years ago—had never heard of residential schools. And now we can show on Facebook Live, on Twitter. Twitter started Idle No More, Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter. ”

I had to ask Campeau about his experience on Twitter. He often plants himself deep in neverending digital racist bonanzas that flare up from racist trolls and the Proudboys in attempt to disarm them through their language, pointing out a flawed ideology. He considers it a victory if an alt-right troll blocks him, but this behaviour makes me wonder where social media might go.

“Keep people accountable for what they say, and watch for when they aren’t anymore. That’s when they lash out, attack you, and try to hurt your feelings. That’s when I turn into a drunken Indian. If you recognize the tactics of trolls and continue to keep them accountable, they lose their power. And when you recognize that and you see it as this like hilarious act—even though they are trying to hurt my feelings—it doesn’t work.”

Our earlier talk of platform and space had me thinking: what concerns rise with awards and categories reserved for marginalized artists? While many argue these awards and spaces are borne from necessity, it forces a question on the artist: should they identify as their marginalized race during their career, only to receive automatic entry into those categories and enter the struggle of competing against other Indigenous artists for one standalone award, or do they choose to avoid identifying in order to avoid the relegation of their work? No time in the history of the Juno awards has a self-identifying Indigenous artist won the Album or Artist of the Year, or was nominated for one.

If you’re going to carry the pride of your ancestors, you need to carry their shame.

“When it came to the Junos, we didn’t want to compete with other Indigenous people who have different styles of music. It’s really hard to compare one style of music with another, but they’re competing because of their race. That’s kind of wack. On the other hand, I think it’s incredibly important to be able to showcase Indigenous art in a mainstream world.”

“But is it a good thing?”

“It’s important that we have it right now, but I hope that we don’t need it forever. I can’t wait for the day I’m just known as an artist. But it is what it is. If you’re an artist and you don’t feel that you need it anymore, give that space up to somebody who does.”

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