the great white north

The Great White North: A Tribe Called Red, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, and the myth of Canadian multiculturalism

As the Junos approach this weekend, the time has come for the Canadian music conversation to change — or, perhaps more specifically, to begin anew.

- Mar 28, 2014

What do you think of when you think of Canadian music?

If this was an association exercise, chances are your mind would flash with images of Neil Young, The Tragically Hip or Sloan: good Canadian boys, long hair and guitars, hockey, the cottage, paeans to a simpler time. The sad truth is, that's no mistake: dating back to at least the early '70s, decades of music journalism, broadcast and radio have created and nurtured that specific CanCon iconography.

But fast forward to 2014, and the number of self-identified visible minorities is rising to the point where, in many parts of the nation, "visible minority" is a misnomer. With it, arts communities are naturally evolving to better represent that diversity. Aboriginal people are this country's fastest-growing demographic, and First Nations, Inuit and Metis are rapidly moving to urban metropolitan centres — especially to Winnipeg, where this year's Junos are being held. Idle No More and other prominent civil rights movements are driving attention towards indigenous land, culture and treaty rights.

The time has come for the Canadian music conversation to change — or, perhaps more specifically, to begin anew.

A new generation of Canadian musicians are heeding that challenge, including, of all places, at this weekend's Juno Awards ceremony. Among the uncharacteristically stacked list of nominees, two names stick out in particular: A Tribe Called Red and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan.

Youthful, aware, self-possessed, both acts are are challenging the time-honoured definition of “Canadian music,” reflecting the country as they experience it: diverse, messy, beautiful, complex and sometimes uncomfortable. Both groups' nominated sophomore albums, ATCR's Nation II Nation and YT//ST's UZU, are standalone highlights in their categories, but each has a bigger project: challenging the status quo, musically repairing colonial history, restaging appropriation, and artistically escaping outwardly-imposed pigeonholes.

It's a challenge that's resonated in their individual scenes (dance and indie, very loosely defined), but incredibly, they’re also being recognized by the Canadian music industry's commercial gatekeeper and great white pillar: The Junos.

Community Smokescreen

There’s an assumption some Canadians make about music and art, especially independent music and art, that it exists as a liberal, inclusive space. Last August, just a few weeks before Toronto band Ohbijou's farewell show, singer Casey Mecija poured a glass of cold water over that notion.

Ohbijou Farewell

“To make music, as a racialized person in multicultural Canada, is a difficult project,” she wrote, in a note titled “Goodbye Ohbijou: notes on music, labour and the impossibility of satisfying multicultural ideals in Canada.” “An ambivalence surfaces when moments of pride in our work and its reception collide with well-intentioned but racist consumptions of our music. I am not giving up on the potential of such a project to alter the ways that people think and feel about queer life and the histories of colonialism out of which Canada was born. But, as a band, we are tired and we are broke."

Ohbijou were never shy about their politics — from the same note: “Our initial intention, and one we continue to hold dearly to, was to produce social change through music.” Still, they weren't exactly middle-fingers-up rabble-rousers; their bungalow was the heart of a local community that spawned the Friends In Bellwoods charity compilations, and their gentle orchestrated folk rock encapsulated last decade's earnest, euphoric "Torontopia" era. Their farewell show became a reunion of that community, featuring members of Diamond Rings, Evening Hymns, The Rural Alberta Advantage and more, all of whom showed up to cover, compliment and hug each other – a good old-fashioned Toronto indie scene love-in.

ohbijou quote

But here’s the thing about community: it can be a smokescreen. Embedded within the loving fan base and glowing local press was a distancing, othering force. Time and again the band’s music was referred to as “Asian,” “world music,” even “multi-culti,” where Mecija saw it for what it was: straight-up orchestrated indie pop. She was broke, yes, but she was also tired: tired of being pigeonholed for her sexuality and the colour of her skin, tired of being fit into a narrative, excluded by a national sensibility that claimed to foster inclusion.

Ohbijou - Balikbayan

“Those things weighed on me in a way that didn’t affect some of the other people in the band,” she tells me in a later interview. “I don’t think there are racial elements to our music whatsoever. So when someone says ‘I can hear Asianness in your music,’ it’s frustrating. I’m Asian, I’m Filipino, but our strings aren’t Asian. Our cellist isn’t playing African music. So when I heard that slippage of reading our bodies into our music, it felt like we were exoticized from the normal configuration of Canadian bands, which is white, and that became a really big mindfuck.”

For Mecija, that mindfuck understandably led to exhaustion, but for bands like ATCR and YT//ST, it’s a driving force.

A folkloric Disneyland

It’s no small feat that this artistic intervention on the assumed meaning of “multiculturalism” is happening on Winnipeg’s Juno stage. It’s part of the same force that led to multiculturalism being mentioned in the same breath as health care, survival and hockey as bastions of the Canadian identity: Trudeaumania.

To make a long, complicated story short (which, as we’ll learn, is exactly what not to do), multiculturalism is a vaguely defined positive public attitude towards immigration and the co-existence of diverse racial groups in Canada. It’s also an umbrella of policies adopted while Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister in the 1970s (eventually codified in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Multicultural Act, passed in 1988), designed to refashion the country’s bicultural forces, based on Colonial English and French traditions, into a “cultural mosaic” and resolve the national identity crisis by redefining it as pluralism.

Concerns about the fragility of national identity also spread to questions about the media, constantly affected by its proximity to the United States juggernaut. Trudeau was instrumental in appointing Pierre Juneau as the first chairman of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) in the 1960s, and in the ‘70s he became the architect of Canadian Content regulations (a hot topic ever since). Juneau became the namesake of the Junos in 1971, which were created as a means of recognizing and celebrating our homegrown music industry, as well as a symbolic, award-driven encouragement for our artists to make music that could be described as quintessentially “Canadian.”

The Tragically Hip - At The Hundredth Meridian

CanCon quickly developed genre traits of its own. (Turn to the nearest rock radio station; there's a good chance it’ll be playing one of the following: the Hip, Neil Young, The Guess Who, Rush, Blue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies.) To create iconography usually means to reduce an idea to a bite-sized, easy to swallow credo, and so both the Junos and “multiculturalism” became simplified, the diversity souffle boiled down to a digestif of feathers and chow mein.

In his 1998 essay “No Place Like Home,” Canadian author Neil Bissoondath beautifully defines this phenomenon: “…the concept has been reduced to the simplest theatre. Canadians, neatly divided into 'ethnic' and otherwise, encounter each other's mosaic tiles mainly at festivals. There's traditional music, traditional dancing, traditional food at distinctly untraditional prices, all of which is diverting as far as it goes - but such encounters remain at the level of a folkloric Disneyland.”

a tribe called red quote

To be fair,  credit is due to the Junos for its recent forays into more diverse and contemporary territory, both in new genres like Electronic Album of the Year and forward-thinking selections in categories like Alternative Album of the Year, which has allowed for bands as cool and as weird as ATCR and YT//ST to share space with the Nickelbacks and Michael Bubles of the industry.

Drake's Opening Monologue - 2011 Juno Awards

But these may only be token gestures. Consider the Junos’ fraught relationship with hip-hop: Kardinal Offishall and The Rascalz have each at one time boycotted the program, both acts citing genre marginalization (until recently, the rap category was never televised). The 2011 ceremony not only again failed to televise the highly competitive rap award (won by Shad) but also capitalized on Drake’s commercial marketability by casting him as host, while inexplicably shutting out the Toronto rap ambassador in all six of his nominated categories. The Junos make gestures towards diversity, but only at a distance.

There’s a reason that in 2014 A Tribe Called Red is nominated for Electronic Album of the Year and Breakthrough Artist of the Year, but not Aboriginal Album of the Year: they consciously decided not to submit for it

“We, as a group, didn’t necessarily want to compete with other groups just because of our race, just because of our ethnicity, as opposed to our music,” says Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau in a pre-Junos interview. “That’s not to take away from the people that are nominated. It’s a huge award and it’s really exciting, but it creates a glass ceiling for aboriginal talent. We just felt that was something we didn’t really want to participate in.”

A double-edge sword for racialized musicians

Alongside an image of each member of A Tribe Called Red’s Certificate of Indian Status, the liner notes of Nation II Nation features these words: “After what happened in the last hundred years, the simple fact we are here today is a political statement. As First Nations people everything we do is political.”

ATCR is explicitly taking control of an image that has historically been projected by colonizers; in simply showing up, the group is forcing the conversation. But that quote also speaks to the liminal space “ethnic” musicians have to fill, forced into the role of cultural ambassador/advocate, but risking anytime they call out mistreatment. Publishing her Ohbijou Tumblr note, for instance, was no easy decision for Mecija to make.

“I was happy with it because I spent a lot of time writing it and made sure I said exactly what I wanted to say. It was a very emotional, thoughtful process,” says Mecija. “But to be honest I was kind of afraid to post it. I felt worried about what the talkback would be, or what peoples’ critique would be, and because the Canadian music industry and the machine that finances the industry felt just so much bigger than me.”

According to the artists interviewed that fear can sometimes be paralyzing, the need to accept the role of the Other without the freedom to call it out. Mecija says it (among other factors) contributed to the dissolution of Ohbijou. For Yamantaka /// Sonic Titan, that Catch-22 was a major motivating factor.

ytst quote

"A lot of what Casey is pointing out in her note, that’s exactly why we started Yamantaka // Sonic Titan,” says drummer/founding member Alaska B. “We played in other bands before, and I often felt pigeonholed as a queer, mixed-race woman of colour. And yeah, it’s like 'Canada’s multicultural,' so you get multicultural put on you.”

“It’s this double-edged sword where you say ‘sure, I’m multicultural, give me the sword.’ But then it’s way too heavy to carry because it means too many things and you can’t put it down because it’s too dangerous. The difference between us and some other groups is that because we couldn’t escape it, we embraced it. Like, I’m going to engage with this thing that you’re going to put on me. Let me take the weapon for a second. Let me show you how to use it. Or give me the sword, I’ll stab myself with it.”

UZU and its predecessor YT//ST combine the hybrid identities of the members into a slew of influences and slashes as reverent for anime as for Boris, as influenced by Chinese theatre as by KISS. Cohesively eclectic and impossible to summarize in a subgenre tag, it’s the aural version of true pluralism.

“People just want to grab one thing and paste because they can’t handle complexity or specificity,” says Alaska. And because it’s complex, it’s messy. “When I’m doing it, I can do whatever I want. I can make it fake, a total lie, and you’ll just accept it. Like, if I do it is it automatically authentic? Is it cultural appropriation when I do it? Because I’m Asian, but I’m from Alberta, so how Asian am I really?”

Yamantaka // Sonic Titan - "One" (Official Video)

Those pointedly, purposefully problematic interventions have also opened them up to criticism. Alaska recounts a specific online call-out from a non-native fan who took umbrage to Ange Loft’s description of “One” as “a send-up of the Iroquois social song as a statement about Idle No More” on CBC’s Q (Loft is a member of the Kahnawake Mohawk nation).

“If Ange wants to call it a send-up, it kind of is,” she says. “Taking a social song and presenting it to you in this format is not inappropriate, but it’s not entirely appropriate either. And that’s something we’re aware of. It’s putting things in a new context so they can't be revered in the same way anymore. This is not a legitimate pow wow experience for you. Nor is it illegitimate or inauthentic.”

A Tribe Called Red are more uniters than provocateurs, but they’ve faced similar criticisms for their remixing of sacred songs with contemporary beat-driven dance influences, separating them from the traditional drum, considered by many to be the heartbeat of the earth. But the group is careful about misappropriation: they have explicit consent from the drummers and singers on their recordings.

Besides, taking cultural elements that are at best admired at arm’s length — consider the “noble savage” archetype — and at worst caricaturized and mocked — the Hollywood representations of “Indians,” projected at ACTR shows — seizing control of them and and combining them with contemporary settings and genres removes the distance and recontextualizes them as living, breathing art forms. They’re not “revered” or “admired” on a reserve out of sight – they’re in the same clubs you are, indigenizing those spaces.

Let’s have the awkward conversation

Nobody said it was going to be easy. The music is just the start, what’s next is the conversation — and it’s going to be bumpy. The Junos are a huge place to take it (and also an easy target), but great as it is that the conversation is taking place on that national stage, it also has to take place in the bars, lofts and clubs across the country’s smaller, “inclusive” indie spaces.

There’s a myth that local arts scenes are safe spaces, that just showing up is the same thing as cultural exchange. Sometimes the most liberal-minded communities are the ones that can offend the most. Some promoters at ATCR shows, for instance, have been forced to put up signs banning fans from showing up in faux headdresses, war paint and redface.

A Tribe Called Red "The Road" (live) -- Polaris Music Prize 2013

“That’s a good thing in a way because it means we can address that,” says Campeau. “We’re able to talk about it now, publicly on Twitter, on Facebook, to the mic at a crowd. We’re able to call it out and to discuss what’s happening right now. I think that with what’s going down as we get more popular, we’re creating this really good platform between First Nations and non-First Nations in Canada to start discussing stuff. So we’re challenging a lot of peoples’ ideas on what First Nations are today, and obviously it’s met with some resistance, but there has to be confrontation in order to start discussion.”

For white indie rock fans, that confrontation also has to be staged internally. There’s a tendency in so-called liberal spaces to try to sidestep racism (“I don’t see colour”) or knee-jerk hard on the defensive when someone identifies something as culturally insensitive (do a quick Twitter search for #CancelColbert), but that just reinforces the existing structure. And as hard as it is to check your own privilege, it’s even harder for others to call it out.

“A lot of time is spent telling that person who is feeling that racism that they’re wrong, and a lot of the time that power dynamic is very awkward,” says Mecija. “It’s often white bodies telling racialized bodies that they shouldn’t feel hurt by racism.”

If you’ve spent much time in a music scene, you’ve probably seen this phenomenon in action before. You may have even perpetuated it. It manifests in defensive thinkpieces when a critic's award like the Polaris Prize is called “too white,” or vicious threads on the Facebook page of a cancelled African dance party. It’s all too easy to get bogged down in specifics, attempting to absolve yourself through argument, but that just avoids the real problem: the issue is systemic, it’s bigger than any one person. Challenging that pervasive ideology means first accepting that it exists, which requires setting aside individual ego in order to interrogate your own privilege. Passive "tolerance" isn't enough; the dialogue is necessary. It takes work, and no one is exempt.

It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with myself. Rock writing is fraught with unexamined gendered and racialized language, as well as assumptions about what constitutes “authenticity” — biases and questions that the majority white male indie rock community (of which I’m a part) often don’t have to face. Editors like me decide who gets coverage and who doesn't, and amongst the sea of dudes with guitars, there’s musicians like ATCR and YT//ST, artists imbuing their music with the complexity and diversity of modern Canadian life. It’s important not to drown their voices in a flood of "next Nirvanas."

“We tend to assume indie or fringe music is in a different situation, but it’s important to remember that the scene is still a reflection of the dominant culture,” says Alaska B. “It’s still largely white and normative. That’s the history. And that’s not the scene’s fault, but it’s going to be a long, slow climb.”

“I’m never trying to make art to exclude – I want everyone to be a part of it, but I’m not willing to give inclusion for free, either. You can take in our music and have your own opinion, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be okay with your opinion. You liking what I do doesn’t make me like what you do. If you’re going to be a fan and these questions get asked, I’m going to tell the truth.”

But according to Campeau the tide is changing: “Look at The Orenda being defended by Wab Kinew on Canada Reads, or all the native designers putting a modern twist on their roots in the field of t-shirt design, Idle No More,” he says. “We’re part of this huge movement that’s happening right now, like a big awakening.”

“Think about the civil rights movement in the States, you know, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’ It was heavy and it was big and it was the sound of a movement, which is kind of what we’re a part of right now. It’s really, really exciting to be a part of it."

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