Leonard Sumner has played a lot of different venues. From outdoor festival stages to bars and coffee shops: you name it, he’s played it.
But Sumner’s favourite places are far beyond the perimeter highway, away from the buzzing city. His preferred performance space? On reserves and in First Nations communities, talking with young people.
The Anishinaabe artist, who describes his music as “straight from the rez,” has travelled to towns and villages across the country to share his songs and talk about an important issue: suicide prevention.
“The effects of everything that has happened to First Nations - I get to see people that are building from that, and I get to see people that are still affected negatively,” said Sumner. “Maybe that’s why my music connects... I’m sharing stuff that’s real.”
'I think people have been getting made promises that have been broken for long enough, and people are sick of it. But now everyone has a voice.' - Leonard Sumner
Sumner recently released Rez Poetry, an album that deftly combines country, hip-hop, and a strong indigenous perspective. After emerging as a rising star in the Winnipeg music scene, it wasn’t long before community leaders began to ask him to come talk to their young people.
Sumner, who grew up on the Little Saskatchewan First Nation in Manitoba’s Interlake, says that he’s been floored by the reaction of many of the kids and teenagers he’s shared his music with.
“I’m always surprised when someone comes up and tells me a song that I wrote helped them,” said Sumner. “I mostly just tell through music the experiences in my life, and a lot of people seem to relate to that.”
Sumner thinks his music connects so deeply with young people because he shares a common experience.
“I’m supplying them with music that’s helping them - it’s coming from someone like them.”
Finding inspiration in indigenous movements
Back in Winnipeg, Leonard is an active figure in the city’s indigenous music scene. Having performed at a number of Idle No More rallies, he says that people are increasingly finding a way to share their stories and question Ottawa’s relationship with Canada’s first peoples.
At a recent event to support the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, Sumner shared his song They Say - a song about standing up and sharing your story as a strong indigenous person. It’s something that he’s seen happen in community after community.
“You know how a meteor is a big thing and then it hits the atmosphere and starts breaking up in to smaller pieces that land all over in different places? That’s what’s happening right now,” said Sumner. “People are realizing that they need to do things in their own communities.”
Hear Leonard Sumner on SCENE on Air on Saturday December 7 with host Bruce Ladan. The show airs every Saturday from 5 - 6 p.m. on CBC Radio One, 89.3 FM/990 AM/97.9 FM in Brandon.