Arts·Year in Review

Looking for light in the cracks of mainstream culture: Musician Rae Spoon on a tumultuous 2016

From chaotic political times to tremendous losses in the music community, Rae Spoon reflects on a year that challenged their optimism.

'It wasn't an easy year for optimism'

Rae Spoon. (Foxx Foto)

This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by award-winning musician, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and author Rae Spoon.

I just woke up on an airplane to the thud of my coffee cup sliding from my hands to the floor. I quickly assess the damage and see it only spilled a bit. Usually I don't fall asleep with coffee in my hands, but I'm tired. This year — 2016 — hasn't been easy, especially for a musician. It wasn't an easy year for optimism. So many bright lights went out, and the artist-run spaces I often play in feel even more precarious after the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Spaces like those are the ones I played in when I wasn't accepted on other stages and are still my favourite venues.

It's been a hard year in so many ways. The ugliness of racism showed in the backlash against Black Lives Matter members who stopped the Toronto Pride March requesting that police officers march without their guns and uniforms to make space for the LGBTQ folks who have been systemically criminalized. I watched the protests at Standing Rock on livestream video when unarmed water protectors, trying to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline off of their ancestral land, were attacked repeatedly by law enforcement. Then, late in the year, the most powerful country in the world elected Donald Trump to be president. It was a year that made me focus less on tomorrow and more on the present, because the future felt too precarious and the present so dangerous.

It was a year that made me focus less on tomorrow and more on the present, because the future felt too precarious and the present so dangerous.- Rae Spoon

Earlier this week I played my final concert of 2016 at a theatre in Germany. I read from one of my books, Gender Failure, and heard parts of my writing read aloud in German by the publisher who translated it. I also presented some music videos I made with director Chelsea McMullan. One of the videos is for a song I wrote about how when I was near Leonard Cohen's house, I used to look at his windows to see if any of his lights were on. I admired his songs. His departure is surreal to me — another part of this strange year — even though I never met him or saw him play.

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Six hours after packing up the stage, I'm on a plane to Victoria, where I'm falling asleep without noticing. My shoulders are aching from all of the gear I carry in a giant backpack. I'm shedding being misgendered over a month of touring and throughout my journey home. I know there are parts of my identity that carry a lot of privilege, and others that create a distance between me and most of the people I've ever met — especially my refusal to identify as a woman or a man. In my tired body I feel the effort it takes me to make space for my identity while writing and making music as much as I can. I live in the cracks of accepted identities and play in the spaces overlooked by the commercial music and literature industries, and so do most of my friends. The same machine that has always been grinding is now making an even wider gap between the people who have the money to work full-time on creative pursuits and the people who make art in spite of everything while supporting others in marginalized spaces.

When I was living in Montreal I spent an afternoon sitting outside Leonard Cohen's house with a friend from Saskatchewan, talking about Canada, music and colonialism until I sunburned my arms. Now that Cohen is gone, I have to find a new place to sit and respect poetry. I know there are hundreds of poets, writers and musicians I have never heard of who aren't given enough space. Marginalized artists should be our leaders. They have been making art and existing without support from the establishment, and they are the ones with the wisdom on how to survive the coming years. There are so many amazing, talented artists in Canada that have never been given the status of giants, even though they deserve it. I know I will spend 2017 looking for these light in the cracks of mainstream culture.

Rae Spoon is an award-winning Canadian musician, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist and author. They have released eight solo albums spanning folk, indie rock and electronic over the past twelve years and have toured across Canada and internationally. They have been nominated for two Polaris Prizes, a Lambda Literary Award, a Western Canadian Music Award, a CBC Radio 3 Bucky Award and a MOTHA Transgender Musician of the Year Award.