The extraordinary rise of Jeremy Dutcher: 2018 gave Canada the two-spirit Polaris prince we need
This year, the budding intersectional icon emerged as a powerful new queer Indigenous voice in Canadian music
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
As 2018 slowly crawls to its final hours, one of the more joyful things we can reflect on is the undeniable watershed year it's been for LGBTQ musicians. Thanks to the likes of Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko, Janelle Monae, Brockhampton and Years & Years, music made by queer folks has found space in mainstream culture — to varying degrees, at least — all around the world like it never has before. And Canadian artists are no exception. In fact, we may have even been a bit ahead of the curve.
In September, the Polaris Music Prize for best full-length Canadian album was given to two-spirit musician Jeremy Dutcher for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, an album performed entirely in his native Wolastoq language. Dutcher followed in the footsteps of Kaytranada (2016's 99.9%) and Lido Pimienta (2017's La Papessa), making him third Polaris winner straight to...not identify as straight. And while obviously comparing any of these artists to #20GAYTEEN (yes, that's a thing) pop stars like Troye Sivan is wholly unfair (after all, Dutcher's album is a post-classical rearrangement of traditional Indigenous music in a language fluently spoken by fewer than 100 people), the fact that they have been the last three winners of what is arguably our country's most prestigious music prize is wonderfully notable.
"It's so exciting, the kind of space that's really opened up in this music scene," Dutcher tells me. "For two-spirited artists, trans artists, queer artists...anyone under the umbrella. It's really incredible."
What's also incredible is Dutcher's year in general, of which the Polaris win is only one of many highlights. In November, for example, he got to perform at Joni Mitchell's 75th birthday party in Los Angeles.
"I got to meet her and we had an exchange for a good five minutes," he says. "Some of the most intense eye contact I've ever had. She's quite a powerful one."
For Dutcher, though, the year's true pinnacle came when he finally got to release Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, a genuinely extraordinary project five years in the making. A classically trained operatic tenor and composer from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Dutcher studied 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqiyik people singing their traditional songs. The album incorporated these recordings, writing musical arrangements around them.
"It has really been my work since graduating from music school. So I've just been really fixated on process, from the research element and the collection to the composition and my arrangements around them and then the recording element...It's all been leading up to this year."
Dutcher says being able to release something into the world that was so exceptionally on his terms was an unparalleled moment for him.
"I was very excited that it could connect in the way that it did," he says. "I really do believe that there's a lot of important stories and narratives coming out of Indigenous communities in this country that need to come forward at this time. This isn't always the case. I'm standing on the shoulders of many Indigenous musicians that went before — people like Buffy Sainte-Marie or more recently A Tribe Called Red. These people created space in the Canadian music industry and even in the imagination of a wider Canadian public of the diversity of Indigenous music. I think that allowed me to step into what I wanted to do."
When Dutcher won the Polaris Music Prize, his rousing speech included the declaration: "Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance. Are you ready to hear the truths that need to be told? Are you ready to see the things that need to be seen?"
Expanding on that now a few months later, Dutcher says that he believes he is part of something critical that Indigenous artists are saying at this time.
"This has been going on for a while," he says. "But I think it's really bubbling over now, and I think we are looking past the politics of recognition and we are really stepping into what needs to be said. And doing it on our own terms too — for instance, me doing this album in the language and not really translating it. Coming from our perspectives and knowing that is enough is something that's really beautiful. And you're not just seeing it in music — you're seeing it in literature and poetry and visual art...When I look at all of these disciplines in this country, all I'm seeing is Indigenous excellence. And I think we're at a very exciting time right now."
When we start to deconstruct the colonial narratives around gender and sexuality that were pushed by the church into our communities, we can start to understand the truer history of queer people in this land as [identities] that were revered and honoured.- Jeremy Dutcher
Dutcher also believes it's an exciting time for his fellow queer Canadian artists, and feels his specific identifying intersection of being both queer and Indigenous is a crucial for him to showcase.
"These are representations that certainly I never had," he says. "Coming from New Brunswick, there was not a whole lot of representation of who I was. And so for me trying to put that out there unapologetically and unashamedly...It might throw some off, but for me it's really critical to who I am as an artist and what I want to say."
Dutcher is "really looking forward" to engaging with his queer identity in his future work, and "everything that can look like."
"Certainly I think it's really important to acknowledge that two-spirit people and Indigenous queer identity have been a part of this landscape for a very, very long time, long before colonization. So I've been so honoured to be part of these communities and for me there's so many important stories that need to come, because being Indigenous and LGBTQ is an intersecting identity point that can tell us a lot."
Dutcher knows there are a lot of lessons that come from his perspective as it's pushed forward — lessons too many Canadians have not learned yet.
"When we start to deconstruct the colonial narratives around gender and sexuality that were pushed by the church into our communities, we can start to understand the truer history of queer people in this land as [identities] that were revered and honoured," he says. "We were totally integrated into community as spiritual people. So that for me is really important — to not be ashamed about who I am and how I want to be in the world."
Jeremy Dutcher is currently on tour promoting Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Find out where you can see him here.