6 Indigenous artists you need to know in 2021
Including a 2021 Polaris Music Prize longlisted artist and an electro-pop triple threat
*With thanks to Reclaimed host Jarrett Martineau for his consultation.
From a Cree/Salish singing TikTok sensation to a Mi'kmaq fiddler whose traditional songs inspire his original compositions to an Atikamekw musician who consulted elders and three "techno-linguists" for her new record, CBC Music is highlighting six new and emerging Indigenous artists you need to know in 2021.
Sebastian Gaskin's voice isn't just the feeling of the sun on your skin. It's that special kind of warmth that lingers and gives way to the slow glow of summer's night and a sky full of stars greeting the darkness one at a time.
The multi-instrumentalist's R&B is pure bliss, but don't be too quick to slot Gaskin into just one box. He's also influenced by metal, hip hop and punk, but he grew up in Tataskweyak Cree Nation, or Split Lake, Man., as it's also known, surrounded by a family full of musicians.
"All my aunts and uncles played the guitar, so they'd be around the house, singing and listening to music," Gaskin told Stingray. "I remember in Grade 3, my mom enrolled me in this after-school fiddle club and within a few months I'd already been moved up to the advanced class. So I think I always kind of had a knack for music."
Gaskin says his cousin, Tyler, got him into Metallica and he convinced his mom to buy him an electric blue First Act guitar.
"When I outgrew that, I tried to convince my mom to get me this black Epiphone SG that I saw on the wall at a barber shop we went to," Gaskin told Stingray. "She said I could get it when I showed her that I was actually progressing and becoming a better player, so it was a really good incentive to expand my knowledge and practise every day."
It worked. Gaskin writes and either produces or co-produces his own songs, and he created his own imprint, LieBoy Concepts, to release his 2019 debut EP, Contradictions.
Gaskin's newest release came out this past May, and it's a sweet and sexy cover of Daniel Caesar's duet "Best Part." Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning artist H.E.R. was featured on Caesar's track, and Gaskin called on fellow Winnipeg-based R&B singer-songwriter HAVS for his recording.
Jayli Wolf's story has all the makings of not just one movie or book, but probably five or six. Instead, Wolf has decided to channel part of her story into her "autobiographical" debut solo EP, Wild Whisper, and the result is a collection of songs that will move your body and fortify your spirit.
Heartbreak, strength, rage, joy, grief and resistance — they're like fingerprints on every song. Wolf is both the storyteller and the protagonist weaving together the threads of her family's story, and the intergenerational trauma and ongoing effects caused by the Sixties Scoop. According to Wolf, Wild Whisper also explores "leaving the doomsday cult I was raised in, releasing the shame and guilt instilled in me around my bisexuality, depression and mental health, post-traumatic growth, and reclaiming my Indigenous heritage."
Wolf, who is also an actor, belongs to the Saulteau First Nation, which is near Chetwynd, B.C., but she did not know that growing up. Her father was forcibly adopted out of his community, and he didn't know he was from the Saulteau First Nation either, nor was he part of Wolf's life growing up. Eventually he discovered his birth records and his birth family, and Wolf found out about her roots and she began her own personal journey of reclamation, part of which she documented on TikTok in a post that has more than 600,000 views so far.
"I finally have the courage to use my voice in telling these stories," Wolf writes on her website. "I hope this project will be able to shed more light on the subject matters, raise awareness, and bring comfort in solidarity with other survivors of the 'Sixties Scoop', sexual abuse and high-control religious groups."
Morgan Toney is a 21-year-old Mi'kmaq fiddler from the We'koqma'q and Wagmatcook First Nations in Nova Scotia. Toney was a drummer first, and when he picked up the fiddle, it was a difficult transition. But he kept practising, and soon the fiddle was almost like a homecoming. Almost literally, in fact, because it was only when his family saw the instrument in his hands did the stories start spilling out that Toney actually came from a long line of fiddle players, including his great uncles and great grandfather.
"Stories weren't brought up until I picked up the fiddle and that's the only influence I need right now to keep playing," Toney told Saltwire in 2020.
According to CBC's East Coast Music Hour's The Story and the Song, Toney made a name for himself when he "seemed to come out of nowhere and share the stage with Ashley MacIsaac, opening the live-streamed Celtic Colours Festival in 2020." MacIsaac has a fiddle solo in Toney's first lyric video, which he just released this past April, in anticipation of his debut album.
In that interview with Saltwire, Toney said "I just have this dream, and this dream is to keep the music strong in our Mi'kmaq nation." His debut album, First Flight, which Toney released last month, feels like a manifestation of that dream. The title is inspired by Toney's "Spirit Name, Nutkwe'k Kitpu, which translates to Young Eagle" and the record is an incredible mix of original compositions and traditional songs.
Every time Laura Niquay makes music, she is honouring her gifts. .
"I inherited my family's talent," Niquay told SOCAN's Words & Music magazine. "I was born to be a messenger. That's my talent and it's important to value the talent you have."
The Quebec-Atikamekw artist recently released her second full-length solo record, Waska Matiwisin, which is Atikamekw for "circle of life." Niquay's mesmerizing voice burns like the deep embers at the heart of a fire, raging in the album's louder, almost punk moments ("Eki Petaman") and offering a warm glow in its quieter, more introspective ones ("Aski") and dancing in the sparks on the reggae-jazz-traditional Indigenous fusion of "Nicim" featuring Shauit.
The album, which is on the 2021 Polaris Music Prize long list, is sung entirely in Atikamekw, and Niquay spent three years working on it, including rigorous research and consultation with elders and "techno-linguists" or "three Atikamekw women who specialize in the field," Niquay explained to SOCAN's Words & Music magazine. "Our nation has three distinct communities that all speak Atikamekw slightly differently. I have nephews and nieces who live in the city, and who are slowly losing the use of our language, and this affects me a lot. It's important for me to sing properly in our language."
Hussein Ahmed, a.k.a. Handsome Tiger, is a producer/DJ of Anishinaabe Métis/North African descent and a fixture of Vancouver's bass scene. But just as he was on the verge of graduating to much bigger stages, COVID-19 came along and many people went home and stayed there.
Ahmed explained the personal effects of the pandemic to Citrus Magazine: "I haven't been working my day job, which sucks because I enjoy my day job as well. So, that aspect has given me so much more time for music, which is kind of a blessing in disguise. Usually around this time I would be hunkering down and worrying about sets for Bass Coast or Shambhala and kind of more streamlined (in my process). Because all of those (festivals) aren't happening, I've just fully been focusing on just making music. Not as much DJing. I've done the odd live stream, like I said, but I've really been focusing more on going to the studio every day for 10-plus hours some days and just trying to create every day. I've definitely made almost more music in the last couple months than I have all year, which is awesome. It's (also) been a big thing of acceptance, just like, 'OK this stuff isn't happening.' It has reaffirmed for me that I want to keep working on my goals. All of this sucks but I'm not going to stop making music just because of this."
Ahmed continued posting tracks to his Bandcamp and SoundCloud pages, and ultimately released his debut full-length record, Foundations, in October 2020. He's already making strides toward his Handsome Tiger followup album, First People, due sometime in 2021, and he's offering a glimpse of what fans can expect of his "Indigenized tunes" with the two-song EP, Landback, a soul-stirring, layered blend of electronic bass, beats and powerhouse powwow samples.
Tia Wood is no stranger to the spotlight. A gifted dancer, Wood first came to international attention in 2017 when she was chosen as one of the lead dancers for one of the biggest powwow events in the world: the Gathering of Nations Powwow, which welcomes tens of thousands of attendees over the course of two days. Wood, then 17, organized a special red dress dance performance alongside 150 fellow dancers to honour Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. "Native women are placed at the bottom of society with really no power," Wood told CBC. "I want to help restore Indigenous women to places of honour."
With that mission in mind, it's no surprise that Wood, now 21 years old, has taken her message to TikTok — and the platform has proven the perfect stage from which Wood has become a global sensation. The Cree-Salish dancer has a commanding voice, and has added singer to her list of talents, but she's also a brilliant cultural conveyer, showcasing her culture and tradition — including incredible regalia — to more than two million followers and counting.
But TikTok sensation wasn't part of Wood's big plan. In an interview with Vogue last December, Wood explained, "My videos were just for fun at first, but once I started gaining a following, I started noticing the lack of awareness among non-Indigenous people. Things such as cultural appropriation and issues happening inside the Indigenous community, and stereotypes in the mainstream media. So I began making content that was dedicated to educating about those topics."
Wood, who is now based in Vancouver, grew up in Saddle Lake Creek Nation, Alta., in a musical family. On TikTok she'll perform songs her father wrote, as well as her own pieces. For Wood, dance and music have always been part of her family and her culture.
"I have been singing ever since I could talk," Wood told Vogue. "I grew up in a family of singers, such as Northern Cree, Randy Wood, and Fawn Wood, and both my parents are singers as well. It was inevitable to pick up. When we were little, it was normal to hear powwow, peyote, handgame and poetry in the background, whether we were crafting, eating dinner, or playing outside. My parents introduced us to the songs and poetry of Kevin Yazzie, Louie Gonnie, John Trudell, A. Paul Ortega, and many drum groups. My mom was actually a part of an all-girls drum group at a time when it wasn't really accepted, so I feel like that had a huge impact on why and how my sisters and I sing. We also would do a lot of shows as a family, as a way to practise and put food on the table as a tribe of six."