How Shawnee Kish reclaimed herself
'I was closeted in every sense of the word… and now everything has changed for me'
She was a child when she began performing as a Shania Twain impersonator, and a teenager when she fronted her cover band. By the time Shawnee Kish signed her first music industry deal in her early 20s, it seemed like all of her dreams were coming true.
In reality, Kish had what she wanted, but not what she needed — until now.
It's been a long, slow, and radical reclamation process for Kish to not only know who she is, but also know her value, purpose, and power.
In the beginning, she remembers being in offices and rooms at a major label, surrounded by men in the music industry — "obviously not the right ones," Kish laughs — who wanted her to conform to their ideals of what constituted a beautiful young woman; from how she represented herself to the way she looked and sounded, to the story of her life.
"I lost focus of who I was," Kish tells CBC Music via Zoom. "I lost myself in all that for a little bit… I fell for it. 'I can make you famous, I can make you with the world's best Shawnee,' and it's like, 'No, you can't, you don't you have any idea what I can be, because only I know that.'"
Kish, who is a queer, Mohawk, two-spirit woman, says the aforementioned major label men also encouraged her to stay closeted. It provoked deep insecurity, and left her questioning not just who she was but how she could possibly fit in.
"I remember feeling so confused," Kish says. "But I wanted music to be my life. I wanted it to be my future. I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I felt like in that moment, I had to do what they wanted me to do, because that was how I was going to get it. And it was wrong, because that was exactly the opposite of what I needed to be doing."
Kish recalls one particular directive from the room with regards to her music and image: "Men need to feel like they're invited, too." This literal centering of the male gaze has partly inspired Kish's fiery feminist anthem, "Mr. Tie," which features lines like, "You're that kind of guy/ You like the last word make it hurt/ You really are a piece of work well/ So am I."
"Mr. Tie," which was just released a couple months ago, is new for 2022, but Kish has been working towards this moment since she mustered the courage to walk away from her deal. She was depressed and unhappy and eventually she started pushing back. "The more I tried to be more of myself, the more it didn't work for them," Kish says. The friction grew until the relationship dissolved, and it ultimately made Kish feel more pride in who she is.
"Because of that experience, I've learned now what it means to be an independent, female two-spirit, Indigenous artist, and I get to walk in any room now and say, 'This is what it is,'" Kish says. "And I because I lead with my heart now, in everything that I do, I know the value of it, I know the importance of it, to never lose sight of it. And I don't have to win awards. I don't have to be on big stages, I don't have to fill rooms. I just need to know that there's one person there that my journey has touched in a way that's changed their life for the better. I can wake up every day and I do this because it gives me so much joy and life and air that I'm good."
Kish says that she also struggled with her identity growing up, as well as her surroundings and her emotions. She was very vulnerable and she needed hope. She went to therapy and medications were offered, but nothing gave her a sense of real connection and meaning until she fully embraced music.
"That was when I knew that it was my medicine," Kish says. "It was my medicine to take, and it was my medicine to give. And that's what keeps me going."
Kish admits that she feels vindicated in her decision to walk away from that major label and navigate her own path. She won the 2020 CBC Music Searchlight competition, and was selected to be part of the Allan Slaight Juno Master Class for artist development in 2021. That same year, Kish also married Olympic rugby champion Jen Kish, and released her debut, self-titled EP which earned her a 2022 Juno Award nomination for contemporary Indigenous artist of the year. Not to mention the social media following Kish has racked up on TikTok and Instagram.
"I get goosebumps because of it, I really do," Kish says. "To look back on that time of my life, and how closeted I was, in every sense of the word: as an Indigenous person, as a two-spirit person, as a female. Like, in every sense of the word, I was closeted. Now everything has changed for me, everything."