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New doc series aims to amplify Indigenous voices through song

Amplify connects Indigenous artists from across cultures and mediums, including musicians Lacey Hill, Iskwē, Melody McKiver, Nick Sherman, Leonard Sumner, Shawnee and more.

Musician Shawnee was able to 'find peace' with her two-spirit identity as part of Amplify

Musician and recent Searchlight winner Shawnee interviewed as part of Amplified. (Courtesy )

A new doc series, Amplify, explores the depths of Indigenous identity through the lens of a number of different artists. From the environment and sports to racism and resistance, each episode is a journey into a given topic, with music being at the centre of it. The premise was inspired in part, says creator Shane Belcourt, by two entirely different documentaries. 

"I was watching and loving an HBO documentary series for Foo Fighters fans, Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways, and then the other one was on Netfilx, Chef's Table. I just thought, wouldn't it be great if we didn't try to do a Wikipedia biography, here's a singer-songwriter and here's what they've done, because we know those docs," he says. "What if it's less about their whole life and more about just one thing that they connect to ... one thing they are inspired by [that's] Indigenous — a painting, a book, a poem, a teaching, a life lesson, whatever it might be."

Each of the 13 episodes of Amplify connects songwriters with knowledge keepers and artists from other mediums in order to share ideas, with the end result being the creation of a new song based on the theme. Musicians include Lacey Hill, Iskwē, Melody McKiver, Nick Sherman, Leonard Sumner, Shawnee and more.

It debuted on Sept. 11 and airs every Friday on APTN, and was shot in the spring of 2018, well before COVID-19 would make any of these in-person connections impossible. For example, Mohawk singer-songwriter Shawnee, who won CBC Music's Searchlight competition earlier this year, explores her two-spirit identity through a sweat lodge ritual with other community members on the banks of the Humber River in Toronto. It's led by Ojibwe-Cree elder and author Ma-Nee Chacaby with additional insight from Cree-Métis two-spirit mentor Blu Waters.

"It scared me so much to talk about that vulnerability of learning who I am," says Shawnee. "In these past couple of years, I've just sort of made this pact with myself that If I'm going to be an artist, to challenge myself to really deep dive into the art and the most vulnerable parts of who I am, and with this project, that definitely that happened."

She says that meeting both Chacaby and Waters was life-changing, and she couldn't have written her song, "Way Home," a sombre, empowering anthem about being lost and finding yourself, without their knowledge. 

I feel entirely different ... I finally found it: my peace with being two spirit.- Shawnee

"They were crucial to that entire process because both people offered a sense of understanding and safety and knowledge, not just the two-spirit person today, but a two-spirit person throughout the history that Indigenous people have celebrated through our ancestors," she says. "I often like to think about if it ever gets confusing in today's world, my today life… where would I sit back then, when it was about community and it was about keeping each other safe and keeping each other going."

After the process, Shawnee was directly inspired to write a song about "the two-spirit community coming together, coming back to the fire and remembering yourself and each other," she says. "I feel entirely different after doing that. I finally found it: my peace with being two-spirit."

Providing a 'sense of community'

Multi-disciplinary artist Cheryl L'Hirondelle says it's particularly important now for Indigenous artists to be making these connections because it wasn't always possible when she was starting out in the '90s.

Cree Multi-disciplinary artist Cheryl L'Hirondelle connected with the sounds of nature as part of her collaboration on Amplified. (Courtesy)

"When I was in my twenties, there was such a dearth," she says. "There was really very little out there to draw from if you were in the arts, and even less if you were in any sort of native science […] And now we're in this beautiful place where there are so many writers, there's so many musicians."

The self-described "Cree half-breed" artist is featured in the first episode of Amplify, which aired Sept 11 and is now available online, and was inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer's book 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer's book examines plants and botany through the lens of Indigenous tradition and science, and gave L'Hirondelle the language she needed to compose her song, "Gchi Miigwech Maskihkiya" (translated roughly to English as "big thank you to the medicines"). The song, which features traditional vocalizations and hand drum, is sung in both Cree and Anishinaabe, serving as an acknowledgement to nature's power as well as a promise to look after it. 

"Because I was in Ontario, in Toronto proper, the land of the Mississaugas, which is Anishinaabe, I challenged myself to actually write half of the song in Anishinaabe," she says, while the other half was written in Cree. "That was part of my process with Robin as well. Because she's also speaks [Anishinaabe], I asked her if she could give me some sounds in her language that she thinks the Earth is starving to hear." 

Her song explores the connection between language and plants, and was inspired by Kimmerer's idea that every plant has its own song. 

"If you think of it, Indigenous languages are so tied to land," says L'Hirondelle.There's a relationship between how language is spoken and uttered and phrased based on the land, so there's a deep relationship there already."

She says it was important that her and Kimmerer started off Amplifed because "we're kind of the old ladies of the whole series. And then after that, you'll see a lot younger people." 

Shawnee adds that the entire process of connecting artists from different generations and mediums really helped to provide "a sense of community and a sense of hope […] So you get to learn through people's journeys and the things that they face and the things that they've overcome, and it's inspiring. I think it's really important to listen to our elders and listen to our peers and stay open and connect."

While connection is ultimately what's at the heart of the series, it also allowed the musicians involved a chance to amplify another artist's work. 

"If you show up at a songwriter's doorstep and you say, 'Hey, tell me what's great about you,' nobody wants to do that," says Belcourt. "But for them to have an opportunity to amplify the idea or voice or creation of somebody else that they admire, that was so easy for them to do. By seeming to be objective, they're revealing their subjective lens, which is even more personal."


Amplifed airs every Friday on APTN. For a full episode guide go to APTN.ca

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