Show of strength

R&B singer Inez puts her Native roots on display.

R&B singer Inez puts her Native roots on display

Singer-songwriter Inez scooped up four prizes at the recent Aboriginal People's Choice Music Awards, and is nominated for three more at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. ((Nadya Kwandibens) )

At the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards (APCMAs) in Winnipeg earlier this month, B.C.-based singer-songwriter Inez Jasper worked the stage with talent and poise. Clad in black and violet leather and backed by an impressively choreographed dance routine, she belted out her slinky dance-pop hit Breathe in front of an audience of about 4,000 people.

That night, Jasper — who simply goes by Inez — scored an impressive four awards: best new artist, best pop CD (Singsoulgirl), best album cover and single of the year (Breathe ).

Just one album into her career, the artist of Stó:lō, Métis and Ojibwa heritage has already established herself as a musical force. Inez won the top prize (and $10,000) at the National Aboriginal Day Talent show in Ottawa in 2008, and was recognized as a national aboriginal role model the same year.

This Friday, she’ll be in Hamilton, Ont. to perform at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, the largest such event in North America, and there is little doubt in Indigenous country that Inez will win even more glory. She is vying for hardware in three categories: best blues album, best female artist and best album cover design.

Where aboriginal musicians such as Buffy Sainte Marie, Redbone and Peter Lafarge fought to take a stand in society, newer artists such as  Inez are taking a different stance.

"I’ve always been taught it’s not about wearing an aboriginal symbol on your shirt or a feather in your hair — it’s about knowing who you are in your heart and carrying that pride wherever you go," Inez explains from her home in Chilliwack, B.C. While the tunes on Singsoulgirl have echoes of Beyoncé and Canada’s Lights, Inez’s songs also make direct references to her Stó:lō background. In addition to the uplifting ballad Sto:lo Strong, there’s Stick Game Jam, in which she sings about her people’s gambling tournaments. Stick or bone games are unique to Stölo and other indigenous tribes and are accompanied by fast paced hand  drum songs to spur players on.

Inez says her music is "about representing my people, and giving other people who relate to me a chance to be inspired and make their dreams come true, too."

A new mom juggling a career and a family, the 28-year-old singer faces challenges shared by other young aboriginal women – but she has an image to maintain and it’s not something she takes lightly.

"Because of experiences such as residential schools, our image as aboriginal people has been skewed, so we have to work hard to repair it, heal it and change the way we see ourselves," she says.

Inez melds mainstream pop with sounds inspired by her Sto:lo heritage. ((Nadya Kwandibens) )

Inez and her contemporaries are focused on setting a positive example and highlighting their talent rather than taking a political stand. In both her lyrics and in media interviews, country singer Crystal Shawanda, who won the Canadian Country Music Association’s female singer of the year award for 2009, sheds light on her culture, identity and struggles as an Ojibwa woman. "Music was my hope. It saved me, and it became a doorway for me to find freedom from the hopelessness that we all felt on the reservation," she says on her web site.

Hellnback, a young Cree man who is part of the Juno-nominated hip-hop group Team Rezofficial, doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. "I hate the term ‘Native hip hop’ — it’s like people are saying, ‘He has done good for a Native, but not as a musician,’" he says. "I’d rather be nominated for best hip-hop group, not just best aboriginal hip-hop group."

"Even just 10 years ago, the sheer number of contemporary native musicians was small — hence, so was the scope of the content in the music," says Carrielynn Victor, also Stó:lō and a singer with the rap group Rapsure Risin. "Now, there are more natives coming up and out, so more views are presented."

Inez grew up on the Skowkale reserve in British Columbia. Her mother and father are both musicians, and at age three, Inez was enrolled in classical violin lessons – not to learn violin per se, but in the hopes that the skills would transfer to fiddling, a tradition practised by her Métis grandfather. But Inez got bored, and after attempts with other instruments, she realized that her preferred form of expression was her voice.

It wasn’t until she was studying for her nursing degree at the University of British Columbia in 2002 that Inez realized her potential. She was commissioned to sing the national anthem at university sports games, which exposed her to the thrill of roaring applause.

"I would be standing there and the crowd would be going wild, you could barely hear me singing the anthem over the cheers. But the applause was not for me, it was for the team," she recalls. "That’s when I realized, this is what I want – to be belting out my song with the fans cheering for me."

That was certainly the case at the APCMAs earlier this month. And when she hits the stage in Hamilton this Friday, this young talent is bound to get another rapturous reception.

The Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards take place in Hamilton, Ont., on Nov. 27.

Angela Sterritt is a writer and broadcaster based in Vancouver.