Junos could do more to support Indigenous musicians, critics say

There are now two Juno Music awards for Indigenous musicians. The new categories revive questions about the validity of the awards themselves, and the Canadian music industry’s ability to honour and support Indigenous artists.

The Junos’ new Indigenous categories may be yet another source of celebration and contention.

Buffy Sainte-Marie at the 1993 Juno Music Awards, announcing a first category for Indigenous musicians, an award for 'Best Music of Aboriginal Canada.' (CBC Television/CARAS)

Since the first award for Indigenous music was handed out at the Juno Music Awards in 1994, the category has been a source of celebration and contention. This year's announcement of a new, second, category for Indigenous artists faces similar scrutiny.

To make space for more Indigenous artists and musical styles, the 2022 Junos now offers two categories for Indigenous submissions: one for Contemporary Indigenous music, and one for Traditional.

For many, it's welcome news. A new category means twice as many nominees — now 10, instead of five — and twice as many winners. 

"The more awards and the more spotlight on Indigenous artists, the better," said first-time Juno nominee Jayli Wolf. The Anishinaabe/Cree singer-songwriter's haunting solo EP Wild Whisper is nominated for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year.

However, the Junos' recognition of Indigenous musicians has been a long, slow evolution that some say hasn't moved fast enough. The first Indigenous category opened more than 20 years after the awards show launched in 1970. This second category comes another 28 years later.

Meanwhile, Indigenous artists "have been singing songs here on Turtle Island for probably thousands of years," said another first-time nominee, Nimkii Osawamick. His drumming group NIMKII & THE NINIIS is up for the new Traditional Indigenous music award. 

While the second award is applauded by those eager to see an additional Indigenous winner each year, it revives questions about the validity of the categories themselves, and the Canadian music industry's ability to honour and support Indigenous artists. 

Many believe the industry could still do far more to give Indigenous musicians the recognition and backing they deserve.

The Indige-niche debate

Indigenous music is, of course, not a genre. But some artists have long feared that's what the Junos category implies.

When Jeremy Dutcher won Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year in 2019 for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, he called out the limitations of the category during his acceptance speech.

Speaking to that year's Indigenous nominees, he told them "your work deserves to be considered outside of this category. Because our music is not niche." 

Alan Greyeyes, who runs the artistic and project management firm Ogichidaa Arts, says it's a common misconception that Indigenous artists can't or won't be considered outside of the Junos' Indigenous category.

"The main point of contention I hear from most Indigenous artists," Greyeyes said, "is that they're being 'pigeonholed' or 'ghettoized,' and that's simply not the case."

In 1995, for example, Susan Aglukark won Best New Solo Album. In 2014, A Tribe Called Red won Breakthrough Group of the Year. In 2017, William Prince won Contemporary Roots Album. In 2018, Shane Yellowbird was nominated for Country Recording of the Year. In 2021, Crystal Shawanda won the Blues Album, and the majority of Contemporary Roots nominees that year were Indigenous artists: Leela Gilday, William Prince, and Julian Taylor. 

The trouble is, some categories can be overloaded with submissions. Greyeyes sits on the Rap Album committee for the Junos and says it gets up to 200 submissions every year, including from many artists with large recording budgets and marketing campaigns. Only five are chosen as nominees. 

Take the Indigenous rap group Snotty Nose Rez Kids, for instance, which was nominated for the Indigenous category in 2019, and is nominated this year for Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year. When they submit to the rap music category, they're competing with "the Drakes of the world," Greyeyes said. "The odds are definitely stacked against [them]."

The Indigenous category has been a much-needed guarantee that at least one Indigenous artist would cross the stage. Now, the split categories of Traditional and Contemporary "makes it a little easier" for jurors to judge albums against each other, Greyeyes said. "Whereas before we used to have like Inuit albums against country albums, and country albums against powwow albums. Now, there's a little bit more clarity."

Jarrett Martineau, who hosts CBC Music's all-Indigenous radio show Reclaimed, doesn't entirely agree. He calls the new categories of Contemporary and Traditional "loaded terms" and says they raise questions like, "Who's determining what counts, in terms of what belongs where?" 

What's a trophy worth? 

Some feel the Junos don't do enough to support Indigenous artists.

Unlike the Polaris Music Prize, which gives $50,000 for the Canadian Album of the Year — a prize Dutcher won in 2019 — the Junos don't provide a monetary award. 

"I think there's incontrovertible evidence that an artist like [Jeremy Dutcher] is directly supported by having that cash investment in their career," said Martineau. "So you get both the recognition that we're talking about and also, in real economic terms, that actual support to continue making your art."

Winning a Juno can be bring an economic boost for an artist, who may book more live shows and sell more albums after their win, Martineau said. 

"But I think it would be even better if there was, like, an actual cash investment in the artist."

Jade Harper, who has worked with Manitoba Music, agreed: in order to truly boost Indigenous artistry, awards should help musicians finance their craft.

"That's what artists need and that's where the support really should be," Harper said.

The Junos could also support Indigenous artists further, Greyeyes said, by presenting the Indigenous awards on a larger stage, instead of at a smaller, untelevised ceremony the night before the main event. 

Greyeyes said he wonders whether the 2022 Juno Awards gala show will finally include the Indigenous categories. 

"That's something that I would want to make sure happens," he said.

However, television broadcasts themselves are losing viewers, especially among younger audiences, Greyeyes added. 

All awards shows are "fighting for their relevancy," he said. But he pointed out that Indigenous musicians and music producers across Turtle Island have developed their own means of recognizing the vast diversity of Indigenous music. 

"We had the Indigenous Music Awards here in Winnipeg. We've had the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in Toronto, and Indian Summer Music Awards in Milwaukee," he said. 

"So there is a history of us starting our own award shows."

Written by Kate Adach. Produced by Kate Adach, Erin Noel, Jasmine Kabatay, Shyloe Fagan, Kim Kaschor and Rosanna Deerchild.