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How The Campaign Against Cultural Appropriation Came Back to Haunt Canada’s Indigenous Peoples

The debate over cultural appropriation isn’t unique to Canada. But my country does seem to have a particular sensitivity to the issue—especially when it comes to white people allegedly appropriating elements of Indigenous culture. And in recent days, the phenomenon has broken new ground entirely, with a high-profile controversy involving alleged appropriation taking place entirely within Canada’s Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous Music Awards (IMAs) are part of the larger Manito Ahbee Festival in Winnipeg, a gathering that “celebrates Indigenous culture and heritage to unify, educate, and inspire.” Conceived as a Juno Awards for Canada’s First Nations people, these awards do not focus solely on traditional music, but feature a broad range of categories such as Best Blues Album, Best Music Video, and Best International Indigenous Release. Because Canada’s Indigenous music scene is still a niche sector within the larger Canadian music industry (which is itself tiny compared to its American counterpart), the Indigenous Music Awards typically pass under the radar of most Canadians. But not this year—thanks to Cree artist Cikwes, who’s been nominated in the Best Folk Album category for her album ISKO.

Cikwes is the stage name of Connie LeGrande, a fluent Cree speaker who identifies as Nehiyaw (a sub-group of Cree). She describes her musical background as “rooted in Woodland Cree traditions, with creative influences ranging from throat singing, jazz, soul, [R&B] and reggae.” She sings in both English and Cree. Like the many other artists who find inspiration in multiple styles and genres, LeGrande transforms disparate influences into something completely original. This includes a form of throat singing, an art traditionally practiced by Inuit people in Canada’s north.

Canada’s Indigenous peoples comprise hundreds of distinct communities. These communities tend to self-classify in several broad categories, of which the Inuit are one. Another large category is First Nations, which includes the Cree. And it is in this distinction that the current controversy is rooted.

Five Inuit artists, including Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, have lobbied both LeGrande and the event organizers to pull IKSO from the folk music category—on the claim that LeGrande, being First Nations, is guilty of culturally appropriating a distinctive Inuit art form. So far, both LeGrande and the organizers have refused to give in, which has led Tagaq and others to boycott the IMAs. Tiffany Ayalik and her sister Kayley Mackay, who perform as the duo PIQSIQ, withdrew their album Altering the Timeline from consideration in the Best Electronic Music Album category, telling the CBC that “We came to the IMAs with the concern about cultural appropriation in one of the categories. There is a non-Inuk [singular of Inuit] singer who is appropriating Inuit throat singing. It’s very insensitive and wrong to have an organisation like the IMAs celebrating an artist who isn’t Inuk, who isn’t doing it properly, and who isn’t doing it with the respect and the context and the history that should be informing throat singing.”

Throat singing is a distinctive vocal style that, in Canada, originated as a form of competition between Inuk women. Traditionally, two women arranged in a face-to-face formation would chant short syllables and sounds that often mimicked animals and birds until the loser ran out of air and faltered. Variations of the practice are performed in Mongolia and Tibet—where it sometimes is referred to as “overtone singing.” As with many Indigenous cultural practices, the history of throat singing is tied up with colonial attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples: The practice was at one point banned outright by Christian missionaries, but has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades as Indigenous peoples reclaim their traditions. Tagaq herself won the prestigious Polaris Prize for her 2014 album Animism, a record based largely on Inuk throat singing. Ayalik has called throat singing a radical act of political defiance, as well as a way to connect with her sister.

Before going public with their concerns, PIQSIQ and Tagaq apparently first contacted LeGrande privately last month. According to the Toronto Star, LeGrande—who was first inspired to throat sing after watching a Tagaq performance—took the issue seriously, going so far as to consult the elders in her community, Bigstone Cree Nation in northern Alberta. The Star reports that these elders encouraged her to pursue the musical style, explaining that such an art is a gift from the Creator, and that narrow notions of cultural ownership are the product of a colonial European mindset.

I am a white musician who has no personal stake in this controversy. But I do have an interest in the unsettling trends within the larger Canadian music industry that have led to this moment, some of which I described in a 2018 article for Quillette. In that article, I described how Canada’s cultural funding bodies have indirectly encouraged a race-focused approach to music creation. These programs appear well-intentioned on the surface, but they have the inevitable effect of fracturing identity groups into smaller and smaller sub-categories. Observers have been warning that this increased siloing effect would hurt the people it was intended to help, and it is unfortunate to see them proven right.

The idea of segregating musical styles by race sits in opposition to what we know about the way music is made—which is often through cultural cross-pollination. The guitar as we recognize it today was first created in the United States as an evolution of designs that had been developed in Europe since the Middle Ages in the form of mandolins and other stringed instruments. In time, the instrument was taken up by freed American slaves, who combined traditional spirituals, work songs and field calls with African rhythmic structures and melodic influences from Euro-American folk music. The blues were born, laying the foundation for most of the popular musical genres of the 20th century and beyond. Everything you hear on the radio today is a product of these endless forms of “cultural appropriation.”

Elvis Presley grew up poor in Tupelo, Mississippi before moving to Memphis. Both places had large African-American populations. His signature sound combined country music with sounds and styles he heard from his African American neighbours. It was this new fusion that brought out white audiences in droves, and eventually helped open the door for black artists who’d been cut off from mass audiences by racist music-industry gatekeepers.

The Rolling Stones were often accused of ripping off black artists when developing their British fusion of blues, R&B and 60s rock. But there is a blurry line between appropriation and homage. And it’s notable that the Stones frequently supported, and collaborated with, the black artists who’d inspired them. Similarly, members of Talking Heads participated in various multi-racial 1980s incarnations featuring musicians who’d inspired their own work. Even in the contemporary Canadian scene, the unique style of artists such as Lido Pimienta has emerged through a fusion of styles. Pimienta’s success as a solo act likely is at least partly rooted in her early years singing in heavy metal and hardcore bands in Colombia before finding her niche in Canada.

In music—as in most other areas of the arts—there is never a truly new thing. Everything is, to some extent, a mash-up of things that came before. To suggest that artists should stay in their lane, ethnic or otherwise, is effectively to demand an end to new forms of music.

As noted, LeGrande has refused to pull her album from the awards, in spite of the pressure being applied. “I don’t know how such a beautiful experience has turned into such an evil thing,” she told the Star. LeGrande should be applauded for taking this position. But she likely will pay a price for doing so. Canada’s music community is a small place; the field of Indigenous music yet smaller. Her stance likely will have serious repercussions for her career, especially when she next seeks a government grant. And so I would urge other artists to stand with her in solidarity—because while she will pay 100% of the price for hewing to principle, the benefits associated with stemming the tide of cultural-appropriation accusations would be shared by all musicians.

While the Indigenous Music Awards has stuck by Le Grande, its public statements have been far from definitive. Instead, they have vaguely declared that they “don’t presume to agree or disagree on this matter at this time, as it requires great reflection, ceremony and discussions on how we move forward in a good way, to ensure that we as Indigenous people uphold our teachings, and do not provide a platform for negativity and separation.” And so it is reasonable to fear that, ultimately, the battle might be won by the side that kicks up the biggest fuss on social media. Which suggests that now is a good time for Canadian musicians seeking greater artistic freedom to make their views known.

For generations, Indigenous peoples in Canada have been under cultural assault by assimilationist governments. It is sad and ironic that the latest hurdle to spreading their unique cultures hasn’t been put up by white politicians, missionaries or bureaucrats, but by Indigenous people themselves.

Neil Gray is an independent musician, producer and writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @sawthedust. His previous articles for Quillette include The Purity Spiral of Canada’s Music Industry.

Featured image: Tanya Tagaq performs at the Festival Barroquísimo in Puebla, Mexico, in 2010.