Interview: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson bridges generations of Indigenous music

The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg musician and writer wins the Prism Prize's 2021 Willie Dunn Award, one of many accolades she's received recently


Every year, the Prism Prize recognizes the best music videos in Canada. It also gives out a handful of special awards to artists making waves in their own ways. Supported by Telefilm Canada, the Willie Dunn Award is presented to a Canadian trailblazer who has demonstrated excellence within music, music videos and film production. This year it will go to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

She might be the most perfect recipient the award could ever find. Not only did the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer and artist cover Dunn’s song I Pity The Country on her 2021 album Theory Of Ice, but she embodies his multi-disciplinary spirit and the spirit of Indigenous excellence. Like Dunn, who is finally being widely recognized for his moving folk songs and film work (his 1968 NFB short The Ballad Of Crowfoot is now considered one of this country’s first music videos), Simpson has taken her own path within the music, film and literary worlds – and, eventually, the recognition caught up.

Not only is she getting this Prism Prize award, but she’s on the long list for this year’s Polaris Prize and her latest book, Noopiming: The Cure For White Ladies, is shortlisted for Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction.

“I’ve come to music later in my life,” she says. “I’ve had to balance things like family and day jobs and other kinds of careers, writing and academics. Awards are not the reason you make art. For me, the spine of my work is this tremendous love for my own homelands and culture and language, and that doesn’t all fit neatly into different industries and genres. So to be doing this for so long and then all of a sudden there’s a buzz and you’re getting on lists, it’s a bizarre space to be in. But I’m very appreciative of it.”

Ahead of the 2021 Prism Prize, which will take place on July 26 at 8 pm at prismprize.com (see the shortlist here), we caught up with Simpson to talk about her various art practices, the influence of Dunn and why it’s important that we recognize Indigenous music from past to present – especially during this moment of reckoning around Canada’s cultural genocide and the shameful history of residential schools.

You’ve been very prolific during the pandemic, releasing both an album and a book. How does it feel to be awarded for it now?

It’s a weird time to be releasing new material. You’re in your bedroom on your computer speaking to yourself a lot of the time. So it’s pretty lovely to be recognized in this way, particularly because it’s attached to Willie Dunn. He has been such an amazing example of an Indigenous musician that has gone before me who made these amazing records without platforms, without a lot of support, who was able to do this in a way that was ethically sound according to his own activism and values and who made different decisions. And I think I’ve also made different decisions in my career, with this album and in the music industry. It’s pretty special to have played the game differently and still be recognized.

In the last five or so years, there’s been a lot more attention paid to Indigenous musicians, both now and of Dunn’s generation. What do you hope that people are hearing in these records?

Music is a foundation of how Indigenous people live in the world and build worlds. We as Indigenous people, as a nation of people, our political system, our economic system, our transportation, our food, our clothing – everything was built as this collective creative process. And music – singing and drumming and sound – is something that was and is a part of daily life. Everyone had their own stories, everyone had their own songs and everyone had their own voice. And it was not a commercial pursuit. It’s something that was practiced in order to bring people together, to weave different perspectives together, to move emotions around in a kind of collective way. It’s used to bring people together and so that everyone has a voice that is affirmed and heard. 

This idea that everybody is a songwriter or a singer, that’s something I really love in contrast to this contemporary idea that there are people who are the singer/songwriters and everybody else is the listener. That’s been a really generative space for thousands and thousands of years for Indigenous peoples. And so you see the breaking through of that with this last generation of Indigenous musicians, and now it’s this flourishing of Indigenous creativity. But I think the way that art is practised is a different way of building the world, a different way of living in the world, and I think those deeper politics and ethics have yet to permeate through.

I spent some time in the fall on the land in Denendeh in the Northwest Territories. Denendeh musician Leela Gilday was there and we were working with students as part of my work at the Dechinta. I love being in those Indigenous communities where sometimes there are long silences that would be awkward in any other situation. Maybe an elder whispers kind of a story. A song breaks out. There’s laughter, tons and tons of laughter and a sharing of food and a sharing of space. Those are the kind of spaces that I think about and exist in when I’m when I’m creating.

Willie Dunn especially is getting some overdue appreciation and re-evaluation with a number of his albums being re-released. I saw his song I Pity The Country is now taking on a new life as an anthem that resonates today. What made you decide to cover that song?

My band was asked to perform at Megaphono a few years ago when they were doing the Native North American gathering at the National Arts Centre. That was a highlight of my life to be in a show with all these old-timer Indigenous musicians that paved the way for Indigenous musicians of my generation. It was folks like Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback and Eric Landry, Alanis Obomsawin, Willie Mitchell. I decided to cover I Pity The Country to perform for just that moment because that was the one where I felt like I could stand up and speak those words into the mic and absolutely believe every line with all my heart and all my spirit.

I remember at soundcheck all of those old-timer musicians sat in the front row. I remember seeing tears in their eyes. I remember this voice in my head before I started saying ‘Leanne, who you think you are? How are you possibly going to do this justice in front of Willie Dunn’s friends and family?’ But they were just so supportive.

And then that night, we performed it as part of the show. And the verdict in the Colten Boushie trial, or I guess the Gerald Stanley trial, came down minutes, seconds before we took the stage. The Dunn family was there, there were all these pillars of the Canadian music industry and so many Indigenous faces in the audience as well. And everyone was just gutted. There was shock, there was horror. It was a moment in history. I remember just sinking into that moment, fully surrendering to that moment and doing this song. There was this collective energy and vibe combined with a mixture of horror and grief and anger and extreme sadness, and it created this version of the song that we wanted to record and capture after we got off the stage.

Now we’re living through another historical moment of reckoning with residential schools. Does that make the lyrics feel more resonant now?

We’ve been living through these moments for 400 years and we’ve been writing songs about them and we’ve been connecting to our own audiences. What’s different now is that Canadians are hearing and listening. For me, I hope that Willie Dunn is a gateway to so many other Indigenous artists and musicians from that generation and from this generation. I think that there’s like this incredible diversity of music and writing and art and filmmaking.

Part of your prize for the Willie Dunn Award is to spotlight an emerging artist. You chose Beatrice Deer. Why should people be paying attention to her right now?

People should be paying attention to Inuit women. I’ve learned so much from watching Inuit women perform and walk in this industry – from Tanya Tagaq to Piqsiq to Elisapie, and to Beatrice. They’ve created this incredible body of Inuit brilliance.

I love Beatrice for some of the same reasons that I love Willie Dunn. A lot of her songs are in Inuktitut, in her language. Her latest album, My All To You, is this gorgeous balance of truth-telling of some of the trauma of her own life with this practise of hope and practice of joy.

She has a video, Immutaa, where she takes her band and her film crew back home and films in a school. There’s so many hugs and laughter and joy, images that right now I think are just incredibly important. You see Inuit kids in all their potential, in all their hilarious brilliance. You see so much love. You see the opposite of the trauma and the images that are being piled on top of us right now around the residential schools. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

@trapunski

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