Artist and activist iskwē starting the hard conversations in her positive electro-pop way

Having released a pair of acclaimed electro-pop albums — including the 2017 Juno-nominated The Fight Within — it’s safe to say that Winnipeg/Treaty 1-born singer-songwriter iskwē has firmly established herself as an artist at this point.

But there’s another “a”-word often affixed to her when discussing her music, one that carries perhaps a greater deal of weight when it comes to the words she things and the world she inhabits: activist.

It comes up in any discussion of how people see her, but is that how she sees herself?

“Oh, 100 per cent, it’s in my DNA,” she says and laughs. “My mom would argue that I’ve been an activist since I was born in how I would negotiate things in my own existence. Like, ‘I want to go this concert!’ ‘No, you’re not allowed.’ And then I’d circle around the house come back around and try to explain my position in another way until I was able to convince them that this is the right way, this is the appropriate way of viewing this or dealing with this.

“I practised on them in very self-focused ways as a child learning my negotiation skills and learning my ways to maintain my calm while talking about things that I found challenging, so that once my eyes opened to events that were bigger than my own individual self need I had started developing that skill set.”

Most of those bigger events have to do with her First Nation’s heritage, the Cree performer using her music, especially that aforementioned album, to tackle the issues that affect Indigenous people in this country; her website’s Google description is simply “iskwē — music to amplify indigenous thought.”

It is, she says, a path she’s continuing down with the new material she’s working on, which will be split into two EPs, one due in November, the second set for an early 2020 release, with the two then being put together for an album as one complete package later.

“We’re releasing it as two EPs because they’re going to be kind of like two different conversations that are taking place that are part of a cohesive story or a cohesive narrative,” she says, “but it’s sort of like Chapter One and Chapter Two.”

Hints to that first conversation and chapter can be found in the stunning single Little Star, which she released earlier this year.

It’s a haunting, plaintive pop song that was inspired by the murders of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, and an angry reaction to the media coverage surrounding the cases and the eventual acquittals of those charged — specifically a Globe and Mail headline that made an issue of the 15-year-old Fontaine having had alcohol in her system.

“It was interesting, when we wrote that song it just sort of fell out in what felt like moments,” she says of Little Star’s origins.

“I always say that there’s no such thing as a unique idea, it all just floats around above us and it’s a matter of who plucks it out of the sky first. And I feel like that song found its way to me and just fell for me as opposed to it be something that is mine to hold onto and really take all of the credit for. That story needed to be told and I got picked to be able to share it in that way.”

As is often the case with her music, she walks the line wonderfully between her roles as artist and activist, with iskwē infusing into the heavy subject matter some gorgeous imagery that relies heavily on her Cree culture — the entire idea of Little Star referencing the belief that shooting stars are the “coming and going of spirits from the walking to the sky world.”

The artist says she understands that sometimes these conversations can be “too heavy to digest” and does what she can to eventually take it to a place of optimism.

“The struggle that I find for myself is that I’m a really happy person and I have a good sense of humour and I like to joke and have a good time, and oftentimes with these songs I get caught in this position of, ‘Hey, here’s this really serious thing that we need to talk about, we need to look at, we need to address because it’s not changing, and why is that not changing?’ And then I try to find ways to have that conversation but to also bring a sentiment of hope in it as well.”

Fittingly, many of the Indigenous voices that are starting those conversations in this country these days are the artists, with the words of Louis Riel echoing through the work of iskwē, Tanya Tagaq, Snotty Nose Rez Kids and A Tribe Called Red, to name but a few: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

As to whether or not non-Indigenous Canadians are now willing to engage back, she says that’s an ongoing battle, but sees more and more of those coming to her shows ready to hear what she and others from the First Nation community have to say.

“People are more inclined to participate and listen and feel the response and feel that reaction than before,” she says.

“But I also pick up on how people still have a threshold of what they’re able to process. So even though this is our reality and this is something we’re forced to process all the time, I can see people tap out … I can see how overwhelming it can be for folks. And these people are choosing to be there knowing that I talk about the things that I talk about and I sing about the things I sing about — I am who I am.

“So they come openly and knowingly and honestly to these shows, but I can still see that moment where I’m, ‘OK, now’s the time where the conversation has become so heavy, you kind of go into an overload zone,’ like, ‘I can’t absorb any more of this.’

“And that’s a beautiful thing because it’s finding people’s limits and pushing them a little bit further because we don’t have the choice to turn those limits on and off.

She continues. “So I feel openness and that receptiveness, and then I also feel the limitation. But I don’t find that limitation offensive.”

(Photo courtesy Matt Barnes.)

iskwē performs Thursday, July 25 to Saturday, July 27 at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. For tickets and more information go to calgaryfolkfest.com.