By Liam Prost
CALGARY — Indigeneity is the most visible element of isKwé’s musical personae, her name means “Woman” in Cree, and her performances incorporate indigenously-anchored facepaint, but she also identifies strongly with the Irish half of her family, and draws commonalities between the two. She identifies “parallels” between the colonizers of Canada, and the English occupation of Ireland, and specifically the systematic erasure of the native languages in both. isKwé’s eloquence in bridging cultures and communities this way makes her a figure to be paid attention to, and her music commands just as much attention and respect.
isKwé hails from Winnipeg, as so many of Canada’s most exciting indigenous artists do. Despite the Peg’s mixed pop-cultural reputation, it is a fantastic incubator space for a variety of reasons, and even though these are facts, we are going to put them in quotes because isKwé tells it much better than we ever could. “Manitoba is the highest funded province for the arts,” isKwé attests, and “Winnipeg has the largest indigenous population per capita in Canada.”
isKwé argues that arts funding is especially important in “areas that are a little more low income,” because it gives artists focus and freedom, and as a result “tend to generate really interesting art scenes.” Thus cities like Winterpeg are a “breeding ground” for artists of all kinds, but especially the indigenous.
“Sometimes” and “Nobody Knows” are two singles from an upcoming release, both of which are raucous, expressly political, and undeniably infectious. Her early work is more paced, with soft beds; tracks often open with piano chords and build into electronic R&B grooves. isKwé self-describes her first record as “a really good reflection of eight years of growth,” but that her most recent recordings have brought her closer to her “deep down spirit.”
The title lyric of single “Nobody Knows” illustrates the dual frustration and anger of not knowing what is continuing to happen to countless missing and murdered indigenous women, but also the ignorance that so many of us live in surrounding this issue, and isKwé “won’t let you look away anymore.” This track also finds her stretching and experimenting with her voice in unprecedented ways. The track pulsates behind her emotive vocals. isKwé gravitates towards strong and harsh bass, explaining that “low end frequencies and sounds are what resonate with [her] the most,” anchoring her performance, and “vibrat[ing] [her] in [her] core.”
Block Heater’s Indigenous Showcase is part of the Canada 150 initiative, which offers spotlight to indigenous arts and culture, but in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, isKwé aptly points out that “nations have been here far longer than [150 years].” Even if positive work is being done, Canada has not “fully reconciled” until “active listening has taken place… as a whole.” A process that she argues is still ongoing.
Vehemently political, isKwé was part of the recent Women’s March in spirit, “protesting by being at home with [her] family” in Winnipeg. After all, what is the purpose of movements like these if not to enable us to be comfortable and safe with our families? It was also her birthday, and even tireless activists, poets, musicians, artists and curators like isKwé deserve a day off.
Catch isKwé in full force as part of the Indigenous Showcase at Block Heater, February 10th at Festival Hall.AB, Alberta, Block Heater, Block Heater 2017, Block Heater Indigenous Showcase, Festival Hall, Iskwé