By Lyndon Chiang
Cheyanna Kootenhayoo, or better known as DJ Kookum, is a Vancouver-based DJ and filmmaker, paving the way for Indigenous representation in music. DJ Kookum has worked with some of Canada’s biggest acts in Indigenous Hip-hop, including Mob Bounce, Drezus, and Snotty Nose Rez Kids, to name a few. As a resident DJ at the Biltmore Cabaret, DJ Kookum mixes a diverse blend of Trap, Hip-hop, R&B, and EDM. In preparation for her big weekend at Skookum Festival, we caught up with Kootenhayoo to find out more about Indigenous Hip-hop, her upcoming performances and her community work with at-risk youth.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to that shaped you the most? Was there one group or artist you can attribute to leading you down that path towards becoming a DJ/producer?
I basically went from listening to the Spice Girls to 2pac, then to techno and house. I remember being obsessed with Spice Girls and Alanis Morissette. Then I started going to an all native school and bought my first 2pac CD. I think when “Flat Beat” by Mr Oizo came out I started listening to techno, trance and house artists like DJ Alligator, Benny Benassi, Tiesto, and Marco V to name a few. “Just Be” by Tiesto and “Illusion” by Benny Benassi were my jams, haha.
What are the origins of your stage name DJ Kookum? Is it at all derived from Skookum or is it something else?
Kookum is not derived from Skookum. Skookum is a Chinook word commonly is used as ‘good’ ‘ultimate’ or ‘the best.’ Chinook was a huge trade language during pre and post contact along the Pacific Northwest. Kokum means grandmother and is a word from the Cree tribes along Alberta/Saskatchewan/Manitoba.
My friends and family back home started calling me kokum when I was 13, probably because I was wise AF? At the time I didn’t like being called ‘grandma’ and tried to stop it but they got the whole Rez (Indian reservation) calling me kokum.
Back when I was DJ Annshay doing some of my first ever Hip-hop shows, I was rocking with LightningCloud. I told them my nickname story they were convinced I had to be DJ Kokum because the First Nations communities will dig it and because it had a better story behind it. So I went for it and added an extra ‘O’ to Kokum because I am not an actual kokum, let alone a parent yet. And now I love it, I own it. People hear about my name before I meet them. Some people think it’s hilarious, which it kind of is because I never thought the whole world would be calling me by my childhood nickname. And people who don’t know what ‘kookum’ means, think it means ‘cook ’em’ like cooking them beats.
For those who don’t know, what is Indigenous hip-hop and how (if at all) does it differ from generic hip-hop?
When people say Indigenous hip-hop they are referring to Indigenous people who make hip-hop music. I like to say Indigenous artists in hip-hop because ‘hip-hop’ is its own culture and we are Indigenous people in Hip-hop culture.
Generic Hip-hop artists are usually directed towards pop culture and usually have no positive or meaningful message. Although there are Indigenous people in hip-hop that are directed to mainstream, there are a lot more Indigenous hip-hop artists who are conscious, political and raise awareness with their lyrics.
You grew up a member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation and Cold Lake First Nations communities, do you feel a responsibility to represent or uphold your heritage through your music and art?
It’s important to rep where I came from. I’ve had a lot of support in my career from both communities and I’m grateful for that. Every film project I’m involved with is either raising awareness on Indigenous issues or sharing our culture and history. A lot of the hip-hop artists I perform with are doing the same through the lyrics. It’s important to share our culture and history with the world so people know the truth. We are also breaking stereotypes through art. There are so many amazing First Nations people out there, I can’t believe some people still think we’re all just homeless, drunk or in jail.
I love to share my peoples’ music. I put out a mix featuring all First Nations hip-hop artists called ‘Limitless Indigenous Hip-Hop Mix.’ You can find it on my Soundcloud (Soundcloud.com/DJkookum). I am going to put out more ASAP because there are so many amazing artists.
Who are some must-listen artists in your music circles, and who should people watch out for?
Horsepowa, Tchu_chu, Holy Sock Gang, Yellowsky, Mob Bounce, So Loki, DJ Shub, the Sorority, Missy D, Joey Stylez, Mamarudegyal, Status Krew, Dani & Lizzy, Emotions, JB the First Lady, Beaatz, Boogey the Beat, T-rhyme, Ekkwol, Kimmortal, LightningCloud, Drezus. I’m probably forgetting a whole bunch.
You started out in film. How did you make the transition from filmmaking to DJ’ing? Are you still actively filming?
I was influenced by my mother to work in film. We were film orphans as kids because our single mom was so busy making movies. Once I graduated high school in Edmonton, I moved to Vancouver to take the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program at Capilano University and became a videographer. I was actively working in the independent film industry right out of film school. I was crushing my goals. Then I realized if I can achieve those goals, I probably could become a DJ. So I taught myself how to DJ and became confident enough to play in front of people. I told all my film people that I was a DJ now and next thing you know I was DJ’ing at film screenings and film festivals. (Shout out Ostwelve and the VIMAF crew, those were some of my first gigs like six years ago).
I still work in film on and off, doing a lot of video editing and coordinating. I just finished working as a Talent coordinator on the second season of an Indigenous science children’s TV series called Coyote Science created by Loretta Todd. I am also the music supervisor and will be video editing too.
This summer I was DJ’ing till 3 a.m. on Thursdays, then heading to set at 7 a.m. Friday, working 12 hours, then DJ’ing a club night. I was tired AF but I love my jobs.
What inspired you to start DJ’ing, and what was the learning process like to get where you are today?
The whole rave scene back in the day inspired me to be a DJ. When I started listing to techno and trance I had no idea that it was a whole culture/scene. I was living in a small town and no one else loved techno and trance as much as I did. When I moved to the ‘city’ I discovered a whole community that loved the same kind of music as I did. I started dressing weird and going to shows all the time. I used to go by myself and dance my ass off; eventually I picked up on all cool rave dance moves. I always admired the DJ because they were the coolest person there. I dreamt of one day being a DJ, which at the time never thought was possible.
Finally after film school I was able to afford DJ gear and taught myself how to DJ. I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials. I wish I had a mentor but I didn’t know any DJs in Vancouver. I started getting gigs where I only played house music. I was slowly making a name for myself because people were hyped to see a First Nations female DJ. Then I got the opportunity to DJ at the First Native Hip-hop Festival organized by the homie Manik here in Vancity. I was keen on getting gigs so I had about two weeks to download cool hip-hop tracks and figure out how to mix hip-hop. I must say It was so nerve racking being in a room full of gangster looking native rappers and DJing hip-hop for the first time, but I met some of my most solid friends there. Even though I probably sucked, the experience was good. After that I just kept practicing, and started to get more gigs within the Indigenous scene. I finally started using Serato, which made way more sense for hip-hop. I fell in love with crazy EDM/trap/twerk-type music, and kept practicing and getting more gigs. I kept getting better and better at mixing all kinds of music. Now I get DJ gigs every week. DJing has brought me to some beautiful places in this world.
My goal though is to kook beats in the studio and make my own music so I don’t have to be a club DJ forever and have random people stick their phones in my face asking me to play their song, haha.
I am so grateful to be a recipient of the “Expanding capacity in the Indigenous music recording industry” grant from the First Peoples Culture Council. I am working with an amazing mentor in the studio and we’re kooking up!!! Stay tuned!!
What’s the most memorable show you’ve performed at?
I recently played a hip-hop show with SNRK at the Darwin Festival in Australia. Then I played a set at the festival’s Club Awi later that evening. Traveling to the other side of the world to do my thing was the coolest.
Looks like you’ve got quite a jam-packed schedule at Skookum, performing with Mob Bounce, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, and the after-party at the Imperial. What makes this festival different from others?
The amount of diversity of this festival makes it different. From big name bands to local artists.
What goes through your mind when you’re about to perform in front of a huge crowd?
I’m usually nervous AF checking my lipstick and telling myself ‘Stay on beat and just act like you were one of those people who were born to perform and you’ll do fine’ haha. I was a really shy person most of my life and since I became a DJ I had to overcome my fear of talking into microphones and performing on stage, I’m getting better at it for sure.
You’re performing with Snotty Nose Rez Kids at the Polaris Music Prize later this month. How does it feel to be a part of one of Canada’s biggest music award shows?
It feels so good to be able to represent Indigenous and female DJs at one of Canada’s music awards shows and rock a show with people you call fam. Super stoked for this opportunity and proud of SNRK. The show is going to be amazing.
Can you tell us a bit about the Whitefish Lake Youth Conference, and what youth empowerment means to you?
Whitefish Lake hosted a five-day youth conference on their reservation in August. Artists from all different backgrounds traveled to the community four hours north of Edmonton to participate, facilitate workshops, and perform.
I facilitated a DJ workshop during the day. Performed with Dani & Lizzy, Joey Stylez and Yellowsky. Then hosted and DJ’d youth dance in the evening.
Youth empowerment is important especially in Indigenous communities where there are high rates of suicide and addiction. I use to be an at risk youth so I can relate. And I just really want all the youth to know that as much as nothing seems possible, everything is possible.
Catch DJ Kookum Thursdays at Granville Room, Fridays at the Biltmore Cabaret and at Skookum Fest After Dark at the Imperial Sept 8.