Iskwé | Image source: Lisa MacIntosh
Iskwé lept on to the Canadian music scene in 2013, with with her song debut single Nobody Knows, a song about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which put her on the map as an artist who won’t shy away from any topic on Indigenous issues. As a Cree and Dene woman she uses her music as a form of protest against the hardships many First Nations communities face and to convey strength and resilience of these communities. This year her new album, The Fight Within, was nominated for a Indigenous Music Album of the Year at the Juno Awards. Iskwé performed at the 3rd Gchi Dewin Indigenous Storytellers Festival in Parry Sound where she rocked the house and transfixed the audience with her powerful voice and messages. Before the festival she spoke with MUSKRAT Magazine about her new single and how her music speaks to social media campaigns like #metoo and what she hopes her fans take away from her music.
MM: In a previous interview with CBC you mentioned you grew up in “art circles.” Was there sort of a pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be an musician?
Iskwé: I knew that [a musical career] was something that was possible, but didn’t think it was a real life goal. When Canadian Idol came to town for the first time ever, I was working for an investment company at the time. My friend told me she was auditioning for it, then I was like, “well I want to audition for Canadian Idol too.” My partner at the time, who I was living with asked, “do you even know how to sing?” I made him stand at the far end of the apartment and sang. He came back in the room and was like, “alright let’s do this. If you want to do this you’ll need to prepare and get voice lessons.” I prepared, I auditioned, I made it a few rounds, but got cut because I wasn’t fully ready. After that I decided to make it a career and I never looked back.
MM: Face painting is a tradition in Indigenous communities that dates back thousands of years. Can you give more insight into how face painting ties into your live performances?
Iskwé: I like to feel connected to my spirit when I go onstage. It’s a way for me to express myself and to find strength. It gives me a sense of courage and empowerment. A lot of the stuff I talk about is challenging. There’s a lot of emotion involved. It can be hard to be constantly having these conversations in rooms of people that I don’t even know. It was something that was really important to bring forward. It’s a way to honour myself in that time and to find my own strength. I admire and look up to and respect these traditions of face painting. For me it’s a connection between myself and Creator that links to my art to my spirit – and to be able to tie all of that together.
MM: “Nobody Knows” runs parallel thematically with the social media campaign #metoo that touches on speaking out about violence against women. What are your thoughts on social media campaigns like this? What kind of social change do you hope happens with this movement?
Iskwé: It’s showcasing a sense of unity thats been there for sometime, but not everybody was aware of it. Campaigns like #metoo or #amInext are showing the greater population that women are collectively tired of being viewed as disposable or irrelevant or less than. It’s really important for these campaigns to exist. It’s important for them to continue, and for people to continue participating and sharing if they feel inclined. It’s also important for people outside of those communities – like non-female bodied or non-female representing people to participate and support and encourage. I’ve had people check in with me after I’ve posted about #metoo, people I know through the music community, and men in the music community would say, “I saw your post and I don’t know what to do, but want to say if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m there to do it.” It starts a conversation. It’s important for that, it shows unity and it shows the truth. It shows just how many of us are impacted by these things.
I don’t in any way think that it’s only women that experience this. I want to recognize that there is violence against two-spirit and trans people as results of homophobia and men as well. People suffer these sorts of abuses, but for right now the conversation is focused on women because the numbers are exponentially higher than other demographics. Its ok to talk about all of them and to focus on the one when we need to. Right now we are in a time when we need to be having this conversation.
MM: Soldier speaks to the environmental activism work done by Land and Water Protectors. What message do you hope listeners take away from the song and from this album?
Iskwé: It’s important for people to pull from it what they pull from it. I hope that people find what they need to find in these songs. The reason I say this as an example is that Soldier was used in a trailer for this film that has a high LGBTQ following, so a lot of the younger people who were listening and tweeting about this song were referencing it to the feeling of strength and pride in being gay. I thought it was awesome. I want people to pull whatever messages stand out to them from these songs. That’s perfect for me.
MM: Who is a strong Indigenous woman you look up to?
Iskwé: My mother. She is a tough lady. She’s a survivor. She’s had tough times in her life and has endless love, endless encouragement for people. She always sees the good in things. I really respect that. I think that when you’ve experienced all that she has and at the end of the day you treat people with kindness and love, I think it’s a really exceptional quality.