Among the 30-plus bands vying for attention at Brooklyn’s Afropunk festival last month, A Tribe Called Red brought a unique flair to the event’s usual mix of rock and hip-hop. The Canadian trio, comprised of Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau, Dan “DJ Shub” General and Bear Witness, mixed EDM with reggae and dancehall, and layered in indigenous vocal chanting and drumming.
The resulting mix has won them rave reviews in their home country: They’ve been nominated for two 2014 Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) and won Best Breakthrough Group of the Year. They were also shortlisted for the 2013 Polaris Music Prize in which Canadian music critics select the best independent albums from across all music genres.
While A Tribe Called Red’s stylistic voraciousness is certainly purposeful, they explain that injecting their indigenous Canadian roots into their music came naturally; while they do make EDM, it’s just a part of cultural and musical evolution. “We are starting to come up to a point where indigenous people are in all fields,” he explains. “It’s no longer strange to see indigenous people — there are more DJs, filmmakers and writers than ever before.”
Have you had any experiences with people asking you why you are performing the type of music you do? Was there any resistance when you started?
Not really. We came onto the scene at a time where our community was ready for this to happen. If this were 10 years earlier, I don’t think people would have let us do it, to be honest. Where I encountered resistance was in the ’90s when I was more involved with hip-hop. People would say, “Why are you doing hip-hop? Do you think you’re black?” Well, actually indigenous people have always had a place in hip-hop. Ernie Paniccioli, who is a Cree photographer based out of New York City, has been photographing hip-hop since its beginnings. We do have a connection to the culture, even when people try to say that this music is not within our culture.
In listening to Electric Powwow I realized that, as a Canadian, I was discovering more about indigenous film and music than I think I ever learned in school. How do you select the samples for your songs and the imagery you are using in your live performances?
In terms of the music, we work with Tribal Spirit, a Montreal-based Powwow label that is super-cool. The people who run it are old punk anarchists who wanted to create a record label solely for drum groups. Like with any other music coming out of an oppressed community, drum groups have hugely been taken advantage of by record labels, so this label is extremely important. They basically opened up their catalog to us, with the agreement that we would give them remixes of the music that feature their drum groups so that the drum groups could put them on their albums.
A Tribe Called Red has a powerful social and political message. Have there been any concerns that, for some, it is too political?
We are definitely political and our group in itself is political because we are using our culture in the music, and it’s a culture that North America has been trying to wipe out. But our music is dance music — party music — and if that’s all you want to take away from that, fine. But if you want to look deeper, if you want to research the aspects of indigenous culture through our video samples, then, yes, you are going to find some political messages. The reason we have done well is because we have those two sides.
In a previous interview DJ Ian (“NDN”) Campeau was asked about the acronym he uses and its definition (Never Die Native). He said that he felt there was a difference between reclaiming and decolonizing racist slurs or derogatory terms. What is the difference?
“Never Die Native” has been used in indigenous communities for the past 10 years or so. NDN is something we use to claim that word (“Native”) and to flip it. A lot of what is happening within indigenous culture — in particular, urban, youth culture — is to find a way to take the negativity out of [these words]. So it’s not even about some process of reclamation — how do you reclaim something that was never yours in the first place? It is about the colonial ideas about who we are, not the reality of who we are. And you are not even decolonizing [the words] either, because we are still living in a colonial nation. What we are doing is indigenizing. We are taking spaces and adding our own ideas. We are taking the club spaces and indigenizing them. We are taking space where we were never able to claim as indigenous people on our own territory and now claiming for ourselves, finding ways to make it ours.
Many producers have been accused of co-opting beats created by artists from various ethno-cultures and not giving them credit. The argument is that it is easier for dance music with prominent global music influences to be offered to the public as the work of a white guy. I’ve noticed a recurring dancehall theme in your music. Have you ever been accused of the same thing?
You’re from Toronto — you know that there is a big dancehall scene there! In fact, I don’t think you are going to find a bigger place that celebrates that music than in Toronto. From growing up in the city, that’s part of my culture. I might not be Jamaican but I grew up in Jamaican neighborhoods and people from other parts of the Caribbean — all types of island people. So that music was a huge part of my formative years. And in Toronto, you can see that in all types of things, such as [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford, dancing drunk at a fast food place, speaking Patois [a Jamaican dialect]. Patois is part of Toronto slang. So, if you grow up there, you are naturally going to know that dialect. OK, the Rob Ford example is off-putting, but that’s my relationship to dancehall music. That’s part of my experience growing up in Toronto.
DJ NDN was photographed wearing a T-shirt lampooning the Cleveland Indians mascot — it featured the same mascot with a white face, and the team name had been changed to “Caucasians.” Was that a T-shirt that you as a group put out, or did that come from another company?
No, it was from another company. It was just a shirt that one of our members wore in a couple of photo shoots and got a lot of response. The controversy was…well, I can’t say that I disagreed with the controversy — obviously it came out around the whole Washington Redskins controversy. But trying to make fun of something to “get back” at something offensive doesn’t really get you anywhere.
This past summer, you played Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. One of the stories to come out during this summer festival season involved the fact that many attendees showed up to the festivals wearing headdresses. I read that last year you told audiences at A Tribe Called Red shows not to show up in redface. Have you seen an improvement since then?
Definitely. We have seen a number of festivals actually ban headdresses, starting last year with the Tall Tree Festival. A number of other festivals let attendees know that if they show up wearing one, they will be confiscated. They want to provide a safe and inclusive environment for everybody. There has been a call-out to respect that.
But have you ever just thought to yourself, “People are really goddamn insensitive?” Why would anyone in this generation want to do that?
My first reaction when it started happening five or six years ago was, “Really? I thought we, as a society, had moved past this point.” It was a surprising thing to be like, “Umm, okay, I guess not.” During the ’90s, you would have never seen that. We, as a group, were surprised to see this fad happen now, and to happen so freely. But on the flip side, indigenous people are not going to stand for that. Those things get called out really quickly. No Doubt put out a video a couple of years ago that was ridiculous and it got pulled almost immediately. I think it went up in the morning and it was pulled by the afternoon. It got taken down so fast that, because we were on the West Coast at the time, we didn’t even get a chance to see it!
One of my favorite people to follow online is (Dr.) Adrienne K. who runs the website Native Appropriations, and is a serious watchdog on these issues. She got a huge following because she documented all of the headdress appropriations happening in the fashion industry. Paul Frank, the clothing company came out with a “Dream Catcher” clothing line, and they also got called out for it. The company contacted her, and she brought in indigenous artist to work with the company and create something more authentic.