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An Interview with Bear Witness

Known for mixing elements of First Nations music with EDM, Canadian DJs A Tribe Called Red explore a range of genres on their third album, We Are the Halluci Nation. Pitchfork praises the release as “some of the heaviest and most infectious sounds around,” going as far as to say, “This album is critical listening for everyone.” A Tribe Called Red will be performing at The Sinclair on Saturday, March 18.

JK: I’d love to start by talking about the intersection of art and politics. Do you see yourself primarily as an activist? As an artist? Do you think the two are fundamentally tied together?

BW: They can be for sure. In my case personally, I don’t really see myself as an activist. I see myself as indigenous. The activism isn’t really a choice for an indigenous person. It’s a part of life.

JK: Is it irritating that the public perception of your art can be connected to your heritage and political causes that you haven’t necessarily chosen? Or does it feel like an honor to be part of that tradition?

BW: It’s a responsibility really. People who use our culture and our art have to be responsible to that history. Being responsible to that history means speaking about indigenous issues and bringing light to things that don’t get enough attention.

JK: Over the span of your career, have you seen a shift in how much attention indigenous art and indigenous issues are receiving?

BW: Definitely. There’s been a huge shift.

JK: When did you first notice that?

BW: I don’t know to be honest. It’s really been a change that’s happened over the past decade where people outside of indigenous communities have become interested in what’s going on. We come from a long history of amazing indigenous artists. We didn’t just pop up out of a vacuum. But in previous times, non-indigenous peoples just didn’t have much interest in interacting with indigenous issues or indigenous art.

JK: How do you see yourself in relation to that tradition of indigenous art? Do you see A Tribe Called Red as a new era? Do you see yourself as carrying a torch? Do you think it’s somewhere in between?

BW: Yea it’s definitely all those things. We talk about using our culture in our work—that’s our history. Our culture isn’t just one thing—it’s a holistic culture. It’s our spirituality, it’s our history, it’s our knowledge of self, it’s our knowledge of future. It’s all these things wrapped up into one. It’s the same as with the activism thing, where you’re not just ever going to be an activist, you’re going to be all of those things. It’s necessary.

JK: Do you have ideas about what might be causing people outside indigenous communities to pay more attention to indigenous art?

BW: To be honest, I don’t know what created that change. There just seems to be an interest where there wasn’t before. In the past, most indigenous art stayed in the community. There wasn’t an interest outside of the community, but there was an interest and a need within the community. I think what we’re seeing now, not just with indigenous people but with any marginalized people across the board is that when you lose your voice, it’s the artists who usually find that voice again first. It’s within the arts where it becomes safe to do that. Within the arts, you can cross a lot of barriers with who hears what you have to say. We’re finding that tenfold with music, where we reach audiences that we would never be able to reach if we were just activists. When you start to think about the power that there is in that, in finding your voice through the arts, you start to understand why there’s an interest now. There’s something being said. There’s something being done. It’s not just opulent artwork. It’s not just pretty things. There’s a general interest in the world now to not just look at pretty things, because there are all these things that need to be discussed. People are now interested in interacting with those issues beyond just the communities that are affected. Again, I don’t know what caused that, but I’m seeing it more and more.

JK: Do you also feel connected to the broader history of marginalized people using music as a force to shift that power balance?

BW: Definitely. Myself, I come from an artist family. The performance culture in my family started four generations ago on Coney Island when my family was part of a sideshow. My grandmother remembers my great-grandfather singing made-up songs and being on display for tourists as a way to help feed the family. So growing out of that place of necessity, my family became actors and performers. Through that culture, I grew up in the theater culture of Toronto. In the mid 80s, when the second wave of people started escaping Chile, we had those people come and live with us. We were first stop for a lot of refugees, and we became really involved with the Chilean community. That’s when I first realized the power of music to carry a message beyond what you could do otherwise. It was when I was talking to these people who were politically involved in Chile as musicians. They just sang songs. But they were imprisoned and held and tortured for years just for singing songs. I remember that blowing my mind at a really young age—the idea that someone could see a singer as so dangerous that they would need to throw them in jail and torture them.

JK: So did you originally approach music as an avenue for social change?

BW: No that came afterwards. It sounds funny after what I just said, but music was actually a way to get away from the political culture of my family. When I was a teenager, I just wanted to get away from all of the heaviness of politics and activism within my family. I just wanted to dance. That’s what music was for me—it was an escape. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I was heavily involved with rave culture. Within the rave movement I realized, here are all these young people who are having these amazing group experiences and really empathizing with each other. But there wasn’t a real message to it. We were just there doing it because it was something we felt we needed to do. I’ve been DJing now for over 20 years, and at some point I just realized that we could take that opportunity and fill it with a message. In that wanting to escape from all the politics and stuff, I realized that I had found the perfect vehicle for my ideas.

JK: But at the beginning, you did find that music was an escape and an effective release from that social tension?

BW: Definitely. And it’s interesting now to watch our shows, because now we do have this very solid political message to our music, and people who share those views and those feelings come to our shows for a release. All these people with all these frustrations, fears, and anxieties about what’s going on in the world are coming to our shows not to protest, not as an act of activism, but as a release from that activism in a safe place. Our whole thing was creating a space for indigenous people within the urban landscape to gather, because we didn’t have those spaces in Ottawa. But when we created a safe space for indigenous people to gather in the city, everyone said, ‘Hey, this is a safe space. Let’s go check it out.’ So we ended up creating a safe space for everybody.

JK: I read an interview where you talked about how your original mission was just to throw a party, but then throwing a party as indigenous people turned out to be a kind of political act in itself.

BW: Yeah, well just doing anything as indigenous people becomes political. My mother raised me with the idea that every act that you do from when you wake up in the morning is political, because everything in this world tried to stop you from being here. So the fact that I’m alive today is a political act. That’s why I don’t see myself as an activist. This is just my life.

JK: Has your role changed because of the current political climate? I could see someone who grew up with the understanding that all of his actions were inherently political being less surprised by the hostility that has come to define politics. Do recent political events like the progress with the Dakota Access Pipeline feel like a change for you or a continuation of something that was already there?

BW: Well yea for me personally it’s definitely feels like a continuation. It’s the same as it ever was. We’ve survived worse, and we’ll continue to survive. If anything, our role has become more important even though it’s not something different. Because again, I don’t like to call us activists because our main goal is the party. It’s the release. It’s creating that safe space for people to let go of that stress and that anger and that fear. So if we start changing our role, and we try to become part of the movement in a more direct way, that changes our position. Our place is really to create a safe space for everyone.

JK: Do you feel less inclined to speak very publicly about certain issues because your main goal is to create a space where people can step away from that? Or do you feel like taking public positions is a part of creating that safe space?

BW: Yea I mean there are definitely things that we’ll always talk about very publicly. It’s just—I don’t know how to put it—I guess there’s a general message more than a specific message. Personally, I’m really careful with the things that I talk about and the things that I put out there in the world because I am trying to make something that doesn’t divide people. So when I come across issues that I find particularly divisive within my community, I try to stay away from them, because I don’t want to alienate any of those people. I’m not here to take any of those kind of sub-sides. I’m here to create that safe space, and creating that space does often mean speaking out and standing up for things. It just doesn’t mean being on the front line fighting all our time. That’s not our place. Our place is again to create the space and to be the release.

JK: And that has been pretty consistent since the start of A Tribe Called Red? It’s always been a place for people to step away right?

BW: Yes. And also a step into. It depends who you’re talking to. When you think about non-indigenous people, we’re also here to confront people with certain ideas. We use that safe place and that release to hit people with a visual that makes them think about things differently when it comes to indigenous identity.

JK: So have you seen yourself connect with more non-indigenous people recently? How has that relationship been over time?

BW: That was the huge surprise to us really. In the early days, when we started this just as a party, we just aimed our advertisement toward the indigenous community and saw a predominantly indigenous audience. But that changed really quickly.

JK: What do you think made non-indigenous people feel comfortable stepping in? Was it something about your approach?

BW: Perhaps. Electronic music has quickly become super commercial and grown into the popular music of the decade. Since we were remixing our traditional music with something that was so popular like dub-step, it got the attention of people who would have never interacted with indigenous culture otherwise. But we didn’t expect that. That was a huge surprise to us because of the history of people not being interested or interacting with indigenous culture.

JK: More just purely musically, do you have any directions that you would like to push your music in? Are there any new genres you intend to explore?

BW: At the moment, we don’t have specific plans, but this last album was a huge step out of our comfort zone. That was the goal of We Are the Halluci Nation. We wanted to create something that wasn’t just dance music, and that wasn’t just a club album. We wanted to make something that had more to it—more of a story. We wanted to create a concept album that had emotional movement.

JK: Has that been really well received by your listeners?

BW: Definitely. People have been willing to take the journey with us, and they’re really picking up what we were trying to say on the album.

JK: I’m really glad to hear that. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. A Tribe Called Red has opened my eyes to a range of ideas I might have otherwise missed, so thank you for that.

BW: Well thank you.

JK: I’m looking forward to your show at the Sinclair. Thanks again for your time.

BW: No problem. Have a good one.