Article by Line Abrahamian and originally published in the December-April 2017-2018 edition of the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.
In the last five years, First Nations DJ trio A Tribe Called Red of Ottawa have roared onto the arts scene with their powwow-infused electronic music, giving the indigenous community a new voice and annihilating dance oors around the world. Hot off their third Polaris Prize nomination for their latest album, We Are the Halluci Nation, Bear Witness tells us about breaking down barriers, transforming the indigenous conversation and what is the Halluci Nation.
Q: How did A Tribe Called Red come about?
A: We started off as four indigenous DJs from Ottawa who wanted to throw a party for indigenous people, and we called it Electric Pow Wow. It sold out, and we had a real reaction from people in the community, saying, “You guys have started something that’s needed.” We started realizing there was something deeper to what we’d created—it wasn’t just a club night; it was about representation, about claiming space, about being seen.
Q: But over time, it wasn’t just indigenous people showing up to your parties. Why do you think your music is so relatable for non-indigenous people?
A: That’s one thing we weren’t expecting at all. In the last decade or so, we’ve been starting to see a genuine interest in indigenous arts from outside the community, especially when we started using powwow music. So to watch it quickly, almost instantly, explode outside the community was exciting. But we were also worried.
You come from a culture that has had everything taken away from it. When you have those few things left that are still yours, it can be scary to watch people from outside your culture interact with it, because there’s a fear of losing that too, and of it not being respected. We did have those growing pains where we had to tell people not to wear headdresses or war paint at our shows because it was disrespectful to us. But I don’t think people were trying to be disrespectful; they’d say, “We just wanted to be a part of this.” And that’s where the fear comes in: how can we make everybody a part of this while also having it be respected and remain sacred?
Q: So how do you find the balance between the two?
A: I think it’s an ongoing struggle, and a lot of it has to do with how we treat it ourselves. We try to help youth in our culture stay connected while also getting the attention of people outside our community.
We live in this culture in North America where just trying to sit down to have a conversation between indigenous and non-indigenous people on a level playing eld is almost impossible. So the first thing we need to do is find that space to have that conversation. What dawned on me one day while watching the incredibly mixed crowd at our shows is that people—both indigenous and non-indigenous were having a shared experience listening to our powwow music. And I think that’s a step toward finding that space where we can start talking outside of the animosity, fear and trauma.
Q: What is the Halluci Nation?
A: It was the title of a poem John Trudell had written for us, and it blew our minds because it told our story: a group of people called A Tribe Called Red, finding allies to help them in their fight.
There’s so much happening around the world right now within the realm of positivity, love and unity and finding ways to live together and respect one another. There are a lot of people who are awake to those ideas now, and that’s what the Halluci Nation represents.
We wanted to turn the fictitious Halluci Nation into a real nation, something we could offer all our fans, indigenous or the non-indigenous who were wearing headdresses and war paint because they wanted to be a part of this. Well, the Halluci Nation is something everybody could be a part of now, without it being culturally appropriative.
Q: So what started off as a way to include indigenous people expanded to include people of all kinds of backgrounds?
A: Definitely. People are paying attention to what we’re saying, and that’s a new space for indigenous people to find themselves in, so there’s definitely a feeling that we have to use this opportunity in a way that benefits our community. But we also wanted to collaborate with people who were interested in spreading the same sort of message we were. With our video for “R.E.D.,” we had an opportunity to let two of our Muslim brothers do exactly what we did in our videos, which was to show parts of their culture the way they wanted it to be seen.
There was a point in my life where I didn’t want to make culturally specific work. I just wanted to be an artist. But the more I tried to just be an artist, the more my culture came out in my work. So no matter what’s happened in the past to disconnect us from our culture, we found our way back to it.
A Tribe Called Red is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole renaissance of indigenous arts springing up everywhere now that we’re beyond the point of just survival. And I’m really excited to see what happens.
Cover photo credits: Air Transat