Culture | McGill hosts A Tribe Called Red

Native DJs redefine urban Aboriginal culture

Founded in 2008, A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) is a collective consisting of DJs NDN, Bear Witness, and Shub. By their own description, their music combines hip-hop, dancehall, and electronic influences. They also mix club and pow wow music in a genre they refer to as “pow wow step.” Through their music, they strive to showcase Aboriginal DJ talent and create a space for Aboriginal people.

Last Friday, as part of McGill’s 11th annual Pow Wow, ATCR hosted a masterclass in which they discussed how they produce their music, as well as various political issues incorporated within their work, including the challenge of creating an urban Native identity.

After their masterclass, The Daily spoke with one of the two founding members of the collective, Bear Witness. “We did a meet-and-greet with First Peoples’ House […] two months ago. I think [coming to our show] was their first official outing for the group,” said Bear Witness when asked about how the partnership with First Peoples’ House came to fruition. “It just came out of that – making friends.”

But this is not ATCR’s first event on a university campus. “Lots of Aboriginal student associations have brought us out again and again.” Recent travels brought them to Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Saskatoon. At each of these places, the collective held workshops with Aboriginal student associations similar to the masterclass hosted at McGill.

When asked about the political aims of their work, Bear Witness emphasized the importance of discussion “about Aboriginal issues and the kind of politics we bring up in our music about cultural appropriation.” He also stressed, however, the necessity of recognizing that “[First Peoples] … are modern people. That idea of the stoic Indian is just a fantasy.” ATCR seeks to acknowledge and incorporate the rich cultural history of Aboriginal peoples within a modern urban lifestyle. “Our music attempts to…take our traditions into a contemporary environment.”

ATCR considers music the perfect medium for their political and social messages. “I see what we do with the Electric Pow Wows as a … continuance of traditional Pow Wow culture.” Bear Witness considers music to be an important tool to use to talk about these kinds of issues. Introducing such hefty political and social questions is better done through music, when people’s “backs are down,” than through proselytizing and lecturing.

He noted, however, that the use of music as political commentary “used to be more prominent in the past, but is now making a resurgence.”

An afterparty for the Pow Wow was held at Église POP that night, in conjunction with POP Montreal. This event was an opportunity to see ATCR’s musical social commentary in practice.

ATCR’s mashup of Aboriginal music with an Adele song spoke to their belief in syncretizing native and “Western” forms to create a contemporary and urban Native identity. Strains of Pow Wow music filled the space, drawing spectators from a relaxed state in the seating area toward the dance floor. As A Tribe Called Red mixed their thumping traditional drumbeats, the environment became charged with an electric atmosphere, as people began to dance their cares away.