Culture  “Indigenous Renaissance”

Elisapie Isaac brought her new sound to POP Montreal

Skipping the highway and taking the gravel road, Inuit singer Elisapie Isaac found herself in front of 700 spectators at Monument Nationale on September 27 as part of POP Montreal. After six years away from the stage, she finally made her return with a tour in support of her new album, titled The Ballad of a Runaway Girl.

“We’re in the midst of an ‘Indigenous Renaissance,’” announced Isaac to her audience, explaining that the Renaissance is “action and explosion of all the fucking shit that’s been [swept under the carpet].” Quoting fellow Indigenous artist Jeremy Dutcher, Isaac says that non-Indigenous people are willing to understand Indigenous cultures more than ever before, and that Indigenous people are able to share their cultures under their own terms.

Isaac also thinks that there needs to be a new understanding of Indigenous artists. According to her, people need to accept that Indigenous artists won’t simply continue to create “traditional” art but will incorporate more contemporary influences into their work. Her latest album carefully blends the two together, and she describes it as having “that métissage, which is super rich and has its own identity.”

Isaac sees the term “runaway girl” as representative of a lot of Indigenous women from the North.  According to her, running away from one’s community can be empowering and a way to celebrate and explore oneself.

The Ballad of a Runaway Girl intertwines folk sounds reminiscent of Isaac’s childhood with Inuit instrumentation and lyrics in Inuktitut. Through songs like “Una,” which talks about motherhood, or “Ikajunga,” where she recounts her postpartum depression, the singer takes her listeners through the various experiences she has experienced in the past six years. Addressing her audience in English and French, she tells stories of womanhood, motherhood, home, and the struggles of being Indigenous in Canada. On the personal nature of her art, Isaac said, “that’s the only way I can tell a story. It has to feel personal and [I] have to have a very strong emotional connection to the stories.”

Isaac calls her previous album, Traveling Love, more of a pop album, saying, “it was more on the light side, kind of a ‘girls just wanna have fun’ vibe.” She says that at that point in her career, it made sense for her to put out that type of work. Since then, Isaac has matured, and so has her sound. She shares that she is now more grounded and connected to reality, saying that the process of making this album “was about finding the truth and being able to be vulnerable when you have to be because [vulnerability] is also strength.”

Isaac opens her album with “Arnaq,” the Inuktitut word for woman. In the song, she celebrates the strength of all women, but singing in Inuktitut, she specifically addresses Inuit women and their importance within the Northern communities. On stage, Isaac recounted the hardships that Indigenous women face to this day, and complimented the strong will and beauty of the women she grew up with, who continue to inspire her to this day. The singer welcomes people to interpret her songs in any way they wish but for her, it would always be about celebrating the strength of Northern women.

“[Non-Indigenous people] are listening, but I think their brains are still a little lazy, and they are not used to [thinking about Indigenous issues] because they’ve lived in ignorance for so long.”  – Elisapie Isaac.

The title Ballad of a Runaway Girl depicts Isaac herself. In a way, she sees the term “runaway girl” as representative of a lot of Indigenous women from the North who travel south in search of a “better life.” To Isaac, running away from one’s community can be empowering and a way to celebrate and explore oneself. “[Women] have just as much of a right as anyone else,” she adds. As a “runaway girl” herself, she feels she still has a lot to figure out, much like when she first ran away with big aspirations in life.

Now, Isaac says she doesn’t strive to change the world. Instead, she wants to focus on herself in order to be an effective role model. She aims to inspire the younger generations of Indigenous people to be proud of their heritage and find strength to push through the centuries-old systemic oppression.

“That is the mission for me, for kids to hear that guerrière (warrior),” she said.

To Isaac, the main impediment to the flourishing of the Indigenous Renaissance is the lack of education on Indigenous issues among non-Indigenous people. She says that they have simply not done their homework yet.

“[They] are listening, but I think their brains are still a little lazy, and they are not used to [thinking about Indigenous issues] because they’ve lived in ignorance for so long,” Issac states.
“It would be nice [if] maybe five years from now it was more common to know which tribe lived where and whose territory that is,” she added.

Although it may only be a small indication of progress, the makeup of the audience at Isaac’s performance showed an attempt at learning through art. She described the crowd as diverse and ranging “[from] very young to older, and with [people from] different ethnicities,” and called it the best audience that she has ever had. Isaac thinks that bringing people together to form a common understanding is one of the first steps to addressing the obstacles to the Indigenous Renaissance, saying, “once we feel like we could emotionally connect – it’s going to change everything.”

Through her upcoming documentary on the life of Inuit women and an animated film in partnership with Montreal artist Marc Séguin, Isaac hopes to further establish an understanding of Inuit culture in the mainstream. According to her, the film will be about “a spiritual world, about the mentality, and about how Inuit people see the world in a very beautiful and unique way. I thought it would be a nice window into something different in the Canadian world, and I think it’s amazing to [hear] that voice.”

The Ballad of a Runaway Girl is out now and is available on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon Music.