NAC Presents: Iskwé finds hope in the lessons of youth

Iskwé. Photo: Lisa McIntosh

The Indigenous singer-songwriter Iskwé is riding the wave of a new album and the success of being dubbed a performer to watch. The album, The Fight Within, deals with issues, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, in a fresh and powerful way. She’ll be at the National Arts Centre on Thursday but before the appearance, she talked to ARTSFILE about her music, her life and her hopes for a better future.

Q. Tell me about The Fight Within.

A. This album was a reflection of where I have been sitting in terms of how I view my place in my community. What we have been experiencing collectively and how these struggles are becoming more prevalent.

Until fairly recently a lot of the things we have been talking about have been resting in our communities because we haven’t been viewed as a voice worth listening to. Lately I feel a shift in that.

This album is a reflection on that; on personal experiences, family experiences and community experiences. Some of the things go beyond the Indigenous community. When we talk about things like the environment. It needs to be a global conversation and not a problem impacting only those people over there.

Q. There is a new generation of Indigenous artists standing up and talking about such issues as missing and murdered Indigenous women, poverty and racism. It makes for powerful mix. Has that always been part of you life?

A. I was raised to speak out. My (family) home (in Winnipeg) wasn’t a very political house but we’d have conversations about things happening in the world. My parents aren’t activists (but) they always encouraged us to stand up for what we believed in in a respectful way. To disagree with someone isn’t the end of the world. I think I learned that from them.

I’m pretty steadfast in my beliefs unless you change my mind. I’m steadfast but I’m also open to what others saying.

Q. Tell me about your connection to your Cree heritage.

A. I always knew about it. It was never hidden, but wasn’t pushed. It just was. I grew up in Winnipeg and I learned at a young age that within my family there were varying shades of skin colour because you see that. I didn’t experiencing blatant racism because of skin colour, I wasn’t aware of that part of it until I was nine or 10.

Q. Why do you live in Hamilton, Ontario now?

A. It reminds me of Winnipeg. All my family is there and I’m there all the time. I still feel like it is my home. But  I am starting to put roots down here. We moved here because we were looking for that sweet spot with proximity to large cities. Travel is one of the tricky things about being a recording artist who tours all the time.

Q. When did you get your Cree name?

A. Our traditional names are the names that we are known by in the spirit world. That doesn’t mean you can’t have those names on earth. The names are obtained through ceremonies.

Some families choose to get those names for their children at birth. Some people choose to get their names later in childhood. And some choose to let their children get their names on their own. My mom opted for me to get my name on my own.

I went to ceremony as a teenager in Winnipeg. My elder passed down the name to me. It is something I have had for a long time but I didn’t always use it for art. I started using it because it felt more connected, it felt more important for me to be a part of that name in that way.

My name is part of my being. I do have an English name and it’s very important and very personal. It’s up to me to choose when and how I share that name.

Q. Tell me about how you came to be a singer.

A. My family home was a creative home. Art was important. Art in general. Any medium was a beautiful thing and was encouraged but not necessarily as a career though. One of my aunts sung and danced in Winnipeg. My grandmother was a classical pianist and my grandfather was an opera singer in his younger years. My dad and grandpa were visual artists as well but nobody did it as a career.

I actually started in dance. I danced ballet for a long time … six days week. My grandparents put me through it. It was special and I was super passionate about it. But I knew I wouldn’t be a professional because I didn’t have the right body type. My body started to fall apart at a young age.

I didn’t grow up knowing a lot about Canadian music either. My dad travelled the world and a lot of the stuff we listened to at home was music from everywhere.

I sang for Winnipeg Girls Choir when I was little. The classical arts were big in my household. My Grandmother taught me piano and I sang in some school musicals in elementary school.

But in junior high and high school … it was all dance. Then I moved into the art room. It helped me graduate. I was going through some stuff then. I had a hard time just existing and I did lot of drugs. I was hurting and the art room pulled me through.

In my 20s, I got into music. I always sang. I could always sing. I knew I was good but it was ‘so what’.

Q. When you write and compose, what drives you?

A. It’s always changing and evolving. I say that this album is a reflection of the grief cycle. You’ve got moments of frustration, anger, sadness, confusion and some denial. And then you come back to this place of strength where you are finding your way through it.

We need to be able to talk about this. Why can’t we talk about mental health? Why can’t we talk about sadness or feeling lonely?

Q. Are you a hopeful person?

A. I put a lot of hope in the younger generation. I’ll tell you a story about that: I was in Ireland two months ago. I was with some friend and we went to a club that turned out to be a gay bar and none of the people was gay except for me. One of the guys was 40 and the other guy was 22 or something like that.

The older one immediately gravitated to a woman. He was so nervous. The young guy was openly enjoying himself. That gives me hope. This is our youth. I remember him saying to me that night ‘What does it matter?’ Yeah man, what the ‘f’ does it matter?”

I think there is room for growth and change. I’m not ancient but I’m not a baby any more. And I really feel the teaching (we can get) from young people is what makes me hopeful.

Q. What do you think about success?

A. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it. I notice the moments where I am feeling frustrated by success. But I have put in a lot of work and time and not necessarily seen immediate results. So when you do receive some recognition it is a rejuvenating thing. Nothing so far has left me feeling this isn’t what I want to be doing, even the tough parts.

NAC Presents Iskwé
Where: Fourth Stage
When: Nov. 23 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.