RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: Cody Coyote follows his own path to identity

Cody Coyote.

For the Ottawa-based hip hop artist Cody Coyote his music is his message. And it’s quite a story.

“I was born and raised in Ottawa. I grew up in the east end in Pineview and then we moved to Orleans. That’s where I started to face a lot of challenges. For me, music became a part of my journey when I was being bullied at school. Sadly it is a thing that every Indigenous man has to go through.”

Coyote was a student at St. Matthew High School when he became a target.

He had started writing poetry as an outlet for his anger and frustration when a teacher opened a new door for him … literally.

“I was sitting in class one day and one of my teachers mentioned that … in a backroom there was a small recording studio that had been set up for some bands at the school.

“It was awesome. It was created by a student.” There were egg cartons on the walls and cardboard on the ceiling. It was pretty old school but it became a haven for Cody.

“That was hip hop enough for me. I was in there with classmates and we were jamming. There was a guy on drums and another on bass and another on guitar. I just started to apply what I had written. That’s where hip hop started for me.”

He finally worked up the courage to perform in public after high school.

“My first gig was in 2013. We were in a parking lot beside Eastview Pizza in Vanier at an event called Unity in the Community. I was performing in front of about 15-20 people. I remember being super shook, but once I started doing it, it felt good.”

That led to shows in bars including Ritual night club. And they he started to get some festival gigs including a headline spot at Westfest in June and a show he’ll perform at Bluesfest on July 8.

His Westfest appearances have been particularly important.

“It’s a beautiful story. The first year I was supposed to perform was two years ago but we got rained out. Last year we able to perform but was a cloudy and then, all of a sudden, when the traditional dancers came on the stage the sun broke the clouds as if they were drapes pulled back from  a window. This year I headlined. That was awesome.”

All these connections are important to Coyote.

“I grew up not knowing a thing about my culture. I had to go find it. My father was adopted in the 1960s” and so Cody did not know his relatives. He has met them recently.

“Getting answers after 26 years about where I come from and who my people are is pretty crazy. I knew I was Ojibwe from Matachewan First Nation but that was the only knowledge I had. I knew what my father told me and taught me.”

And it has been uplifting for a young man who had lost his way, who had once abused drugs and alcohol and had some run-ins with police.

“I went through a justice program at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre. I had been charged with mischief under $5,000″ He ended up in program for First Nations, Inuit and Metis youth in trouble with the law.

“I had been through probation. I was in conflict with the law for a few years.”

Through the Odawa program, he participated in his first healing circle and his first sweat lodge. He was taken to Round Dances and powwows. The more he got involved the more he learned about his culture.

And he realized that “I wasn’t the only person who was angry. There had been others who had made wrong choices. A lot of the people I used to hang out with are either dead or in jail.” Many of them ended up in gangs who had preached a message that he rejects.

“I started making the right choices and it feels good to be able to do that. On March 18, 2012 I decided to start walking in a different way. And since I turned 20 I have been finding out more about myself and my culture.”

He credits his father with helping. The two men have basically walked the same road and Coyote knows that.

“The fact my journey parallels what others have experienced makes me realize even more this is why I am doing what I am doing. My dad has been my rock.”

He is still learning by the way. He’s got his first regalia this year and he intends to start dancing soon. Just after this interview Coyote was making his first trip to Los Angeles where he intends to look up a couple of dancers who perform the Men’s Fancy Dance.

As you can tell, he’s sober and serious about his work and his message. That commitment takes Coyote to schools across the country speaking about the bullying he endured and about the community he comes from.

“I just remind them that we need to show love to each other and be kind to each other.”

For non-Indigenous folks, when it comes to Indigenous topics, he says “Come and listen, come and learn.”

“We are talking about this time of reconciliation. But last Canada Day you had a teepee on Parliament Hill and people there were facing extreme racism from settlers. I knew a lot of those people. They were from my community. We talk about reconciliation in Canada but we also should talk about accountability. That’s how you build a community … you go forward and you learn about each other and how you can help each other.”

Even spending time on the land can be healing, he said.

“I was always drawn to the bush and being around nature. For someone who grew up urban in a city, you learn to really appreciate it when you get a chance to be there. I went to the Yukon to shoot a music video up there. We did this seven hour hike and I was standing on top of this mountain. The craziest part was I had cell reception up there and I ended up calling my dad and sending him a photo.

“I took a look around and realized I had walked up this mountain, so what stops me from doing anything else. I share that with people because it’s doesn’t matter how deep our hurt is, it can still heal, even though it might take time.”

Coyote’s most recent album is Mamawi which means All Together in Anishinaabemowin. His message is if the people of Canada want reconciliation, then they have to recognize Indigenous people’s place here.

“All together is the only way to move forward,” he said. “It’s not saying I hate you instead it is saying ‘Come and learn about what we go through, come learn about what I have experienced as an Indigenous person living in Canada.”

The coyote in Ojibwe culture is a trickster figure.

“I picked it because it is also seen as a clown figure. I use it to remind myself that there are going to people who will try to trick you along the journey. Even in the music industry I have had people try to take advantage of me and trick me into doing things. So every time I see a coyote it reminds me stay diligent.”

Cody Coyote
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Black Sheep Stage
When: July 8 at 5 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

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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.