LONDON, ONT. — Indigenous musicians attending the 48th Juno Awards ceremony congregated within the Budweiser Gardens last Saturday and Sunday.
This included nominees Indigenous Music Album of the Year; Northern Cree for Nitsanak Brothers and Sisters, Elisapie Isaac for The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, Snotty nose Rez Kids for The Average Savage, Leonard Summer for Standing in the Light and the winner of the category Jeremy Dutcher for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa — an album done entirely in the Wolastoqiyik language.
Currently, most Indigenous artists of all genres are placed into the Indigenous Music Album of the Year category, despite being very different. Thus, the Indigenous musicians that attended the awards ceremony say that they don’t need to be grouped into one category.
Taking a look at the other categories, no indigenous artists were nominated in rock, country or alternative album awards. Yet nearly all of the nominations for the Indigenous Music Album of the Year Award could have.
This included Snotty nose Rez Kids rappers Darren Mets and Quinton Nyce, with Metz sharing with APTN that the categorization is “kind of wack.”
“I do take pride in [our nomination], but at the same time I think it’s kind of wack,” said Metz. “They put us all into one group. So there’s four or five different genres put into one category, you know what I mean?”
Although they could have been nominated for Rap Album of the Year Award, the rapping duo seem to need an award all on their own.
The duo weren’t equipped as children to analyze the vicious Indigenous stereotypes and racist caricatures flashing on their TV screens.
Like many kids of the late 1990s, they were raised on a steady diet of Disney classics while living in Kitamaat Village on Haisla Nation in northwest B.C. Some of those animated movies sent clear negative messages about their identities that echoed throughout the community.
“Peter Pan” presented Native Americans as “savages” who spoke in monosyllables, while “Pocahontas” romanticized colonialism by framing it against a love story. Metz and Nyce remember how elders rarely questioned the ways Hollywood movies taught the Indigenous youth to devalue themselves.
“We grew up with a lot of racism in our community,” explained Metz, the 26-year-old MC also known as Young D. “It was normalized, even to me and my parents.”
The wounds of those memories flow throughout “The Average Savage,” the rap duo’s 2017 sophomore album which was nominated. The 16-track project rebukes those damaging stereotypes they say affected generations of Indigenous people, drawing from audio samples of Bugs Bunny cartoons and a conversation about mascots broadcast on Oprah’s talk show.
Each clip is a pop culture reference point for rhymes about racism in Canada.
“I wanted to make an album about all the stuff that’s been drilled into our heads for years,” Metz said. “It’s a never-ending cycle unless you break it.”
Songs like “Kkkanada” and “Savages” are brash, confident and were written to elevate young Indigenous people, rather than attract mainstream accolades. That changed, however, when a jury of music critics and industry players heard the album last year and helped the small independent release land on the national radar with a spot on the Polaris Music Prize short list.
Not long afterwards, tour dates and festival appearances were being locked in across the continent.
It was a shock for the two high school friends who embraced their shared love for hip-hop and began recording music with a “cheap $20 mic” on their computer in 2012, Metz said.
Three years later, Metz enrolled in an audio engineering program at Vancouver’s Harbourside Institute of Technology where Nyce joined him on a mixtape.
In rapid succession, the duo released two full-length albums that marked an evolution in their sound. The first album was inspired by the cadence of their idols, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, but “The Average Savage” carried a voice that was unmistakably their own.
As the album gained traction, the duo leaned more heavily into their political views by dropping the single “The Warriors,” a relentless condemnation of a planned pipeline expansion in Western Canada.
“With the stuff that’s going on in our own backyard… getting a pipeline through the territory makes it really personal for us,” said Nyce.
What’s different for Snotty Nose Rez Kids now is that people are listening. They’ve seen it within the Indigenous community, and also in outside circles where their commentary on social issues is leading to a new unity across many lines, he added.
“Now that we have this stage, this platform, we can have our voices heard by communities all across Turtle Island,” said Nyce, the 29-year-old who performs as Yung Trybez. “There’s no way we would’ve been able to do that two years ago with any mixtape we released.”
But the sudden popularity also led the duo to reassess their priorities.
After initially planning to release a mixtape that capitalized on the growing attention with a collection of protest anthems with club tracks, they decided to hit reset on the project and reconsider exactly what they wanted to say.
“The tone of the album wasn’t supposed to be a political album,” said Nyce, “but with who we are, and what we write about, it’s kind of hard to stay away from that.”
The duo scrapped the album’s original title, which had a lighter bent, renamed it “Trapline” and wrote several new songs and skits that “turned it into something more powerful,” Nyce explained.
One of the tracks features all-female Toronto group the Sorority lending their vocals to a song about empowerment of women in the hip-hop community, which has traditionally fallen short of giving women equal space to tell their stories.
Keysha Fanfair, who performs in the Sorority as Keysha Freshh, said the experience was one of mutual reverence.
“They were giving us the opportunity to take the lead and come up with the ideas,” she said.
“There was no male bravado over us. It was just like, we’re all here, we’re all respecting each other’s talent.”
Nyce said “Trapline” won’t lose sight of the role of women in First Nations communities. “We come from a matriarchal background where the women are our leaders, so the album’s going to speak to that,” he said.
What lies ahead for Snotty Nose Rez Kids seems almost limitless. They’re arriving at a powerful time for Indigenous music, an era that Juno Award winner Jeremy Dutcher has labelled a “renaissance” for the Indigenous arts community.
Nyce is hopeful that radio stations across the country will pay more attention to the vibrant and diverse sounds of Indigenous musicians, who he believe hit a stride around the formation of the Idle No More movement in 2012.
“We started getting a different kind of attention in the media, we started being broadcasted more,” he said. “People were changing as artists and they were starting to find their true identities.”
He is confident Indigenous music will be elevated higher over the next five years as another generation of voices emerges.
“You’re going to start seeing a lot more First Nations artists on the mainstream platform,” Nyce said. “That includes ourselves if we keep playing our cards right.”
As the indigenous sector of contemporary music grows, hopefully more contemporary platforms will step up to provide more diverse options for indigenous artists to shine in the same way.