Story by Adrian Brijbassi
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Ian Campeau has more than a little Chuck D in him. One of the three leaders of A Tribe Called Red, Campeau — aka Deejay NDN — is political, articulate and keenly aware of the power of his art. Like Public Enemy, whose “Fight the Power” lyrics resonated with a generation of African-Americans, A Tribe Called Red is playing music that represents the circumstances of their people.
They label their brand of dub-step music as Electric Pow Wow, a term that speaks both to their First Nations heritage and their urban sensibilities. The trio includes Campeau, Dan General (DJ Shub) and Bear Thomas (DJ Bear Witness), who hail from the Ottawa area and have infused a fresh sound in an industry that’s always eager for something new. They won the 2014 Juno Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year in March — and seem certain to overtake Arcade Fire as the Canadian act with the most media attention nationally and around the world. A Tribe Called Red was also the first all-electronic act to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. And they are one of a group of emerging aboriginal thought leaders who are building what Campeau calls a “civil rights movement” for their minority community.
“It’s not an accident or a coincidence that A Tribe Called Red and Idle No More are happening with the first generation that was not forced into residential schools. There’s something definitely there, where we are not restrained by law any more,” Campeau told me during an interview in Toronto prior to a show at The Opera House, a venue that has an intentional misnomer since it plays host to heavy metal and alternative acts. “But we are still oppressed by society and Idle No More is about us standing up and doing something collectively to say we are still here and we need to be respected like everyone else.”
A Tribe Called Red ‘Hits ‘Em With Music’
Though they aren’t shy about expressing their political opinion, Campeau and his DJ crew mates aren’t angry the way Public Enemy and other rap pioneers were. They laugh easy and often, chortling when one of them makes an adroit turn of phrase in conversation as they might do when they come up with a great rhyme for a song. The tone of their politics fits their time, when oppression isn’t so much physical the way it was when First Nations children were taken from their homes to be educated by white, Christian Canadians in the residential school program. Instead, the oppression that Campeau speaks of comes in the form of insensitive and demeaning actions that may be too subtle or too ingrained for non-aboriginals to realize.
Last week, the movement for aboriginal rights in North America won a victory in the United States when that country’s Trademark and Patent Office cancelled the trademark of the Washington Redskins of the NFL. The football team’s name was deemed offensive and offensive names can’t be trademarked. The team nicknames like the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians were among the examples Campeau pointed out as being culturally oppressive when we spoke.
Despite the band’s close ties to the Idle No More protest movement — which encourages aboriginals in Canada to be more vocal about cultural appropriation and their civil rights — the trio point out that A Tribe Called Red isn’t intended to be a political act.
“Our job is to make people dance, so if we make them dance then we’ve done our job. If they pick up on the subtext then that’s a bonus,” says Campeau, who is an Ojibwe from the Anishinabe Nation (Shub and Bear Witness are Cayuga).
And when it comes down to it, it’s the music that is the reason why A Tribe Called Red has earned such praise and attention. They started in 2010 when Campeau realized that aboriginals were the only cultural minority in Ottawa that did not have a dance night devoted to their music. A Tribe Called Red changed that and the band has now released two albums and toured the planet.
If you’ve never experienced the Electric Pow Wow, you need to. It is hypnotic, energetic, mesmerizing and fun. It makes you think about the depiction of aboriginals through the years as images of natives in film flip by behind the DJ trio, who push beats out on Apple MacBooks. The familiar sounds of tribal music pump constantly while the trio mixes in hip hop, dub step and reggae. Hoop dancer Rhonda Doxtator enchants you as soon as she hits the stage to spin and hop and wow while she links a series of hoops into two forms made to resemble an eagle’s wings.
“We’re giving people a space and a soundtrack to be proud of their culture and to be there in the urban landscape and be included. And for the non-aboriginal people, there’s an idea that we need to break out of stereotypes but we’re here to show that we’ve already broken out of those stereotypes and we’ve moved passed them. Everyone else just needs to catch up,” Bear Witness says, dropping down a sound bite that was met with quick approval from his partners.
As A Tribe Called Red travels the world, the trio succeeds in enlightening others about today’s aboriginal youth. They no doubt are inspiring both aboriginal and non-aboriginal DJs and producers. That’s the power of transcendent art.
“Go back to what Bob Marley said, which was, ‘Hit me with music.’ And that’s what we’re doing,” Bear Witness says and then breaks out into a grin. “We’re taking our culture and aboriginal politics and we’re wrapping it in music and hitting them over the head with it.”
MORE ABOUT A TRIBE CALLED RED
Members: Deejay NDN (Ian Campeau), DJ Shub (Dan General) and DJ Bear Witness (Bear Thomas).
Upcoming Shows: The band concludes its current Canadian dates on Canada Day, with a July 1 performance at the Banff Centre in Alberta. They then travel to Europe before returning to Canada for the Calgary Folk Music Festival on July 25. Check complete dates on the Tour page of their website.
Music: You can listen to and download the band’s albums — “Nation II Nation” and “A Tribe Called Red” — on their website.
Notable Tour Stop: “New Orleans is one place that absolutely lives up to the hype,” says Campeau. “Everything about the place is amazing, from the food, to the music, to the people. There’s nowhere else in the world like it.”
Favourite Road Trip Song: “The Rooster” by Alice in Chains. Bear Witness says: “On our road trip around the States, there was one stretch where we could only get one satellite radio station and they played ‘The Rooster’ like three times in an hour. And, you know what? Every time it sounded great.”
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