For Iskwé, anger energizes the fight for social justice
Although she works with sounds that are far removed from conventional notions of folk music, there’s a good reason why the Cree-Dene-Irish EDM producer and singer known as Iskwé is going to find herself at Jericho Beach Park this weekend: as folk performers have always done, she frequently concerns herself with the pressing issues of the day. And in this country, one of the most pressing issues is Canada’s shameful unwillingness to address the commonplace abduction, rape, and murder of Indigenous women and girls.
It’s not that she’s a sloganizer: although her hit “Nobody Knows” was inspired by the 2014 death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, of Manitoba’s Sagkeeng First Nation, its message is cloaked in a gospel-inflected melody and delivered atop a booming house beat. But the energy in Iskwé’s performance style, on record and on-stage, comes directly from the anger she feels about the thousands of missing and murdered women whose killers have so far gone unpunished.
“We have a hashtag that says ‘#AmINext’,” the Hamilton-based Iskwé tells the Straight from an Ontario highway, referring to a social-media campaign initiated by Inuit social-justice activist Holly Jarrett. “And my niece is two years old, so my immediate goal.…is that when my niece grows up, that hashtag is a thing of the past.
“These are conversations that we have with our kids,” she continues. “These are conversations that I had with my grandpa. These are conversations I’ve had with my mom. And in these conversations we learned that we had to protect ourselves in different ways than other demographics in this country, and that sucks.”
Although confronting discrimination and racial crime makes for powerful art, it can, Iskwé admits, take its toll on the artist. “These aren’t things that are happening to people ‘over there’ that I have no connection to,” she says. “So finding ways to continue talking about them without getting too run down by it is important. These are really heavy stories—and at the end of shows, more and more, I have people, mostly women, that will come up and share stories of their loved ones that haven’t come home, or that will never be coming home.
“So finding ways to rejuvenate my spirit, like the sun-dance ceremony and being a part of community, these are the things that give me rejuvenation as we try to get rid of this problem—the problem of us being viewed as disposable.”