By Laura Beaulne-Steubing
Art by Kristina Corre
Seeing Tanya Tagaq live isn’t like seeing any other artist in performance.
The throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut growls and writhes on stage, as if possessed, bringing the traditional Inuit practice of throat singing to, it seems, another plane of existence.
She’s the kind of artist that pushes boundaries and doesn’t apologize for it. She’s outspoken about Indigenous rights, women’s rights, and environmental rights. In 2014 Tagaq won the Polaris Music Prize for her album Animism, breaking the longstanding preference among Polaris jurors for white indie music. Her emotionally-charged performance at the Polaris gala featured the names of 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women on a screen behind her.
With her new album Retribution, Tagaq demands people pay attention to environmental destruction, climate change, violence against women and, as a survivor of a residential school herself, the painful racism and oppression that Indigenous people have faced for generations.
I had the chance to speak to Tagaq about the new album, her approach to performing, and reconciliation. She doesn’t mince words about anything. And while she’s blunt and, in her own words, calls bullshit where she sees it, she does all of this with laughter and a sense of humour.
What message did you want listeners to take away from the album after sitting down and giving the whole thing a listen?
People tend to make artwork surrounding what they know and what they care about. I’m a human being and I’m concerned about the state of the planet and I’m Inuk, and spent a lot of time living on the land. So I’m concerned sociologically about Inuit and minorities and Indigenous people, and concerned for humanity with the global prospects of climate change. I’m concerned for our women because that’s what I am and I have daughters . . . These basic things are addressed through my particular artform and it’s because that’s what I know.
Why did you choose to cover “Rape Me” by Nirvana? How did you approach the song?
At the ending of our last album Animism I did a song about fracking and I was just trying to kind of imagine what it would be like if you were the earth and someone was doing fracking on you, and I just thought about how horrible and sick that would feel. It’s kind of in the same vein of violence as rape, you know? The non-consensual very kind of harmful taking of what isn’t yours.
The “Rape Me” cover was totally applicable considering missing and murdered women and the way the earth is being treated. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I’ve always loved Kurt Cobain, I always loved Nirvana. He wrote that as an anti-rape song and I think that I hadn’t really planned how I was going to do it, but as soon as the words started coming out, it kind of went from third person like Kurt CoCobain singing about rape to first person, as a woman who has gone through these things, as a mother concerned for her child. The terrible weight that you carry after sexual assaults or rapes, the shame, it makes you feel terrified and small. I think that people kind of thought it would be angry, but I don’t feel anger. I feel a complete mourning for happiness and healthiness, and a deep sadness somebody, anyone can do that to another person, or to the earth. It’s just so sad.
You know, it’s really sad that people can’t have more empathy and more love and that we can’t treat our women with respect, the conduits from the spirit world into the physical world . . . that we can’t find a better way, that we can’t break down the patriarchal system and implement a better judicial system to allow victims to feel safe. That someone could be raped and then raped all over again by the judicial system that’s set up by the patriarchy. These things all kind of came out in the lyrics.
When you perform, when you’re on stage you become otherworldly. It’s an incredible thing to see. How do you get into that space? Is it something you channel when you’re recording in a studio?
I feel like when I’m doing shows that’s the reality, and when I’m not doing shows that I’m struggling to fit into this space. Like, that’s not otherworldly. This is the unreality.
So what does that mean for you, just you know, carrying out interviews with journalists or buying groceries?
I just do my best. I don’t desire to fit in, and I call out bullshit where I see it. I don’t subscribe to any system that is outside my own core belief system. I think people are like that generally. But yeah, the place of concert is the place of freedom. I think people connect to it on a level, generally, because humanity has forgotten what it’s like to be alive in all their striving since the industrial revolution, all their striving for god and technology. People have gotten a little bit lost, I think, and are always forever looking for answers and looking for themselves and then becoming sad and anxious and confused and none of that happens out on the land. You know?
I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time out in nature. It’s very peaceful, even the violence is peaceful. People don’t understand that . . . Humans pervert things. We disengage with the world. People eat meat but they wouldn’t kill anything, they wouldn’t touch a dead animal. We disengage. You know, sex is the closest thing to prayer, organisms are like the closest thing to god, and yet it’s shameful. It’s shameful for humans. It’s ridiculous. We’re a parody of ourselves! I kind of just make fun of it a little bit.
After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry, there’s been so much talk about reconciliation. Do you believe reconciliation is possible? What’s it going to take?
I’m not gonna lose hope because . . . we’re only here for this time, and we do our best to change things. The word reconciliation is really nice and I have hope on an individual basis. I think Canadians in general are morally waking up and not wanting to be the colonizers . . . they’re not wanting to be what their ancestors were, you know? And people are really waking up to the idea of equality. That’s where I have hope in reconciliation.
Where I’m really, really miserable is the ridiculous government bureaucratic thing. Like, it was the government who stick handled this whole situation in the first place and there’s a lot of yapping about reconciliation and making things great, but no one’s really doing anything. And that’s where I get angry. That’s where it goes from reconciliation to retribution. [I’m] saying retribution because reconciliation is too slow. That peaceful wording for people to have just spew hot air and talk about how things are great and they’re going to be great. Well, make them great. Make them great now. You have the ability to do so, so do so. It’s like when you keep saying you’re going to go to the gym. It’s like, I’m gonna do it!
It’s just time. Time for it to happen. It was the government who did this in the first place. It’s going to take a national sociological shift in climate. It’s going to have to take all of Canada to come together and to start talking about it and start demanding change for it to happen.
That’s why I’m so thankful for what Gord Downie is doing because, as an Indigenous woman, I talk about Indigenous women’s rights, but for some reason there are people that will discredit that and say ‘oh of course you’re going on about this, what do you know.’ Because there’s this prevailing attitude that Indigenous people are living off the government, or we live off taxes. All these ridiculous myths and when Gord Downie says it as a white male, that sticks. He can reach a demographic of . . . hosers. I love hosers by the way! They’re my favourite.
It’s positive and that’s the thing. When I was young it wasn’t okay to be gay . . . now if you’re homophobic you’re kind of seen as this antiquated bigot. What I’m hoping to do within my lifespan hopefully is to change it from being homophobic means you’re a bigot, to being you’re a ridiculous racist means you’re a bigot. And I think it’s happening. It is! There are so many good people going for the same thing.
Is there a special place for artists in this process?
I studied art in uni and when you study art history, you’re studying the history of the people. You’re studying history of the people living . . . So when you look at art, art’s like the forerunner of the thought. That’s where people come to congregate, that’s where people come to think together. It’s like the dinner table of the mind, you know? So yeah, art has a big role to play because it’s the fabric of social conscience. It’s what makes our culture, art makes our culture.
Artists, I feel, are always siphoning reality through their own experiences and that’s why so much great art and music comes from people that have been through strife or people that have something interesting to say politically, typically. And something gets gentrified, something becomes cool. Hopefully throughout this process of Indigenous voices having more space that the lovely side effect is the dismantling of this choking racism that runs amok in Canada and then [people demanding] a shift in government procedures.