Cover Story

Iskwé's Blue SKy Future  by Cindy Filipenko
Iskwé's Blue SKy Future

Last year, when singer-songwriter Iskwé released The Fight Within, it was with some trepidation. Her fear wasn’t that the album would be ignored but rather that people would actually listen to it.

The follow-up to her 2013 self-titled debut album, which established her as an innovative voice in electronic-music circles, is striking in its political content. The Fight Within is a brilliant examination of issues facing Indigenous people in Canada.

“Once I released it, I was terrified,” says Iskwé. The album, she adds, “couldn’t be more personal and sacred to me. You hope people like it because it’s so personal, and when they do like it, then you’re terrified because you know they’ve listened to it.”

The Hamilton-based singer-songwriter describes the process of writing The Fight Within as completing a grief cycle, with ups and downs driven by sadness, anger, confusion and frustration that eventually brought her to a place of trying to find peace. Somewhat paradoxically, it is a grief cycle that is danceable, and her musical influences Björk, David Bowie and Buffy Sainte-Marie are in evidence throughout the album. Iskwé, who is of Cree/Dené and Irish descent, sat on the album for nearly a year and a half before releasing it.

She wanted to test the waters with the single “Nobody Knows,” an intense and raw anthem about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that was written in response to the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year old Aboriginal girl who was murdered in Winnipeg in 2014. On the strength of that 2015 single, CBC named Iskwé “one to watch in 2016.”

 All evidence points to the fact that people are watching—and listening. The single that followed the album’s 2017 release, “Soldier,” made the top 10 on CBC Radio 3’s best-of-2017 list. A spine-tingling, richly layered composition, “Soldier” seamlessly blends dance music conventions with a vocal style that has been compared to those of Shirley Bassey and Amy Winehouse. With it’s heavy, primal beat and powerful refrain, “You’ve gotta be strong, you’ve been there so long,” the hypnotic and profound song is a dance floor call to action for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to empower themselves. The album earned Iskwé the 2017 Western Canadian Music Award for electronic/dance artist of the year.

Moving into 2018, the singles from the album have done well on a variety of platforms, and Iskwé plans to take a break after nearly two years of intensive touring. She will spend some of that break at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where she’ll begin sowing the seeds for her next album. Iskwé credits the support of Canada’s national broadcaster with much of her success. While she has been critically acclaimed, some music critics have had a hard time categorizing Iskwé’s work, which has alternatively been described as electronica, trance, trip-hop, blues, R&B and soul. Yet, after a listen or two through The Fight Within, it becomes apparent that none of these adjectives, on its own, is accurate. For Iskwé, defining her sound is of little consequence.

“I like telling stories. My biggest goal is to tell stories. Whether others view me as a storyteller is unimportant. I enjoy music, I like diversity, and old things, and making those part of the process.” Iskwé credits her well-travelled, music-head Irish father with her love of music in all its diversity.

“We were never censored when it came to music. When I was 12, I was listening to Easy E—pretty heavy stuff, strong language and strong content. My dad was so upset, and handed me some headphones, saying, ‘Your sister is too young to hear this.’ His opinion was that, although he didn’t like the music, I had made a choice to listen to it.”

So how did a girl born Meghan Meister, who had never sung before, become one of Canada’s most important Indigenous voices, alongside throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and prolific singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. “My mother is Cree and Métis from Treaty 1,” says the Winnipeg-born-and-raised artist. “We can trace our lineage back 14 or 15 generations in some of the northern communities in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories,” says Iskwé. “As Indigenous people, we always ask ‘What’s your name and where are you from?’ It’s how we trace back.”

Tracing back her career is as compelling as tracing her heritage. “A friend of mine was auditioning for Canadian Idol. I always dreamed of becoming a singer but thought those opportunities only existed in New York or L.A. I didn’t grow up in the music scene. I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of the industry.” Iskwé decided to try out, and despite the odds, she made it to the first round of auditions of the show. However, she chose a song for the audition that she says she totally blew.

“My voice cracked. I picked out a Whitney Houston song I hadn’t trained, and I wasn’t experienced or developed enough,” she recalls.

Iskwé took the judges’ feedback and entered a stage of intense creative development that saw her move to Los Angeles, where she decided to work under her traditional name, or rather, an abbreviated form of her full Cree name, given to her by one of her elders, that translates to “Blue Sky Woman.” The name she now performs under, Iskwé, simply means woman. When she started to use the name Iskwé, she felt like she was connecting to a part of her spirit.

“It was a nice revelation to me. It opened a stronger, more alive thing inside.” Choosing not to use her English name was also a way of limiting the connection to her family out of respect, as she saw the things to come in her music. “The music I was creating was my choice, not their choice, and I wanted to provide some distance,” she says. Another thing that happened in Los Angeles was the evolution of Iskwé’s look, which began to evolve after she saw the film Black Swan, a dark suspense thriller that used dramatic makeup to chart the emotional landscape of two competitive ballerinas.

“A friend came to visit me, and we did a photo shoot. Black Swan had just come out, and I loved the film and the concepts of inner struggles, yin and yang, good and bad, and how there needs to be a balance between those things. “I didn’t want to be glam and hyper-feminized; it didn’t resonate. We decided to use my face as a bendy canvas.” The two friends began to develop a unique look that is a contemporary take on traditional face paint, which appealed to the singer because of her background in visual art. “It felt good. It made me feel I was tapping in to my spirit.”

That spirit has continued to evolve and grow stronger—something that’s essential for an artist whose work and politics have been criticized by online trolls who have lobbed racist remarks her way. “My first response [to trolls] is to give a gentle reminder that this is real life for people and that what they’re thinking might not be quite accurate. I don’t want to embarrass or humiliate anyone,” says Iskwé.

“My goal is to reach people. I cannot just reach the people who are already supportive. I have to keep the ones that fight back in mind. When I’m baited, I don’t bite.”

Iskwé’s wisdom is grounded in her knowledge of the myriad issues facing Indigenous people in Canada. This includes not only the inadequate education of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, but also includes mainstream society’s record of telling First Nations history from the perspective of colonizers.

“I think reconciliation starts after the stories have been shared. We can’t be told, ‘Get over it.’ We have to share our truth. You have to ask why your discomfort is more important than our history. There are uncomfortable stories that you have to imagine having experienced yourself. We have to have those conversations.

“There are women like [Indigenous children’s rights activist] Cindy Blackstock who are standing up for First Nations kids in care, doing her best to ensure that First Nations kids are experiencing the same quality of life as non-First Nations kids,” says the fiercely political performer. “Kids are the future. If we are not taking care of them, how can we ever improve our future?”

Iskwé observes that taking a stand to support Indigenous women is important because of a global context in which Indigenous women around the world are often considered disposable.

“Our women are far more likely to experience violence and sexual violence, more than another demographic. This needs to stop. I look at my mom, sister and two-year-old niece, darling friends and loved one, cousins…all of whom every day, whether we realize it or not, are vulnerable. It hurts my heart.” Indigenous issues, she says, are issues for all Canadians and are something we must reconcile together. Asked what non-Aboriginal people can do to support reconciliation efforts, “Be an active listener,” she says thoughtfully. “Give room to the people to speak and listen to the ones sharing their stories—don’t consume their space.

“I can’t tell someone how to be a better person or stand up for someone else,” she adds. “All I can say is, be comfortable in a supporting role.” A piece of that support might just be buying The Fight Within and celebrating innovative, political and exciting music by one of Canada’s most unique new artists.

Herizons exciting summer 2018 issue, in which this article appears, also carries great articles on women fighting the mandatory hijab law in Iran,  a love story about farming, and a story about a Syrian woman who defies the government regime and publishes an underground newspaper. Subscribe online and get automatic access to Herizons online archives at the same time. Plus the whole summer issue.