It would be fair to say that A Tribe Called Red is having a breakout moment.
The Ottawa-based electronic music trio was shortlisted for this year’s Polaris Music Prize for its sophomore album, Nation II Nation. The group is playing sold-out shows on both sides of the border and has been covered by almost every major media outlet in the country. Its “powwow-step” sound, which combines traditional Aboriginal music with dubstep, hip-hop, and dancehall reggae, has become a massive success.
ATCR’s Bear Witness admits that the whole thing is kind of a surprise to him and his colleagues, Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau and Dan “DJ Shub” General. Initially, he says, they were just trying to run a club night for urban First Nations youth and make music that would appeal to their community.
“Everything we’ve done really grew out of those Electric Powwow parties that we ran in Ottawa,” says Witness. “Coming from the Aboriginal community, you think you know everyone. It’s not always the largest community in a lot of places.”
“We advertised in the friendship centres and the Aboriginal student centres, and all these people who never really came out [to Aboriginal events] before, or didn’t really feel like there was a place for them, showed up.”
Still, he says, he’s happy to see non-Aboriginal audiences embrace the group’s sound.
“That’s been one of the really surprising things about this, watching non-Aboriginal people react to this music and feel it in the same way that we are,” he says. “We had some friends up from the Southern states and they were at our show—they’re a comedy group—and they had to leave because they had an early flight. We said, ‘Well, if you hold on, you’re about to see non-Native people dance to powwow music.’ And they stuck around, and they couldn’t believe it.”
The group has also been heavily associated with the Idle No More Aboriginal protest movement. Their song “The Road” was written as a tribute to Idle No More protesters. Witness isn’t surprised that the group’s success has happened at the same time as the movement’s rise to prominence.
“People ask us a lot if we’re leading something, and what I’ve realized is that we’re really just a product of the urban Aboriginal community,” he says. “We’re a reflection of where the community is right now. So if you look at it that way, it’s no coincidence that Idle No More is happening at the same time as our popularity is continuing to grow. What we’re expressing in our music is in the same realm…We’re just trying to break stereotypes of what an Aboriginal person is in 2013.”
On July 26, the band will play as part of the Toronto edition of the Mad Decent Block Party, an electronic music and hip hop festival put on by Mad Decent records, the label run by tastemaking producer Diplo. Witness says Diplo and Mad Decent have been big supporters of the band for several years.
“One of the things that really helped open us up outside of the Aboriginal community was when we got a tweet from Diplo,” he says. “Then they started blogging about us; that was probably in the winter of 2010. We did a Mad Decent Block Party two years ago in Philly, and actually played the afterparty as well.”
Even with all its success, the group is still forced to confront stereotypes of First Nations people. Most recently, they had to ask non-Aboriginal partiers to stop wearing faux-native headdresses and war paint to their festival shows.
“It’s a thing that’s just rampant at festivals, and it’s inappropriate wherever you are,” he says. “And as we play more festivals, we see it more and more. To me, the best thing we can do is show people what is real. At a festival we played recently, where we saw some of the most headdresses, we had a traditional dancer come out and perform in full regalia. And immediately you could see, this is something that’s real, and those dyed chicken feathers on your head are completely fabricated.”