Why A Tribe Called Red should win the Polaris Prize

by Chris Wheeler (Special to Grayowl Point)


“If you’re First Nations in Canada, just the fact that you’re even alive is a political statement.” – Ian Campeau in Now

“Everything that we do is political. When we wake up in the morning—that’s political. The fact that we’re here driving and surviving is political because everything has been done in the past 500 years to stop that from happening. So the politics part of it is automatic.” – Bear Witness in Vice

I feel comfortable saying, without hesitation, that A Tribe Called Red’s 2013 Polaris Prize short listed album Nation II Nation is perhaps the most culturally and politically significant and important Canadian album ever. Yes, ever.  Bear Witness, Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau, and Dan “DJ Shub” General’s A Tribe Called Red represents no less than an affront to everything that has happened since the first European stepped on the continent. It threatens my own history, the history of my ancestors, and the history of Canada. And yet here I am, advocating that Nation II Nation is the most artistically worthy album, in probably the most musically diverse Polaris short list to date, to receive the prize of $30,000 and title of Canada’s best album.

It is not the first album, nor the first peoples, to threaten my history or other histories by simply existing. Such a claim would be a disservice to the history of, among others, punk, rap, and other native musics. But certainly Nation II Nation’s timeliness and relevance to the current political context in Canada is unmatched in the hundreds of years the Canadian government has been trying to solve the “Native Problem.” The history of the Canada’s First Nations peoples is one of deliberate, systemic, and uniform movement away from precisely this moment, this modern civil rights moment and movement.

If you have doubts, you haven’t been paying attention and you’re part of the problem.

Nation II Nation, even by its name, challenges us directly to reexamine our complicity in this history and the demands of the Idle No More movement. Are First Nations peoples Canadian? Or are the diverse myriad communities of Indigenous peoples within Canada worthy of recognition as sovereign nations in their own right.

From start to finish, this album cultivates and demands better answers to these questions. It explores how we got here, and where the Idle No More movement is going, perhaps nowhere more concisely than on “The Road”. There is sadness and even anger embedded throughout the album within the juxtaposition of native vocal lines and drum beats alongside the ultra modern music styling of electronic dance music and other culturally appropriated music in the mainstream.  “Tonto’s Revenge” reminds us that the cultural appropriation of native symbols in popular culture and media is not without consequence.

Meanwhile the music is also incredibly empowering and provides a space for indigenous music and peoples in a modern context, declaring, unequivocally, we belong here, among you, in urban and political spaces traditionally reserved for non-natives and western culture.  And there is an obvious joyous quality to the music in that it celebrates and shares the traditions of native peoples on their own terms.

The music is as accessible as it is challenging. It is urban and familiar but also critical and different. It bridges gaps musically and artistically, while demanding better bridges politically. Importantly, it is not without criticism of its own culture, including female voices on “Sisters” which are not usually incorporated in traditional Native drum music. The music inspires movement while hoping to inspire a movement. Indeed, Nation II Nation is extremely compelling as an artifact in the way it makes you want to move your feet and dance with reckless abandon.

The winner of the Polaris Prize is supposed to be selected on artistic merit alone, “without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history,” but on Nation II Nation the artistic and political are one; the album is inseparable from Idle No More both in content and context and the benefits are tangible. Undeniably, Nation II Nation would represent a very powerful and progressive political statement of solidarity from the select Canadian music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers that comprise the Polaris jury. Polaris politics aside, I think Nation II Nation will continue to speak for itself.


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