TORONTO, ONTARIO -- Ian Campeau has more than a little Chuck D in him. One of the three leaders of A Tribe Called Red, Campeau -- aka Deejay NDN -- is political, articulate and keenly aware of the power of his art. Like Public Enemy, whose "Fight the Power" lyrics resonated with a generation of African-Americans, A Tribe Called Red is playing music that represents the circumstances of their people.
They label their brand of dub-step music as Electric Pow Wow, a term that speaks both to their First Nations heritage and their urban sensibilities. The trio includes Campeau, Dan General (DJ Shub) and Bear Thomas (DJ Bear Witness), who hail from the Ottawa area and have infused a fresh sound in an industry that's always eager for something new. They won the 2014 Juno Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year in March -- and seem certain to overtake Arcade Fire as the Canadian act with the most media attention nationally and around the world. A Tribe Called Red was also the first all-electronic act to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. And they are one of a group of emerging aboriginal thought leaders who are building what Campeau calls a "civil rights movement" for their minority community.
"It's not an accident or a coincidence that A Tribe Called Red and Idle No More are happening with the first generation that was not forced into residential schools. There's something definitely there, where we are not restrained by law any more," Campeau told me during an interview in Toronto prior to a show at The Opera House, a venue that has an intentional misnomer since it plays host to heavy metal and alternative acts. "But we are still oppressed by society and Idle No More is about us standing up and doing something collectively to say we are still here and we need to be respected like everyone else."
A Tribe Called Red 'Hits 'Em With Music'
Though they aren't shy about expressing their political opinion, Campeau and his DJ crew mates aren't angry the way Public Enemy and other rap pioneers were. They laugh easy and often, chortling when one of them makes an adroit turn of phrase in conversation as they might do when they come up with a great rhyme for a song. The tone of their politics fits their time, when oppression isn't so much physical the way it was when First Nations children were taken from their homes to be educated by white, Christian Canadians in the residential school program. Instead, the oppression that Campeau speaks of comes in the form of insensitive and demeaning actions that may be too subtle or too ingrained for non-aboriginals to realize.
Last week, the movement for aboriginal rights in North America won a victory in the United States when that country's Trademark and Patent Office cancelled the trademark of the Washington Redskins of the NFL. The football team's name was deemed offensive and offensive names can't be trademarked. The team nicknames like the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians were among the examples Campeau pointed out as being culturally oppressive when we spoke.
Despite the band's close ties to the Idle No More protest movement -- which encourages aboriginals in Canada to be more vocal about cultural appropriation and their civil rights -- the trio point out that A Tribe Called Red isn't intended to be a political act.
"Our job is to make people dance, so if we make them dance then we've done our job. If they pick up on the subtext then that's a bonus," says Campeau, who is an Ojibwe from the Anishinabe Nation (Shub and Bear Witness are Cayuga).
Story by Adrian Brijbassi, Vacay.ca Writer.
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