In September 2016, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson released her second full-length album, f(l)ight, shortly after the launch of Jarrett Martineau’s new Indigenous music label, RPM Records. The frequent collaborators and longtime friends recently interviewed one another, conversing openly about creative kinship, defining Indigenous art, defying colonial categorization and the nuances of refusal.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: Oftentimes when I’m writing a book or making a record, once the actual making part is over the magic is over for me. The slugging around and getting people interested in it is something that kills the part of me that can create.
With RPM it was a very different experience. Picking album art wasn’t just a matter of finding a visual image that embodies what I was doing on the record. It involved meeting a visual artist and working with their experience of the record to come up with their own artistic visual interpretation of my work.
Another visual component of this record has been the videos. There’s a series of five or six videos, some of which have been released and some of which are forthcoming. For the most part, I commissioned emerging Indigenous filmmakers, like Amos Scott, Amanda Strong and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, to do a film interpretation of the tracks. With the videos we’ve built up a layer of visual depth to the album, and spiralled into a deeper level of connection with audiences and the Indigenous artists.
Jarrett Martineau: Let’s talk about the positioning of the work. I’ve seen your ability to really move between many different audiences and spheres of influence, and be consistent in your voice and vision as you’ve moved through those spaces. Indigenous art tends to fall within a fairly circumscribed set of parameters around what is considered to be in line with whatever that is, or whatever is considered to be deviant from or defying those expectations.
We’ve talked about these very narrow categories people want to impose on your album and work. Is it a spoken-word record? If it isn’t a spoken-word record and it’s something else, this “something else” needs to be squarely defined. Do you feel like that’s part of your commitment: to resist that level of signification and to refuse that ordering or categorization of the work based on these very narrow or circumscribed categories?
LBS: I think this is an extremely lucky generation, because we’ve had a few generations of Indigenous artists go through the colonial arts system now, and figure out how to navigate those systems through coding, layering and refusing. I’ve been able to be surrounded and influenced by these radical and brilliant Indigenous artists that don’t ask permission, that by nature refuse colonial recognition, and generate through their practice, their performance and the creation of their work this alternative.
I think I’ve learned a lot from watching them in terms of insertion and intervention—how everything you do, and the way that you do it, is an opportunity to be an intervention, theoretically, artistically and politically. I find that a powerful way of being in the world, and one that aligns with my ancestors and our practices of making and creating.
So when I watch people like Rebecca Belmore, I don’t even watch her work—I experience it. There’s such a beautiful refusal in her work. I think the same thing about Duane Linklater and Tanya Lukin Linklater, and their work around challenging what it means to be in the gallery space.
I think there’s multiple sites and multiple iterations of Indigenous artists and Indigenous people doing this work. Part of it is very deliberate and strategic, but part of it is very naturally how I am in this world. I feel like the base of my practice—whether it’s academic, political, writing or musical—is the base of my life, which is this relationship I have to my land, to my ancestors, and to my language and ceremony. And figuring out how to best amplify, affirm and embody that and create that world for myself to live in.
JM: Why do you think non-Indigenous people are so invested in defining what counts as Indigenous work?
LBS: Because I think there is power in naming. There is power in naming what is and what isn’t. It’s the same reason why they’re so invested in naming who is Indigenous and who isn’t; what is Indigenous land and what isn’t. So, I think it’s a manifestation of settler-colonialism, heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. To restrict and control our interventions and brilliance.
I don’t think that non-Indigenous people, Canada or the state actually get to define what’s Indigenous art or not. I think Indigenous artists get to define that, and they have, in a really consistent, brilliant way for hundreds of years now. I think that refusal, the idea of generating an Indigenous space and holding the space, is critical, not just in the making process but in the sharing process.
I really love it when Indigenous writers talk to me about my work, Indigenous curators curate me or I get to perform in an Indigenous space with lots of Indigenous people in the audience. I think those kinds of conversations and connections then add depth and conversation to the work. I think that then produces a conversation through self-representation where these conversations are presented to Canadians and to non-Indigenous people on our own terms.
When we do that—when we have those intelligent, ethical, political, artistic discussions about our work—it really decentres whiteness. Instead of dumbing our work down for the masses, it elevates the whole thing up.
JM: I’m all for advocating for and amplifying those spaces where that kind of encounter is possible. I feel like our unapologetic creative self-expression is one of the most powerful gifts we have as Indigenous people, and something that needs to be celebrated at every place that we can. And fortified, not just celebrated, because celebration implies this fait accompli—something that’s already achieved.
That’s been a big part of my own vision for what I hope that RPM can be—to build those support structures for artists in our community that otherwise may not have access to that. It’s all relationship and community building for me.
We’re claiming the space that has been denied to us. I have no problem advocating for that space to be claimed by the artists that we work with. In and through the configuration that is RPM is one space to do it, and there’s many others. I feel like that’s part of the opportunity here.
Part of our job at RPM, or part of my work, I think, is also about putting [Indigenous artists] squarely in front of people who otherwise wouldn’t even know about them. And if that’s with an artist they’ve never heard of, then the work is around an introduction. If that’s with an artist they have some familiarity with, then it’s about showing that work and that artist in a new light. I feel like maybe that’s the moment that I’m trying to seize upon right now—to actually see the work represented from a place of strength.
Album art by sab meynert for Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Ziibiwan’s RPM Live 002, released by RPM Records in 2016.
LBS: I think it’s more than just connecting non-Indigenous people to our Indigenous art and Indigenous music. It’s also about teaching them how to connect by shattering these kinds of stereotypes, and talking about our work in a way that’s meaningful to us.
I think it’s really important that there’s this community of Indigenous writers, Indigenous curators and now a label. I think Indigenous publishers have been doing this for years and years—helping us frame our work and talking about it in a way that is truthful and meaningful to Indigenous people, not just recycling these tired old stereotypes of what Indigenous people are and what our art looks like and sounds like.
JM: Moving into the future, I feel like the challenge is going to be around enacting. The challenge is around how we are able to mobilize these acts of intervention or refusal, both of categorization and at the level of the kind of work that’s being made, and at the same time be supported in that by organizations, funding bodies and resources that are outside our community.
At the level of structural support, us trying to make it within the music industry as a music company, or even working broadly in Indigenous media in this country, still requires that similar kind of intervention at the industry level.
We’re working on those multiple fronts simultaneously and it’s going to be interesting for me to see how that shakes out. People don’t always want to give money to things that refuse them the very expectations that they have about Indigenous peoples and their art.
This post is adapted from the article “Spiralling Into a Deeper Level of Connection,” published in the Summer 2017 issue of Canadian Art.