A Interview with A Tribe Called Red’s Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau

by Hannah Many Guns

Conducted via a phone-call on November 20th, 2016.

Q: What are the Nations that make up A Tribe Called Red?

A: “I am Anishinaabe from Nipissing. Ojibiway is what I identify as. Tim (2oolman) is a Six Nations Mohawk. Bear Witness is of the Cayuga. Our cultures within A Tribe Called Red are completely different – everything’s different. That definitely brings a lot of perspective, and a lot of different ideas to the table.”

Q: Is there a specific First Nation’s language used in your songs, or does it vary?

A: “It varies with the drum we’re using. The drums that we are using a lot are from Blackbear, who are Atikamekw. They’re a super dope group from Northern Quebec, four hours away from Montréal. So yeah, we use the languages of the drum that we sample.”

A Tribe Called Red’s Album ‘We Are The Halluci Nation’

Check out A Tribe Called Red’s Album ‘We Are The Halluci Nation’, delving into deep-rooted issues using the medium of modern dance music.


Q: Other than drums, is there any other traditional elements that go into constructing your music with an indigenous framework?

A: “Oh yeah. Over the past couple of year on our tours, we’ve been compiling material,” Campeau is audibly enthusiastic about this, and begins telling me a story.

“We went to Norway and played a festival called Riddu Riđđu, an all indigenous, global music festival. It’s, like, not massive. We’ve played massive festivals, and this one wasn’t very big, but it’s definitely one of my favorites where it was all indigenous people. We got to sit and hang out in Sami country, with Sami people. There were Tuvan throat singers, Greenland and Inuit people, we were there, and all kinds of other people.

“One of the people we met there was Maxida Marak, who is a Sami artist from Sweden. We got to record her traditional singing, which is called ‘Joik’. Their Joik’s – or their songs – are used to lead their reindeer herds. Reindeer herding is a part of their traditional way of living. So yeah, we got to record her Joik in Norway.” This recording can be hear on the A Tribe Called Red song ‘Eanan’.

“And then we got to record our friend Stew from the band Oka in Melbourne. He’s indigenous from Australia.” You can listen to their collaboration on the A Tribe Called Red Song song ‘Maima Koopi’. “It’s really cool to be able to record and sample indigenous singing, and indigenous instruments from their home – you know what I mean? Like recording Sami artists IN Norway; recording the didgeridoo IN Australia. It was really cool, and really important. I think that shines through on the record [We Are The Halluci Nation] a lot.”

I comment on how cool it was that they used indigenous music from all over the world, and not just Canada.

“Oh yeah. And travelling all over the world was very empowering in a way of realizing that we are not alone. We’re not alone, not in just our struggles, but even in a lot of our ceremonies. That was really eye-opening for me, travelling as far away from home as I possibly can – without leaving the planet – and seeing people doing smudging ceremonies. Seeing people do call-and-response songs that reminded me of Iroquois social songs.

“I knew we were going to connect on this colonial, oppressive history. All three of us, North American indigenous, Sami indigenous, and Australian indigenous, have gone through a type of residential school system. We’re all currently protesting against pipelines. It’s so empowering to know that we’re all going through this. In Canada, we don’t have a place to go back to. Like, when racist people say, ‘oh, go back to your country’, like, we don’t have a homeland. Our homeland was taken over and somebody else lives here now. And you feel really alone. You feel really lonely when you don’t have that place anymore. But, going to other countries, and seeing that we’re not alone – that there’s other people going through this and feeling the same thing – it’s really empowering. It makes me realize that we’re not in this struggle alone. We do have people to reach out to that are going through the same thing, and that are able to discuss the solutions.”

Ian ‘DJ NDN’ Campeau, Anishinaabe from Nipissing

Ian ‘DJ NDN’ Campeau, Anishinaabe from Nipissing

Q: Why is electronica music the medium you use in order to express your culture?

A: “Thinking back on it now, it seemed to be the easiest transition from traditional music. Traditional music is also dance orientated. So that’s what we did, meshed up dance music with dance music. Making that bridge, I think it was really important, not only for non-indigenous people to experience or hear pow-wow music for – many of them – the first time, but on the other side, a lot of indigenous youths hearing electronic music for the first time – who never really had access to that sort of thing. I like being that bridge. There’s a lot of producers coming up within our community, and it’s extremely exciting to hear what they’re putting out.”

Q: How does the perspective of being an urban indigenous person live inside of your music?

A: “It’s because it’s uniquely from that perspective, and it’s from that perspective in a way that’s not done in a sad way. A lot of indigenous music that has shone through the community is typically oppressed music, like a lot of blues, a lot of country, a lot of rap. It comes from struggle music, which is totally understandable. We’ve come through a lot of struggle, and I understand that. But I think that playing music that is not like that, that is typically happy and more upbeat, gets people in a place where they’re not ready for a fight. Instead, we’re able to have a conversation in this place we’re everybody’s dancing and happy. Where there’s no finger-pointing, and it’s not in your face like on social media. Through art, it’s a much more laid-back approach.”

Q: What is the importance of being, or remaining happy, when talking about our indigenous issues? So many people are bitter when talking about the past.

A: “There’s a lot to heal. There’s a lot to know about what happened within Canada, what we call Canada, for it to exist. The decimation of indigenous people had to happen in order for Canada to exist as it does today. When we’re confronting a lot of these really hard reality’s, when we tell people these really hard realities, I think that having this conversation at a dance party is way easier to do. What we need to say, and what we need to get out there, is easier to do when you’re dancing. I think that’s something indigenous people knew a long time ago, and that’s why dancing is such an important part of our everyday life.”

Q: Why is it important for you to raise awareness on Mother Earth throughout your album ‘We Are The Halluci Nation’?

A: “Oh man, Mother Earth – we’re all of the earth! There’s a process a long time ago that Bear [Witness] told me on how the indigenous people – the Red Nation – was going to remind the world, and the rest of humanity, how to be human beings again. We have a history. There’s an archaeologist who was hanging out on my rez and taking kids out for digs. He was telling me that there is archaeological proof that the Nipissing people, my people – and he was telling me this at my Mom’s house, while we’re sitting on that lake – that we’ve been living on that lake for 13,000 years. Like, there’s archaeological proof of it. So 13,000 years ago, the ice-age was over, the ice was receding, the melting camp was going up, and we followed up from the south,which destroys the barring strait theory.  Anyways, as we were coming up to the north, everything was getting uncovered from ice for hundreds of thousands of years. It took a long time for the tree’s and the vegetation that we see to come back. So on the scale, it showed as the tree’s were coming back – like as a timeline – and it was 6,000 years after we were there that the Maple Tree showed back up. Or showed up, I don’t even know if they were there before or what. But, like, that’s the symbol of Canada – the Maple Leaf. I’m 6,000 years older than your symbol on your flag. That is one of the most empowering moments that I’ve had. So when you look around at your 150 year anniversary next year, it kinda’ makes me, like, roll my eyes, you know what I mean? When I know that my history goes back 13,000 years.

“It gives me a lot of hope that all of this racism, this misogyny, the resource extraction without putting back, and the disruption of the natural laws is all brand new. It’s only 150 years old. So I think that we’re here to show that we’re meant to live within this. With this. We know how to live with this. That the idea of wilderness is a colonial idea. It wasn’t wild to us, it was very bountiful and it was very tame. So when people realized these things, it was home. It wasn’t wilderness, it wasn’t wild. It isn’t until we get these colonial ideas broken down that we can get that message out: that there’s other ideas of how to live, there’s other ideas of wealth.

“And I think that the smallest change in the idea of wealth will change everything. We have to change the idea of wealth from how much we can hoard and accumulate and keep away from other people, to how much we can help other people. Once we say, like ‘ hey, I grew more tomatoes, so I can give you as much as I have’, and that’s wealth. Why don’t we change it to that? That was an indigenous idea a long time ago. We have to make a change to these ideas, go back to the framework of 13,000 years ago. We can do it. All of this is brand new. All of these ideologies are brand new. We can change it. Coming from matriarchal societies, we are now living within a patriarchal society full of misogyny. This isn’t the way we lived for tens-of-thousands-of-years.

“So just getting back to your original question about representation of the earth, you know, Indigenous people believe that we are of the earth, and that we can’t live outside of that balance. Other people all over the world realize that too. So having, like, an Iraqi rapper saying the same thing, it just shows that we all understand. Again, this society that we live in within North America is brand new, and we can change it.”

Q: How do indigenous people define their identity, even when they’re off reserve and surrounded by western culture?

A: “Any way they want. It’s really funny, like, as an indigenous person, I want to be recognized as such. Even if I’m wearing my hoodie and a baseball cap, I’m still indigenous. You need to recognize that. Just because I’m not wearing buckskin and feathers all the time, it doesn’t mean that I’m not indigenous when I’m not doing that.

“It’s funny. Our time when we were in Europe playing a set, we’d have people, like, these European people, and they’ll will be upset with us. They’d say ‘I wish you’d play more of your music’. Then I’m like ‘well, we play, like, mostly our music’. Then they’re like ‘no, no, no, like more native music’, and I’m just like ‘if we make it, it’s native music’. So what they were saying is that they wanted to hear more pow-wow samples. But even when it doesn’t have pow-wow samples, the fact that we make it makes it indigenous music. It doesn’t have to have pow-wow in it to make it indigenous. Just because A Tribe Called Red made it, that’s what makes it indigenous.”

Yeah, you don’t have to put yourself in a box because you’re indigenous. It’s great to be traditional, but really –

“You can be whatever you want. Find your own way. It’s malleable, we don’t have to live in moulds. That’s a big thing within the indigenous community that we need to bring back. We never had these structures and such black and white ways of doing things. It wasn’t until the Indian Act showed up that the color of our skin mattered. It said ‘I’m white, you’re Indian, so this is what it is’. Race was legislated. People of color didn’t come up with slavery laws, with Jim Crowe laws, with the Indian Act. It was the hierarchy of race, and by white supremacy, that it was all legislated. That needs to be known, and a lot of people don’t know this. So listen, the Indian Act was not created by native people and enforced by native people. When you realize that the idea of white supremacy was what has been legislated, it will be easier to un-legislate it.”

Q: How do you think people should be going about taking that apart?

A: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. This is all very brand new, and it’s all super urgent. Like with these elections that just happened, things are scarier than ever.” I ask him what his views are on the US political election. “I understand that anything that has to do with North America doesn’t have to do with me. Any election, any government, anything that has to do with the well-being of North America, it doesn’t have to do with the well-being of indigenous people. Actually, it mostly has to do with the direct opposite of that. So I understand that the whole Trump process isn’t for me. That being said, I understand that it’s going to be really scary, and I have a lot of friends in Canada that are terrified. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I just don’t know. This is all so brand new.”

Q: What are your views on the peaceful protest our Brothers and Sisters are putting on down in the Standing Rock Sioux Nation?

A: “It’s incredible. Finally, FINALLY, people are starting to understand that our issues aren’t just indigenous issues, you know what I mean? Like water’s pretty important for humanity. And again, as indigenous people, we have to remind humanity on what it is to be human. Water’s important, we need this, guys. And so, as this protest is happening, solidarity protests are leading the news. It blows my mind that an indigenous issue would lead the news like that. I think that Trump is a direct response from non-indigenous people waking up to the plight that we’ve been talking about forever. It’s a direct reaction of Trump people trying to hold on to that white supremacy, and their ideas of capitalism.”