Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook used a rich visual language to tell her story, to speak her truth. Unapologetically real, her drawings changed the conversation about what Inuit art is within her own community and the non-indigenous art world. As the global art community turned the spotlight on the unassuming, forthright Pootoogook, she used their attention to share the reality of what it meant for her to be Inuit in the 21st century. Always genuine to her tradition, always authentic to her lived experience.
There was a time in the not so distant past that media would have framed Pootoogook’s death earlier this month as a cautionary tale about poverty, dependency, and consumption. When news that Pootoogook’s body had been recovered from the Rideau River broke, three days after A Tribe Called Red released We Are The Halluci Nation, the narrative was as much celebration as it was solemn. As Marcia Connelly, the director of a 2006 documentary about Pootoogook told the Globe and Mail this weekend, “It’s so important that people hear her speak about her art and life, and not just think about her death.”
Like Pootoogook, A Tribe Called Red seize the opportunity attention affords them, using their own resonant musical language to share their truth on We Are The Halluci Nation. It’s a truth that has been suppressed for too long. Their third full length album is a cultural landmark, rooted firmly in A Tribe Called Red’s three interconnected communities: North American indigenous people, DJ/EDM club culture, and the post-millennial global music community. From their rock-solid pillar of powwow rhythms, DJ NDN and Bear Witness (now joined by Tim “2oolman” Hill) recruit a host of collaborators into the Halluci Nation, a termed coined by John Trudell, the late poet whose spoken word recitation opens the album. Through Trudell’s powerful, provocative words, the Halluci Nation makes itself known. “We have been called hostile; We have been called pagan; we have been called militant; We have been called many names,” he explains, “The callers of names cannot see us, but we can see them.”
The Halluci Nation, whose “DNA is of earth and sky,” of “past and future,” includes Iraqi-born Canadian rapper Narcy, Yasiin Bey (aka rapper Mos Def), Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, multiple Polaris Music Prize nominee Shad, Colombian singer/producer Lido Pimienta (now based in Toronto), award-winning author Joseph Boyden, indigenous MC Leonard Sumner, drum groups Black Bear, Chippewa Travellers, and Northern Voice (who ATCR frequently sampled on past recordings) and a host of others. They gather together as a nation who believe in a better existence for humanity, one where no one has to live in oppression, under rule of colonialism, and subject to xenophobic vitriol and hate.
The Halluci Nation are not deniers; they’re testifiers to the truth. “You don’t gotta tell me how you feel,” Shad says on the powerfully affecting “How I Feel”. He raps “I can see it in your eyes / You don’t gotta tell me the pain is real / ‘cus I can hear it in your cry,” as so too do listeners, as Northern Bear makes the message stick with their powerful vocal presence. It’s that message, politically charged and passionate, the resonates long after the album ends. “Light as helium but weighted by the drum,” the Halluci Nation is a people optimistically positive at heart. Hopeful that the struggle, the suffering, the pain and oppression of the past will not go forgotten into the future.
When Boyden says “our DNA is earth and sky, after all” on closing track “SOON”, the first-person plural he refers to is all of humanity. We are all indigenous to our mother earth. Some have forgotten that shared heritage. Some may still be intent on robbing that truth from others. But every one of us has the wherewithal to join the Halluci Nation; there’s no entrance exam or oath that needs to be memorized. You just need to open your mind to the truth. You need to open your eyes to reality. And you need to open your heart to love.