Interview: Ian Campeau “DeeJay NDN” from A Tribe Called Red

Jul 23, 2014

Credit: Pat Bolduc.

Barbara Bruederlin: A Tribe Called Red released a debut album in 2012, followed quickly by a second album in 2013. You don’t waste a lot of time between albums, do you?

Ian Campeau: No, we can’t! Strike when the iron is hot. We are trying to make an album right now while we are on the road, actually, so a lot of time and effort is going into coming up with ideas and making new songs—in our hotel rooms and on airplanes and in airports, wherever we can post stuff.

BB: Well it is obviously working for you. You’ve gotten a lot of critical acclaim on both albums so far with Polaris listings and JUNO wins and Aboriginal Peoples Choice Awards. You offered your first album as a free download, which you still offer. Are you still getting hits for that? Do you know what the traffic is like on that?

IC: Absolutely! I am not sure of the exact numbers but the last I heard it was over 50,000, which is incredible.

BB: That’s impressive!

IC: That is not a number that I thought we would ever see for that album, but giving it away for free was the best possible move we could have done. Also it was a collection of songs that were out for free for a long time anyway, so our manager suggested putting it together as one package. That way it could get reviewed and it could get played on college radio and that sort of thing. That was our manager’s sage-like advice.

BB: You are playing some interesting workshops at the Calgary Folk Festival this year, like the Dreamtime workshop where you will be jamming with some indigenous musicians from Australia. Have you met any of these musicians before?

IC: Not yet. We have collaborated and worked with a couple of indigenous artists from Australia. Also in the same capacity, we jammed and collaborated onstage at the Winnipeg Folk Fest last year. So it’s going to be really exciting.

BB: What sorts of perspectives do you gain from working with other artists, especially indigenous artists from other cultures?

IC: We are in Norway right now, playing a festival called Riddu Riddu that is put on by the Sami people, so there is a big Sami presence here. There are also some Inuit from Greenland performing here, as well as some Siberian indigenous throat-singers. Just hanging out with these indigenous people, you realize that your experience as a colonized culture is shared. We all have the same sort of experience. It’s really exciting and fun, hanging out with people from around the world who have similar stories. We have similar styles of music and styles of singing and you can pick out those similarities. We live in an exciting time.

BB: I imagine that when you were growing up you didn’t see a lot of First Nations performers in popular music, other than perhaps Buffy St. Marie. What do you think it’s going to mean to kids growing up now to have musical and cultural influences like A Tribe Called Red?

IC: As you said, growing up I didn’t have a lot of positive references in mainstream media that I was able to relate to. Most indigenous males (and females) my age in Canada all really liked the wrestler, The Ultimate Warrior. The thing is, The Ultimate Warrior was a) not indigenous and b) never said that he was indigenous. This was just something that we saw and tried to latch onto as a reflection of ourselves.

These days we have someone like Joseph Boyden getting a Giller prize and then winning Canada Reads. I have a really good friend—Waub Rice—who works for CBC as a reporter, so I am able to show my daughters, who are five and six, representation like that. Here is an Anishinaabe man who is reporting on a flood that happened. So it doesn’t have to be political and it doesn’t have to be “the angry native.”

Growing up, my big “aha” moment was the Oka crisis. That was our only cultural representation on the news. But now I can show my daughters that they can be musicians, they can be writers; I have a reference. I have something that I can show them, which wasn’t something that my parents had to show me. Things have changed.

BB: It must be very freeing, to know you have your indigenous background as just part of who you are and not to be defined solely as such.

IC: Exactly. I can’t wait until the day that A Tribe Called Red is known as artist, instead of indigenous artist. Or just DJ instead of Aboriginal DJ, even though we are willing to take that on for now because it has a purpose and there is meaning behind it. But hopefully one day we’ll just all be artists.

BB: Is it hard to be looked upon as a role model all the time?

IC: No, it’s something that we knew right away was going to be the case. We are all older—we are all in our thirties and not 18-year-old children—so we understand the influence that we have right now. We are fully willing to take that on and to put that on our shoulders.

A main focus of ours is the way we are represented in our press photos. We are laughing, we are belly laughing. It’s on purpose. Typically, people in our genre or people of our ethnicity, when they are putting out press photos, are always straight-faced and stoic. It’s really funny to us, especially at indigenous festivals, to see all the pictures of people mean-mugging—being all straight-faced—and then us just laughing.

We are representing something and we are trying to show people that we are funny people and that we laugh. Why can’t we just be human? That’s what our goal is, to show people that First Nation’s people are humans and we need to be seen as such.

BB: That is absolutely true—in all your pictures you are laughing and having a great time. From what I understand of pow wows, that is exactly what happens, there is a lot of laughter and storytelling and joy, so I think it’s quite representative in that way as well.

IC: Exactly.

BB: You recently scored a human rights victory when the Nepean minor football team rather suddenly changed their name from the Redskins to the Eagles, after you filed a human rights complaint. How did it feel when that came about so quickly?

IC: Complete vindication. That was a hard time in my life, for my family. My wife and kids were very much involved and the City of Ottawa was very public with voicing how they felt about it. Some radio stations spoke out publicly about me, calling me names and stuff like that, so it was really tedious for my family. I am able to take it, but my family had a hard time.

And then the football team decided to change their name without us having to go to court. To me it was finally an indication that things were going to change in Ottawa for my kids. My kids aren’t going to be referred to as redskins by other kids. They are school-aged, so kids from this football team were going to be going to school with my daughter, thinking that redskin was a good term to call people. I’m glad that’s not the case in Ottawa anymore.

BB: Do you think that’s why systemic racism is still so common, because it’s ingrained in the language?

IC: It’s not only ingrained in the language, it’s ingrained in society. When you colonize a people, it stems from racism, it stems from the idea that you are better than them and they need to be like you. The pride that people have being Canadian or being American—I’m not saying don’t be proud—but you have to recognize why you are Canadian or American, why these countries exist. Discussions are starting to happen and people are starting to realize what’s going on. That’s what is really exciting. People are finally understanding that they can’t call us redskin anymore; they understand why and they understand why the whole mascot issue is such a big deal.

BB: What will it be like to take your electric pow wow from the clubs back outdoors into the shady groves of Prince’s Island Park for the Calgary Folk Festival?

IC: We haven’t really been playing a lot of club dates lately, which is different for us. As our popularity grows, our tours seem to include a lot of festivals now, instead of club dates. Which is fine, we are totally happy to do it. But it’s definitely different and so we have to come up with a different set compared to what we do at our club dates.

We are DJs, so when we are playing a club we are playing to the crowd and we want to make them dance. But when A Tribe Called Red plays a festival set, we know what song comes next, the video is set up and ready, the dancer is cued for the right time and that sort of thing. But the main difference between a club and a festival gig is that at clubs we are DJing, not playing our own music.

Performance video, A Tribe Called Red live at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

BB: Do you get to bed earlier when you are playing a festival rather than a club? 

IC: It depends on the festival. We played festivals in France where our set was at 3:00 am. Even when we do have an early set, though, we tend to go back to the hotel and work on music. We have late nights no matter what.

BB: You were at the National Music Centre last month for the announcement of TD Bank’s donation of $600K toward the Aboriginal Exhibitions Content as part of the new NMC. I understand you had people up and dancing at the press conference?

IC: Yeah, it was a great time! There were people in suits dancing at 10:00 am.

BB: What does it mean to have such a significant portion of the new NMC exhibitions dedicated to Aboriginal content?

IC: I think that’s fantastic! It’s given us a level playing field. It’s given us a platform to be able to show our music more, to be able to talk about it, to be able to hear it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

–Barbara Bruederlin

About the Author

Brandon Wallis

Brandon is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Visitor Experience and for the National Music Centre and Editor-in-Chief of Amplify.

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