"A Tribe Called Red is a constant surprise with what we're able to accomplish," Bear Witness says. "If you look at our history, we just wanted to have a dance party. Now here we are, years later, doing all these other things. That wasn't the plan."
A Tribe Called Red are admired far and wide by Indigenous youth and their elders, enthralling communities across Canada that most bands will never visit. They've achieved considerable music industry recognition, with a Juno win and a Polaris Music Prize short list appearance. Their music, well-respected by DJs and influential among producers, is creeping into advertisements and sporting events. They've inspired international Indigenous artists with their blend of electronic and traditional elements. Now, they're on the verge of something even grander with We Are the Halluci Nation.
The Halluci Nation is a concept given to them by one of their idols, John Trudell, a renowned one-time leader in the American Indian Movement; in their own words, it "promotes inclusivity, empathy and acceptance amongst all races and genders in the name of social justice. They believe that Indigenous people need to define their identity on their own terms. If you share this vision, then you are already part of the Halluci Nation."
"The story of the Halluci Nation is the reaction to the larger and more diverse audience that we find ourselves having now," Bear explains. "[Their last album, 2013's] Nation II Nation, [came] out of the Idle No More times, and us wanting to push that conversation — that Indigenous people are a sovereign nation that needs to have a conversation with the settler nations of North America. Now that we find ourselves speaking to a much larger audience, we wanted to do something that was inclusive of our audience."
Since they first broadened their scope from Ottawa's "Electric Pow Wow" party to releasing original music five years ago, A Tribe Called Red have constantly evolved and redefined themselves. Along the way, the music Bear Witness, Deejay NDN and newest member 2oolman make became the foundation from which they inspire and affect broader social change.
"People have gotten over the surprise of what we're doing," Bear offers. "How can we continue to push our ideas as artists, and also audiences', as far as what we're trying to show them?"
For ATCR, this is a trickier proposition than for most groups coming to grips with increased exposure. Newer, non-Indigenous fans don't always know how to respond. One of the flashpoint issues associated with ATCR has been non-Indigenous people showing up to their concerts in headdresses and war paint. It created a quandary where ignorance meets enthusiasm.
"There was always this thing that would come up right away: 'We want to be part of what you're doing, we want to honour what you are, we want to be included with this. I wanted to come to the show and be a part of it, that's why I wore this headdress.'"
Social media found no shortage of righteous, well-reasoned objections to this behaviour — Deejay NDN is the most outspoken member in that context — but bans and public shaming aren't such easy solutions, according to ATCR. "It's a lack of information," Bear says. "I don't even want to say a lack of respect — it's an attempt at respect, but with a lack of cultural references about what respect is."
Hence the appeal of John Trudell's vision. The activist, poet and artist took up music later in life, creating some of the sharpest politically minded albums of the '80s and '90s.
"He's somebody in my life who's been a huge icon," says Bear. "My mother left home at 16 to join the American Indian Movement. My mom would say 'He's one of the good ones,' which she doesn't say about a lot of people."
Trudell's work, Bear says, "talks a lot about remembering what it is to be human and remembering how to treat other people as human beings. The Halluci Nation is anybody who's willing to step away from the way we're dealing with things right now and look at it through John's lens. When I realized that John had given us this thing, this nation to make into something real, we could offer it to our fans: this is the way you can participate, as long as you're willing to come be a part of what we're doing."
After several missed connections with Trudell over the years, they finally met in Santa Fe. "I tried to get out that 'love your work' stuff and I didn't get far when he stopped me, and started telling me how much our work meant to him, and what he saw in what we were doing."
Then he pulled out his notebook and passed along sheets of paper. "'If I gave this to you, could you do something with it? Would you be interested? Maybe this one?' Before I could even ask [to collaborate] he was already giving me this work."
One of the last pages he gave them spelled out the concept of the Halluci Nation. On "The Halluci Nation," the first track of the new album, Trudell's is the first voice you hear, setting the tone. It also turned out to be one of his last recorded works — he died not long after.
This encounter took place about halfway into the three-year gestation of the new album, but immediately gave cohesion to sessions they'd been working on with new member 2oolman. The group had been touring relentlessly, recording as they traveled; the workload and time away from family was a primary reason for DJ Shub's departure. Though Shub's world-renowned turntablism and studio skills were a considerable loss, 2oolman brought a greater assortment of tempos, grooves and production techniques.
"We made amazing dance music with Shub, now we're making something more than that," Bear says. "[2oolman] is a natural musician in the truest, most traditional sense. He grew up in the longhouse, he grew up singing social songs — he's a traditional singer. He knows how to write traditional songs in the same way that [album guests] Black Bear [Singers] know, getting inspiration from dreams."
Sonically, We Are the Halluci Nation is a quantum leap beyond Nation II Nation, itself a major stride over their debut. They've refined the powwow elements of their music, further integrating its characteristics into their overall sonic identity. Over time, they've progressed from sampling powwow beats to directing their own recording sessions in order to build a library of sounds from creatively mic-ing drums. Dancehall and hip-hop still loom large in their sound, but Halluci Nation ebbs and flows, often trailing off to absolute silence before coming back strong. The record's pacing was so important that they left off a potential crossover hit like "Stadium Pow Wow" — released as a standalone single in June — because it didn't fit the vibe.
This careful, organic approach was extended to the many collaborations on Halluci Nation, from Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) to Swedish/Sami singer Maxida Märak to electro-Aboriginal group OKA from Australia. Colombian-Canadian producer/singer Lido Pimienta, who has toured with the band and appears on several Halluci Nation tracks, is keenly aware of how collaborations can succeed or fail. "I really enjoy how they are able to mix traditional rhythms in a way that is not tired or pleases any 'exotic' agenda. In my years recording music with different producers and DJs around the world, the common scene is that of the social climbing, groupie-attracting gross vibe. A recording session with Tribe looks like the opposite of that."
Shad, featured on "How I Feel" with Northern Voice and Leonard Sumner, is the kind of person and artist the Halluci Nation is all about. He's no stranger to collaborations but "this felt different to me," he offers. "Just watching their movement and seeing them affect people in ways I'd never seen before, I felt like something special's been happening with them and through them." Shad has a particular edge to his verses, which attack colonialism, sexism and this country's overbearing politeness in the face of injustice.
We Are the Halluci Nation also succeeds as a set of audio possibilities to be reassembled in many ways. Bear is particularly enthused by the prospect of designing flexible new set lists from this material. Moreover, 2oolman's remixing opens up new possibilities live and in the studio: Bear recounts that Tanya Tagaq's chopped-up vocal turn on "Sila" started out as an onstage experiment before being recreated in the studio, with Tagaq urging them to "do your thing to my voice!" Onstage, they've introduced hoop dancers to tens of thousands of non-Indigenous fans, greatly helping to push the art form deep into the mainstream.
ATCR's biggest asset right now is their greater means to accomplish what they want musically, visually and socially. "I think we've hit this moment in time where non-Indigenous people are interested in Indigenous music and willing to participate in Indigenous culture. There's never been this willingness before, and there's so much talent in the Indigenous community that's been missed, just because people weren't open to it and weren't interested. So what's holding people back? Access to career development. Access to managers, agencies. So I see a real gap there that needs to be bridged between the talent side and the industry side."
They'll satisfy the music industry's need for new records and tours for a wider audience, but also turn these funding opportunities into distinctive, culturally resonant projects. A Tribe Called Red did a no-cover, all-stops-pulled tour of First Nations reserves last year, and are heavily involved in the NDN Talent Collective, which seeks to help improve access for talent to resources and support.
"Yes, we work within the colonial structure of Canada. But we don't have a choice there," Bear points out. "The choice is in how we operate, how we conduct ourselves. I feel like the talent agency is a perfect example of our need to remain an active part of our community and share the 'wealth,' so to speak.
"I'm sure there are folks out there who think what we do now is selling out and maybe they're right," Bear muses. "I know I have felt that same way about bands I have loved in the past. But all I can do now is continue to conduct myself in a way that I feel honours and respects both the past and the future, and keep questioning everything, including my own success."
Tribe have defined for themselves a path that requires they act collaboratively yet independently, persuasively yet stridently, and always with a heavy sense of cultural responsibility. But people are listening, and acting. Circling back to headdresses at concerts, Bear notes "What I find surprising is that [headdresses are inappropriate] isn't our message. That's a message coming from within the music industry — there are all kinds of festivals that have banned headdresses. I don't know if that's because of our existence, but you are starting to see non-Indigenous people police themselves.
"When I talk about wanting to change things from the inside, it's about changing people's minds. It's not just about how not to sound racist — I want them to decide that being racist is wrong. I avoid fighting as much as possible. I want to find ways to get people where they need to be to have greater understanding of each other. Fighting on any level isn't going to get us there."
Pimienta knows they're mentally equipped for a lifelong journey partly because it's been their lifelong journey already. "I am impressed by their ability to stay grounded. It is tiring to have to always explain and ask people to not be assholes, but to unlearn the lies and methods and motives behind this complicated history that is colonialism, it might just take another hundred years."
Shad too is deeply impressed with "the clarity of their vision and how they've executed. I've seen them uplift their community while also straight-up transforming mainstream culture. One of the greatest things I've witnessed in Canadian music."
Assembling the Halluci Nation is ATCR's biggest challenge yet, but it's just part of a much bigger picture. "We've come to a place where we're on the brink of either catastrophically missing the point or finding that understanding," Bear observes. "From where I see the world, we're at that tipping point, and it's as scary as it is beautiful, 'cause I see people every day who are learning to truly love and treat each other like humans again. And the other side is terrifying. It's never been a scarier time and it's never been a more hopeful time. We're doing our small part to tip those scales."