When #CancelCanadaDay began trending on social media – weeks after a series of unmarked Residential “School” graves filled with the remains of Indigenous children and youth were unearthed – some took to social media and podiums to decry Canada Day as the latest victim of cancel culture. But for Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, including Vancouver-based Indigenous rapper and activist Dakota Bear, aka Dakk’One, they knew this was untrue.

“Cancel Canada Day was a thing before hashtags were invented,” says Bear. “The very first Canada Day that there was, Indigenous people were not celebrating it, so this is a continuation of resistance. People say this is cancel culture, but for Canada to be what it is today, they had to cancel us completely, and then build on top of what we already created. We had infrastructure, government, kinship, and educational systems. All of these were thriving. The United States Constitution was built off of the back of the Iroquois Confederacy. So, we’ve been cancelling Canada Day since Canada day was a thing.”

The rapper/poet speaks with the force of an orator and activist born decades ago… but only four years ago, he was beginning the path to overcome addiction and reclaim his stolen identity.

Born in Saskatoon, Bear recalls witnessing (and later experiencing) family members struggling with addictions, malformed coping mechanisms, and unhealed inter-generational traumas caused by Residential “School” abuse, neglect, and identity-cultural persecution. During childhood, his pen became medicine – gifted with the love of words from his grandmother, young Bear wrote poems and short stories. But Eminem’s 8 Mile changed his life. The film’s unflinching look at addiction, family trauma, poverty, and self-reliance profoundly resonated, as did the music.

“The hip-hop soundtrack inspired and empowered me to start creating music to tell my own story and uplift others,” he says. “I just got attached to it, I just got drawn in.” When his mother gave him the option of a high-tech microphone or boxing classes, he picked the mic, and by 16 he was headlining his own DIY show to debut his self-made mixtape. It was a success, built on YouTube videos shot by his then eight-year-old brother on a flip camera, and lyrical content that resonated. Today, his music accolades include sharing the stages with hip-hop icons like Bone Thugs n’ Harmony, Redman, Method Man, and Tech N9ne. And now another side of his life has quickly stepped up beside his music to take centre stage: activism.

Bear grew up hearing about Residential “School” horrors, and the children, women, and family members throughout his community who’d simply gone missing. Like many before him, addiction and survival became his way of life. But inspired by his grandmother’s and mother’s resilience, he began a healing journey.

“I feel like I was positioned by the creator and ancestors, who have really guided me, on this whole process of a healing journey – what we call the red road. It’s free from your addictions, and living a good life, grounded in your prayer and your good intentions,” says Bear, citing sweat lodges, his spirit name ceremony, and loving connections to elders as support systems. (Bear credits Idle No More founder Sylvia McAdam [Saysewahum] as one of his greatest teachers, and his family is also learning Cree).

“That’s exactly when I started to find my roots and my purpose here,” he says. “I knew it was greater than just being a hip-hop artist. I could feel it. Once I started to get more clarity, I started positioning myself as a helper. To help with the work that needs to be done, stand up against injustices, and use music as a vehicle to push that message of unification.”

Bear found himself not only attending rallies, but organizing them, his music videos fueling fans to join. “It created an online movement,” he says. “We were able to cultivate calls to action, bring people into the streets for different causes, like Protect Our People: the rise of human trafficking in the prairies.” But while the most recent Cancel Canada Day was the biggest thus far, spurred on by visible proof of what many already knew existed – a quiet yet relentless genocide, which includes Missing and Murdered Women – Bear wants everyone to keep building community and momentum for justice.

“There’s a lot of grief and worry about those aunties and uncles and babies that we had lost,” he says. “Those are language carriers. Those are ceremony holders. We lost them. Their spirits are now in the spirit world, but it’s a big loss for our community. In 2008 there was an apology, but it was really brief. After the apology, the Prime Minister said that Canada doesn’t have a history of colonialism. It’s like saying, ‘Sorry for doing this but also we didn’t do this.’

“So now we have leverage to stand on. We have more fire inside of us that helps us to continue and carry on this fight, the collective voice of us and our allies are continuing to grow louder and louder. Do something. Whatever it is, you have to not let this be another story in the media. We have to make changes. We can’t be the generation to just brush this under the rug because that’s how things continue to repeat themselves.”

When Shawnee Kish was announced as the winner of CBC Music’s Searchlight contest in March of 2020 for her song “Building a Wall” – the first Indigenous artist to take home the top spot in the annual talent competition – it should have catapulted her to stages across the country. Except that a week later, all those stages were shut. There would be no performance at JUNO Week. Or anywhere, really. The global pandemic was quickly decimating so much of the arts, culture, and entertainment business, leaving nothing but uncertainty for most performers. So she did what she always does in challenging times: she wrote more songs.

“Whenever I’m faced with a struggle, I go right back to music,” says Kish, on the phone from her current home base in Edmonton. “The pandemic wasn’t even the worst part. In the past two years, a lot has changed in my world on a personal level. My mom got sick, and she’s been the one thing I thought could never change. She had this massive stroke. Watching her go through that, being there when she [was] on life support, it felt like all of a sudden my whole world was one big, ‘What do I do?’” So I use the art to launch me into self-empowerment and inspiration, to get over whatever I need to get over.”

Music as medicine was a lesson Kish learned at an early age. She began writing and recording songs as early as five years old. Then, as a teenager, she discovered it was a way to deal with the pressures of trying to fit in, as a young Mohawk woman coming to terms with her Two-Spirit identity.

“I don’t think I’d be here today without music,” she says. “I wasn’t out. And there was pressure from peers and family to fit into a certain place in the world. Not just my sexuality, but also my Indigenous background. I didn’t grow up on a reserve. So, [I was] trying to understand if there was a place for me. I remember waking up and feeling so alone. Then I ‘d take off on my bike and go into a bush and sit there, connect with the land, and write music. That felt like safety. Like healing and self-expression. I realized that I can be okay. And what if this could be my future? That I could have purpose and meaning? And I’ve never looked back.”

“I use the art to get over whatever I need to get over”

Indeed. Apart from Searchlight, Shawnee’s many recent achievements include sharing stages with Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Alicia Keys, and appearing on Billboard’s 2019 list of Musicians You Need To Know, and MTV’s list of Top Gender Bending Artists.

Shawnee’s self-titled EP (released June 25, 2021) features the singles “Got it Bad,” a fiery blues-rock song that reached No. 4 on the CBC Music Top 20 countdown, and the scorching, soulful pop song “Burnin’ Love,” featuring Jamie Fine, formerly of the duo Elijah Woods x Jamie Fine. The two met through the Allan Slaight JUNO Master Class, a development and mentorship program.

It hasn’t always been so smooth to navigate the Canadian music industry. Kish recalls being asked, when she was younger, to change her hair to be more appealing to an imagined straight male audience. And getting a lot of unsolicited advice from business associates who seemed to know more about who she should be than she did. Today, as a proud member of the LGTBQ+ community, who gives back to organizations like Kids Help Phone, Kish hopes that the songs she writes from all these life experiences will help others.

“I don’t have control over the hands my music will get into, where my career will end up, where music will take me,” she says. “But I do have control of growing as a writer, as a lyricist, as a person who can stand tall and tell my story. And I hope that I might be able to change someone else who’s like me.”

Toronto producer Jenius has been living up to his name, by applying his prodigious  skills to recordings by some of hip-hop’s biggest names.

Freshly signed to WondaGurl’s new label  Wonderchild, 19-year old Jenius’ most recent success was a placement on Chicago rapper  Polo G’s Hall Of Fame, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 in June 2021. Credited on “Go Part 1,” alongside fellow Toronto native FrancisGotHeat, Jenius worked directly with Polo G on the song’s foreboding sonic foundation. “It wasn’t like we just gave him the beat,” says Jenius. “I mean, we really, really produced the record out, and made it come to fruition.”

In describing  the process of producing it,  you can hear the pride in Jenius’ voice. It’s a testament to the confidence he has in the growth and versatility of his production acumen. “That versatility is definitely something that I pride myself on,” he says assuredly. “I know how to make every type of music, I guess. One thing that I want to get out of music is that it’s me, you know? My style is hard-hitting and knocking. I want my music to be felt, not just be heard.”

Aside from Polo G, artists like Travi$ Scott, JackBoys, Jack Harlow, and Canadian artists like KILLY and Anders, have all benefitted from Jenius’ sonic prowess, which was cultivated at a very young age.

Born Julius-Alexander Brown, Jenius remembers the musical foundation of reggae and dancehall – by artists like Buju Banton, Capleton, and Bob Marley – being instilled in him as a young child growing up in Whitby, Ontario. He was turned on to hip-hop by hearing his dad play the ominous boom-bap of Mobb Deep. Taught by his father to make beats at the age of eight, Jenius was raised in an encouraging familial environment to cultivate and develop his craft.

“For a couple years, we were just making beats as a father-son bonding type thing,” says Jenius. “And then it became a thing where I was just making beats by myself on my own time… then I really developed the passion, and loved creating music.”

In addition to his father’s encouragement, Jenius also drew inspiration from Toronto rapper Infinite, who happens to be his uncle. Infinite came into the spotlight as a member of influential Canadian hip-hop group Ghetto Concept in the mid-‘90s, and branched off from the group to record hit tracks like “Gotta Get Mine” and “Take A Look” in a notable solo career.

“That showed me that I could do it also, at a young age,” says Jenius. “Seeing that, from a family member being able to do it, at his level, it was like, ‘If he can do it, I can do it, too.’”

“I want my music to be felt, not just be heard”

At 12, Jenius was convinced that being a music producer would be his career. After logging his first major placement at 14, there was no turning back. “Never Let Up,” a song he produced for Killy, was nominated for a JUNO Award while he was still in high school.

While Jenius has obviously proved himself in his own right, early on in his career he made a shrewd link with WondaGurl. After his father reached out to her team online, to notify her of Jenius’ production skills, the two met in a studio to make some beats. The creative connection they forged, which Jenius describes as “organic,” has meant that – as well as being signed to her label – Jenius has often worked collaboratively with her. One of the production credits the duo shares is “Bad B**** From Tokyo,” the intro track to the late Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars, Aim for The Moon album – although Jenius didn’t know it at first.

“When [the album] came out, I pressed play on the first song, and it was my beat,” he says. “And I was, like, ‘Oh, wow! I got a song on the Pop Smoke album.’” It turns out the beat was one that Jenius had created with WondaGurl a year earlier, while in high school, and he’d almost forgotten about it. WondaGurl – who was in the car with Jenius and some friends when he pressed play – had been given the heads-up about the placement, but wanted to surprise her beat-making colleague.

As exhilarating as that particular scenario sounds, Jenius’ usual collaborative approach thrives on strategy rather than serendipity.

“I have a very, very small group of producers that I work with,” he says. “But it’s all, again, an organic relationship… It’s just people that  I like making music with. But when it comes to making music with them, I like to dive into the process. I’ll be in the studio with whoever said producer is, and we’ll just create something together. I’ll do the melody, they’ll do drums, or we’ll both do it together. It really depends [on the situation].”

It’s this type of intuitive fluidity and malleable intellectual approach that anchors the seemingly lofty aspirations of Jenius’ production moniker in matter-of-fact reality.

“I was always told that I was a genius, even from before I was making music,” he says. “I was in school, getting straight A’s, doing reading at eighth-grade level in first grade. And beyond that now, I prove that on a music and creative level, I’m a creative genius.  Anybody that I’ve worked with on music can vouch for that.”