Besides their longstanding and successful careers as singer-songwriters and recording artists themselves, Kish (who is Anishinaabekwe, and a member of the JUNO Award-winning duo Digging Roots) and Rheaume (Métis Nation and a Canadian Folk Music Award winner) have busy lives as activists in their Indigenous communities.
They first met onstage at the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2003, and in 2017 they got together to launch the International Indigenous Music Summit, now in its fourth year. It was while working on the Summit that they first considered the idea of launching a record label of their own. Their partnership proved to be bigger than the sum of its two parts. According to Rheaume, “It’s sisterhood, like family. The connection and the alchemy is just that much stronger.”
Ishkode Records (pronounced, ish-KOH-day) – the first major-label-distributed (by Universal) Canadian record company created and run by Indigenous women – is the end result. On a three-way conference call, Kish explains that “As we were looking at the ecology of indigenous music here and abroad, we came to realize some of the big gaps” that existed and had to be filled.
Launching the label, which references its name from an Anishinaabe prophecy, wasn’t motivated by frustration with the music industry in general, nor a determination to make a statement of their own. “It was mostly inspiration,” says Kish. “There’s just so much extraordinary talent – these incredible voices and human beings that you want to work with, that you want to be a part of amplifying to the world.”
Just as their own music is completely distinctive from each other’s, the music to be found on Ishkode promises to be unpredictable. “Indigenous people and our nations, we’re so diverse,” says Rheaume. “It’s not all just the same.” The label, she said, will be “focusing on authenticity and truth telling. There are so many artists who are courageous, and are defining their own space, instead of trying to fit into a space that already exists.”
The label’s primary goal isn’t to create an umbrella definition for Indigenous music, but to provide a space devoted to narrative sovereignty. “Narrative sovereignty is really about self-determination,” says Kish. “How we tell our own stories – it’s a core thing that Indigenous people are fighting for. It’s an inherent right.”
While COVID-19 may have created the right space in time for both of them to embark on a new journey, “It would have happened inevitably,” says Kish. “Given everything that has happened in the world, it felt that to be engaged in really meaningful work, and make a real contribution, was very important to us at the time.” The label’s first release was the Digging Roots single, “The Healer,” on Aug. 5, 2021. Kish said they’ll have, “new offerings, new signings to announce In the upcoming weeks and months.”