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.”

The career path of Toronto-based producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Don Mills (real name Miloš Angelov) has certainly been unconventional. It’s taken him from studying classical violin in Serbia, to work with top Canadian R&B and rock acts, and now production and songwriting work on hit tracks and albums from such major international hip-hop and pop artists as J Cole, Juice WRLD, Maroon 5, Rea Garvey, and Giveon.

This is not a route Mills could have predicted, but he was always confident music-making was in his future. “Both my father and grandfather made a living from making music, so this is like the family business. It’s embedded in me,” he says.

Mills studied violin, then percussion, at Stanković Music School, and often performed with the Belgrade Youth Symphony, prior to moving to Toronto with his family at age 17. He then transitioned to playing bass, and after a stint studying at Humber College, soon became an in-demand player with Canadian R&B artists. “I played with Zaki Ibrahim and filled in for artists like Divine Brown and the Philosopher Kings,” he recalls.

His chops were also honed through regular gigs at famed (and now defunct) Toronto nightclub and muso hangout The Orbit Room, with Wade O. Brown’s The A Team and Hot Fire, and then via session work with such artists as Fito Blanko and Ray Robinson.

“I always wanted to do multiple things in music”

A stylistic detour came when he was recruited by rocker Matthew Good for his band. “I joined just prior to recording the Live At Massey Hall album in 2008, and that led to a really good run of eight years,” says Mills.

His move into writing and production came organically. “I always wanted to do multiple things in music, beyond being the bass player,” he says. “I was always an audiophile who loved listening to well-recorded music. From doing sessions, I watched producers do their thing, and I got interested in that. Around 2008, I bought my own computer, with a Logic setup and decent speakers, and went from there.”

It’s only been in the last four years that production has become a key focus for Mills, and he credits star producer— and now regular collaborator – Boi-1da as a major inspiration. “His making big records sound so good really inspired me to get better at producing and writing, and to start creating music for other genres,” he acknowledges.

A collaboration with Boi-1da on the co-writing of a Juice WRLD track, “Maze,” (featured on the 2019 No. 1 album Death Race for Love) was a turning point, and the duo continue to work together. “We’ve just scored a song for an upcoming Halle Berry movie, Bruised,” says Mills.

He recently signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV in the U.S., and work offers are flooding in. He’ll be featured on upcoming albums by Alessia Cara, Giveon, Ne-Yo, and more, and he confides that “I’ve just finished a movie soundtrack, a big American production, my first movie score as a writer-producer.”

Canadian artists with whom Mills has worked as a producer, co-writer, or player in recent years include Tyler Shaw, Dan Talevski, Banners, and Maya Killtron.

Amidst his busy schedule, Angelov has found time to write and record his own material, released online under his Don Mills moniker, and through his own imprint, Politik Records. “I didn’t want to let good songs not come out, so this is a channel for my music to get out there,” he says.

 These cuts reflect his stylistic versatility (“all genres excite me”), and feature guest vocals from the likes of Nuela Charles, Bryn, and longtime pal JRDN. “This is more of a fun thing for me than a money grab, or an attempt to make a career as a solo artist.”

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.”