Vanguard: How A Tribe Called Red Brought Activism to the Dance Floor

Photo collage of Canadian EDM group a Tribe Called Red. Tim "2oolman" Hill is on the left and Ehren "Bear Witness" Thomas is on the right. Both men are pictured in black and white with an image of their album behind them. To the right of the album are red, yellow and blue feathers as a nod to their Indigenous culture.

Vanguard by Shopify Studios?is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.


Bear Witness is a co-founder of A Tribe Called Red, a Canadian DJ collective that blends hip-hop and EDM with traditional powwow drums and vocals. As a teen, Bear was part of the local rave scene. He began to wonder what raves would look like if they had a more focused goal. In response, he created A Tribe Called Red.?

Show Notes:

Additional Music

A Tribe Called Red - “The OG featuring Black Bear”

Host

Anshuman Iddamsetty?

Producers

Phoebe Wang
Natalie Plourde
Emma Fedderson
Anshuman Iddamsetty

Senior Supervising Producer?

Tammi Downey

Engineer

Spencer Sunshine

Musical Score?

Jim Guthrie

Transcript

Bear: As an indigenous person in North America, you are political from the moment you’re born. You’re political from the moment you wake up in the morning.

Bear: Brushing your teeth and going outside is a political act because everything’s been done to stop you from doing that.?

Bear: My life is in defiance of 500 years of genocide.?

Bear: My name is Bear Witness. I am Cayuga from Six Nations and I’m one half of A Tribe Called Red.

Anshuman (voice-over): This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios.

Anshuman (voice-over): It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today. I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.

Anshuman (voice-over): Bear Witness is a co-founder of A Tribe Called Red. An award-winning Canadian DJ collective that blends EDM with indigenous powwow drums and vocals. Bear’s love of dance music began back when he was a teen.?

Bear: Going to raves was when I first experienced that idea of the larger organism.

Bear: All of those things that made me feel like an outsider made me part of the rave community.?

Anshuman (voice-over): And it was at these raves that Bear started to realize the potential for activism through dance music.?

Bear: I felt that people were accessing a part of themselves, a spiritual part of themselves, and that it was being done without guidance, without control, and without boundaries.

Bear: And I remember back then having the thought of, What would this look like if there was a goal? What would this look like if there was intention behind it?

Bear: I was drawn to a lot of groups like the Asian Dub Foundation and Congo Natty, you know, groups of brown people who were making electronic music with intention, with political ideas. That’s where, you know, I started to first get those ideas again, that go into A Tribe Called Red, to create a party with intention, with thought behind it and with a goal.

Bear: You know, show the world not only our culture but how we express that culture in today’s world. Those things I guess could be called activism if they were in their own box, but they’re not. They’re part and parcel to everything we do in our lives.

Anshuman (voice-over): Today on Vanguard, I speak with Bear Witness, co-founder and member of A Tribe Called Red.

Anshuman: I read one of your artist’s statements from a few years ago, and part of it said, “I am the son of Jeff Thomas and Monique Mojica, grandson to Spiderwoman Theatre, raised backstage and in the dark room.” Can you tell me about that?

Bear: Yeah. I consider myself an arts brat because I was very much raised by an artist family in the arts community. First and foremost, when I think of community, I think of the Toronto Native theater community ’cause that’s very much where I was raised. We moved to Toronto when I was 6 years old, from Buffalo where I was born. So my mother could become the second artistic director of Native Earth Theatre.

Bear: You know, as a child, you’re part of it, but you’re really watching your parents. And in my case, my grandparents and great aunts all help build this community, through their art. I always wanted that for myself. I wanted to be part of something that wasn’t there before that I helped create.

Bear: You know, when A Tribe Called Red started, that was that moment for me.

Anshuman: So you’re raised in the space where there was all this radicality to be indigenous, to be an activist, one and the same.

Bear: Mhmm. [affirmative]

Anshuman: But at the same time, you’re also a teen or a kid. Was it ever exhausting to always be vigilant?

Bear: Yeah, oh no. It was extremely, extremely tiring. By the time I was in my late mid, late teens, I was completely exhausted. I, you know, I have a mother who was very involved politically. She left home at 16 to join the American Indian movement. So being raised by somebody who’s so much part of the movement in the ’70s, I was watching the things that my mom had done, not work our generation.

Bear: Not that I didn’t see a value in it, but I didn’t see it as the way forward. Watching it felt like things were getting stagnant and that there wasn’t movement within the movement, at that point.

Bear: So I kind of left all that behind, you know, the political actions, the spirituality, and all of it, and kind of went my own way when I was I guess 17, 18, and that’s when I got into electronic music and then dove into the rave scene.

Anshuman (voice-over): It was after dropping out of high school that Bear started to deejay as a hobby.?

Bear: It was a friend of mine named Matt who basically pushed me into deejaying. You know, it was like, you have this whole collection of music, you have this huge knowledge base of the music you love, you need to do something with that. And he was the one who took me aside and was like, Look this is the clap, you grab this, you bring the record back and forth and you throw it in there, so they match up and you match up the speeds. He gave me that, like, 15minute lesson and then left me to start to show myself how to play music.

Bear: And I remember thinking like, Oh, like, even something as simple as beat matching was going to be too complicated for me.

Bear: It took a long time for me to build up the confidence that I could really be a DJ. You know, ’cause I always saw myself as not being somebody who had a musical talent.

Anshuman (voice-over): Shortly afterwards, Bear moved from Toronto to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, where he deejayed at clubs around the city. But deejaying was still a hobby when A Tribe Called Red started.

Anshuman: Tell me about the first party that A Tribe Called Red threw.

Bear: Ottawa is a pretty small place. You know, if there’s one top club night, there kind of only is space for one top club night. And up until that time, it had been the Disorganized party.

Bear: They were just kind of tastemakers in the city, and they started bringing in a lot of international talent. You know, I saw Diplo perform in a room, not much bigger than we’re sitting in right now.

Bear: So that’s the kind of culture that Disorganized and the Jokers of the Scene had brought to the city. And so they had that top party for about seven years and then they moved to Toronto, and so the party ended. So there was kind of a void that was created by that and a few different groups of people were vying for that new top club night spot. Fortunately, Babylon was a club where we knew the owner, and he was willing to give us that opportunity and give us a Saturday night to try out our party.

Anshuman (voice-over): A Tribe Called Red’s first party coincided with the Odawa Pow Wow Weekend. They called it the Electric Pow Wow.?

Bear: We knew that there would be more than just the local indigenous community in town.

Bear: But we had no idea what to expect at the first night. It was a gamble.

Anshuman: So what happened?

Bear: It was sold out. I remember that first night, people arriving in limos and there was a line up around the block.

Anshuman: Limos!

Bear: Yeah! It’s Pow Wow weekend, you know. People definitely like to show out. [laughs]

Anshuman: What was it like from the stage just watching all these people come in, people from your community, and then have the time of their lives?

Bear: It was amazing. It was absolutely beautiful. And you know, growing up, you know, indigenous in Toronto, through the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t a very large indigenous community here. And you know, it was often referred to as being the invisible minority. Because if you didn’t wear the beads and feathers and fringe, then you weren’t indigenous. Like, you know, you had to be one of those stereotypes to be noticed as being indigenous.

Bear: At that time, when the Electric Pow Wow started, I think the urban indigenous community was beginning to define itself in a way that it hadn’t in the past. We couldn’t have done what we did 5 years, 10 years before that, people would have shut it down and said, you know, this isn’t the right kind of thing. But our community was ready for it to have happen. I think, moreso, our community needed that. They needed to have that visibility on the urban landscape. They needed to claim space in a club.

Bear: So very quickly, it went from being a bimonthly party to a monthly party. And it sold out every night for years, really.

Anshuman: So at what point did deejaying go from the hobby, as you put it earlier, to a full-time career??

Bear: About three years into doing Tribe was the big turning point. So we were getting ready, one of our rare rehearsals [laughs] for our first, one of our first, really big shows in Ottawa. And the producer of the show had lined up Pow Wow dancers to come out during our set, and we wanted to do something for those Pow Wow dancers. So we came up with this mashup of a Pow Wow track. We took a grass dance song and this grass dance song had an open part at the beginning, there was no drumming. So we just looped that open part of singing, and grass dance songs are in about that 140 bpm range, which was right where dubstep was, which was the huge sound at the time. So we layered a dubstep track underneath this grass dance song. That was the eureka moment. That’s when it was like, Oh, these just work together. Like, we didn’t have to do anything. And of course they worked together! We were layering dance music on top of dance music!

Anshuman (voice-over): The response was…massive. Over time, the collective would gain a new member and refine their sound.?

Bear: From that point was when we really started to see, okay, we can grow this thing into something much bigger than it is now.

Bear: But that Electric Pow Wow song, since it was something that was original, from the ground up, you know, we were really able to push it. And I was talking earlier about how, you know, meeting Diplo really early in his career in Ottawa, we were able to reach out to him and send him that song. And Diplo is great when he loves something—he’ll run with it really hard and he tweeted about it—and then the Mad Decent blog got behind it.?

Bear: So that was our first big exposure outside of just Ottawa.

Anshuman: I’m curious how you, or I suppose Tribe the entity, navigates some of the complexities that come from bigger and better opportunities. Like, how do you walk the line from saying, “I need to preserve my values” and, I dunno, like, “I’ve never seen a paycheck that big!”

Bear: [laughs]

Anshuman: You know what I mean?

Bear: Well, when it comes down to making choices financially, we’ve always allowed for there to be space to make the best decisions based not on making money.?

Bear: We had an opportunity to work with a large sports organization at one point. And at the time, that sports organization was literally killing indigenous people in the streets! Here’s the biggest paycheck we’ve ever seen, but there’s no way we can do that because they’re killing our people down south. They’re killing our brothers and sisters in South America at that same moment, you know? So there’s always been moments where we’ve had to weigh those things. So as successful as we are now, we could probably be twice as successful if we took all the opportunities that were laid out in front of us. That’s a constant battle. It’s like, we do our best to avoid things that we’re not comfortable with, but you know, it’s also at the same time, how do you avoid things like oil money in Canada? It’s in everything you possibly go and do! There’s times where you really have to weigh, is this worth the sacrifice? Do we want to make a sacrifice? Is this a moment we can bend that, is this absolutely a moment we cannot bend that. That’s definitely one of the more complex decision-making processes that we have to go through that people don’t even see with our group.?

Bear: We usually call it being unapologetically indigenous.

Anshuman: Is it fair to say that I guess to be a musician in this moment, you have to treat it, some aspects of it, like a business?

Bear: Yeah! I mean, we tried our best for this not to be a business for as long as we could! [laughs] In the early days, at the end of every event, we chopped up the money and everybody took their piece home. And that was the end of that. And you know, then if we had to buy flights or hotel rooms for the next gig, we all had to chip in money to do that. One of the big secrets to our success has been our relationship with our manager, Guillaume. And one of the first things that Guillaume came in to say, even before when he was managing us, really was, “You guys got to stop paying yourselves at the end of every night, open up a bank account, pay yourselves a salary, and then, you know, you can get a credit card and you can pay for flights.”

Anshuman: Wait, wait. “You could get a credit card”?

Bear: Oh yeah! We didn’t—none of us had a credit card in the early days. We had to use people’s mom or, you know, my girlfriend’s credit card or—

Anshuman: How did you tour? [crosstalk] Or do anything?

Bear: [laughs] It seems crazy! But we’ve managed it. But yeah, no, we didn’t have a credit card in the group until 2009 or 10. [laughs]

Anshuman: What was the experience like, of entering a more—I guess, yeah, that’s, I think that’s the right word to use—a more formal relationship with the art you were making? What was that like??

Bear: Ah, terrifying. That was more scary than playing big stages for the first time, you know, ’cause you have to have a really high level of trust, you know, and we were good friends. And we definitely had trust within the group, but that’s the next layer of trust. That’s the next layer of stress that’s put on the group, once you have communal money.

Bear: DJs have their own way of doing business with clubs and, you know, it’s very cash-based. It’s very, “Get your money before the end of the night.” It’s very, “Count the money in front of everybody.” You know, so to change that to, you know, a more business structure, it’s not easy.

Anshuman (voice-over): And it took an encounter at the Junos—Canada’s version of the Grammys—for Bear to teach himself the business and understand the numbers.?

Anshuman: There are people who might not think having a musical career, being a musician, a DJ or producer, is anything like running a business. What would you say to them??

Bear: I mean, I was one of those people! [laughs] I remember this was actually at that Juno performance. They brought Buffy Saint-Marie in to do the opening. And I remember talking to Buffy at the rehearsal, and she turned to me at one point and she said, “So do you know your numbers?” I was like, “Oh, Buffy, I’m terrible with numbers.” They start talking numbers at me and I, you know, turns into Peanuts, you know.

Anshuman: Same. 100 percent.

Bear: Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa. And she said, “Well, you have to teach your people how to teach you numbers in a way that you understand it.” And that really hit me. She made me realize that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do as a business owner and that even though I trusted people like our manager to the utmost degree, she said, “It doesn’t matter how much you trust those people, you need to know what’s going on with your numbers. It’s not a trust thing, it’s not a, “you can leave it to other people” thing. You need to be aware.

Anshuman: What kind of advice would you give to young musicians just starting out?

Bear: I guess I would say it’s not as complicated as you think. That there is a language you need to learn, but you already know the concepts. Don’t get afraid of the language, that you can learn that, and more than likely you’ve already had enough experiences in your life getting to this point as an artist that you understand what needs to happen. If you’ve been able to build a team and have been able to find the people that you can trust to work with, they should be able to help you find that understanding.

Bear: I see non-indigenous people be interested in our culture in a way that they’ve never been before. The scary part of that is the rapacious nature of colonialism, and the last things that we have held onto now being of interest. But I also see that we’re getting through to people.

Bear: My hope is always that our concerts create a space where people can celebrate indigenous culture together, to begin to learn how

Feature image by Franziska Barczyk
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