In a year that’s presented us with the disheartening acquittal of Jian Ghomeshi, a paltry three months of imprisonment for convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner, an American presidential campaign buoyed by racism, xenophobia and accusations of sexual assault, an ongoing class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit against the RCMP – 500 accusers strong – and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unfulfilled promise to repair relations with indigenous people, the hunger for amends is ubiquitous.
Tanya Tagaq’s Retribution, the follow-up to her 2014 Polaris Music Prize-winning Animism, is an embodiment of this. (“The retribution will be swift,” go the lyrics to the title track.) The album is a vessel that steers through the calamity of pain, debt and injustice with unwavering fortitude, never losing sight of an imagined harbour of accord.
On it, the Nunavut-raised throat singer-turned-unintentional punk hero protests a multitude of crises – those of climate change, governmental disregard for indigenous communities, toxic masculinity and the unrepentant prevalence of sexual assault.
J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail
Retribution features a striking cover of the Nirvana song Rape Me, which Tagaq recorded with the thought of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women in mind. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Tagaq says. “I thought I was going to be more aggressive with it. But when I recorded the cover, I was just so sad. I’m devastated that this is how we live. It came out very soft. I am in mourning of all the women who have been taken.”
The act of performing apology has become a recurring cultural spectacle in Canada – Justin Trudeau’s remarks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing event last December, as one example, Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to survivors of Canada’s residential-school system another. “You can apologize all you want, but there’s action that needs to be taken,” says Tagaq, 41, who attended a residential school.
“Canadians want to feel good about themselves. But it isn’t until we reconcile the past and present effects of colonialism that Canadians can feel good about themselves. A lot of Canadians are waking up and saying, ‘Hey this isn’t right, this isn’t my country, this isn’t what Canada is supposed to be.’” Tagaq says that stereotypes of indigenous people are “swimming in the undercurrents of our society,” but that she senses genuine change percolating for the better.
Is the musician partly to thank for that change? As the underdog contender for the Polaris in 2014, she enraptured the award’s audience with one of the most powerful performances anyone in that room had ever beheld. Behind her, the names of 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women were projected onto a screen, which prompted the term “missing and murdered indigenous women” to appear in subsequent international media coverage of the event. Now that she’s become a recognizable figure, she consistently uses her platform for protest.
“I’ve been labelled an activist, but I’m just trying to survive and make sure that the people I love and care about are okay. I wouldn’t be a responsible human being if I didn’t point these things out,” Tagaq says.
“If enough of us talk about this and speak out about it, and write about it and make art about it, inevitably there will be a collective shift in our consciousness and that will spark change,” she continues. “It’s a really beautiful thing, this cracking open of the consciousness. But it can be a slow process to wake up.”
Tagaq has oft been described using euphemisms meaning “outspoken” for how loudly she protests injustice, specifically that which applies to indigenous communities. On stage to accept the Polaris Music Prize, she, in her dove-like speaking voice, told the audience that, “People should wear and eat seal as much as possible. … Imagine an indigenous culture thriving and surviving on a sustainable resource, wearing seal and eating it. It’s delicious and there are a lot of them. Fuck PETA. I really believe that if hipsters can make flower beards in, then you can do it with seal.” This bold first impression has become her signature. But at the heart of her power is compassion.
“I am always speaking with love, but then something will come out of my mouth that sounds so angry,” she says, laughing with a hint of self-criticism. “Through music, I am able to represent life as the whole of what it is, with all of the love and all of the laughter, and all the fear, all the anger and all the hatred.”
Retribution also features Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyulyush and Inuit singer Ruben Komangapik. Shad, too, makes an appearance on Centre, a track that draws parallels between Earth and the female body, and the ways both are pillaged without consent.
“I’ve found a peace,” Tagaq says, describing an internal conciliation of sorts, “and within that peace there is a great amount of anger.”
R etribution is overdue. This album is a salve for those in waiting.
This article has been updated to clarify that Tanya Tagaq attended a residential school.