Photo courtesy of Sweet Moon Photo
Hip-hop’s roots are inextricably linked to political, socioeconomic, and racial inequality. Not that you might think of those things while turning up at a party or waxing poetic on a hoverboard. Enter the conscious rapper to remind us what’s real. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s Eekwol raps about her Canadian prairie surroundings and Cree culture. Born Lindsay Knight, she began performing in the late 90s with her brother Mils and five cousins under the banner of Innersoulflow. Eventually, the members went solo, but Eekwol continued to promote social change and the quest for knowledge and self discovery through her music.
Following the Soundsick EP, her first full-length solo album Apprentice to the Mystery, produced by Mils, went on to win at the 2005 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in the hip-hop category. During a recent phone interview from Saskatoon with Noisey, the emcee said winning was “shocking” and awards are nice, but she explained, “I rap for the desire to make something powerful and creative.” Eekwol didn’t attended the ceremony in Toronto, assuming she wasn’t good enough to win the prize.
During the interview, Eekwol touched on a number of her anxieties within the music industry. For instance, she’s been called, “Canada's first solo female Aboriginal hip-hop artist,” which is not only a title that is difficult to prove, but she said it limits broader acceptance of the art she makes. We asked Eekwol about her take on Canada’s music landscape, her place in it, and her newest album Good Kill. To start, she spoke about the problem with categorizing music by race.
Noisey: How do feel about the categorization of Canadian awards in general? Do you take issue not being up against other non-Aboriginal Canadian hip-hop acts?
Eekwol: Totally. I love hip-hop. I love the culture. It’s always spoke to me since I was young. It was never because I was Indigenous or a female … How do you possibly adjudicate a pow wow album with a hip-hop album? You just can’t. It seems kind of contrived.
Does the categorization of your art feel like a sham by the larger industry?
Yeah, depending on the situation. In some situations there’s a need for an extra acknowledgement because there are different understandings, education levels and world views to take into consideration. But when it’s something like an awards show and there’s a completely different category, I guess it just looks good, but I don’t know how that’s helping or furthering artists.
Does that hold creativity back?
I think so.  was dope because A Tribe Called Red won the JUNO for Breakthrough Group of the Year. It was the first time since Buffy Sainte-Marie or something when Indigenous artists actually won that category. It was a big deal.
Speaking of A Tribe Called Red, 2oolman produced “Pitiful” on you newest album Good Kill.
[A Tribe Called Red] have always been friends of mine. We’ve done a few shows together. They had me come down to Ottawa for the Electric Pow Wow. Me and Wab Kinew performed that night. [A Tribe Called Red and I] actually ended up connecting on a musical level. 2oolman’s production is insane. He sent me some beats and one of them spoke to me for the lyrics I was working on. That ended up being the first track on the album.
What can you say about Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet?
[Laughs] That was actually the first CD I purchased. I was pretty proud of myself. My introduction to hip-hop was along those lines. It was more political. The artists coming out spoke to issues. That interested me more than the mainstream artists—although I enjoyed them too. As far as the underground, socially conscious stuff, that was always my main love listening to hip-hop.
Listening to you lyrics, you seem to draw from the old-school wit and sound.
My biggest influences have a message. When you listen to their lyrics, they hit you and you can’t forget. I’ve always tried to strive for that.
“Ghosts,” for instance, from your new album, talks about everything from suicide to dark colonial histories to spirituality. How do you write confidently about those issues?
When I write something like that, it’s like I’m not the one writing it. I know, that’s cliché. A lot of times, I’m a positive person and have a good outlook on life. But when I sit down with a beat and paper, it just comes out of me. That track was in response to the Truth and Reconciliation [Canada's mandated organization that acknowledges and documents residential schools]. I happened to go to one of the events that was happening in Saskatoon. I was asked to perform. Hearing those stories first-hand from residential school survivors really affected me. I took it home. I couldn’t sleep. I asked myself, ‘How can this be real life?’ My reaction was to write about it, envisioning I was one of those parents. I have two little ones of my own. I imagined getting them taken away from me and how that would feel.
On that thread, what is it about hip-hop that helps you get that out?
Hip-hop stems from the inner city. It comes from a socio-political climate where people are challenged and struggle with those issues. It’s a similar situation for [Indigenous artists.] Hip-hop is an opportunity to express and try to fit your identity. I look at us being a colonized people. We have the whole spectrum: We have those that are extremely colonized, and those that are trying to decolonize. You get the pro-gang life kind of stuff and stuff like my [music,] where you need to put that stuff aside and look at history and our worldview to build better relationships in Canada. There’s all kinds. That’s why it’s so hard to label Native hip-hop. That’s why it’s so problematic. I don’t like being put in the category of the gang-related type of stuff, but I will be because I’m Native hip-hop.
How do you feel about the label floating around about you being “Canada's first solo female Aboriginal hip-hop artist?”
I’ve never really appreciated that one. I don’t know if it’s true, and I didn’t coin that. I don’t know who did, but you’re right. It’s out there. As far as being a hip-hop artist, being a rapper, being an emcee, I’ve never considered myself a woman that raps. It’s always bothered me because you’re a subcategory of emcee. Since day one, I’ve done hip-hop for the love of hearing stories weave through beats. It makes me crazy. I want to write lyrics and be the best at it. I’ve never rapped about being a woman in hip-hop.
My biggest influences aren’t female rappers. My influences are the best rappers. As far as good rappers go, I’ve never thought of that being gendered. Unfortunately, the rest of the world does, especially in hip-hop. When women are in hip-hop, they’re very much gendered. There’s a lot of misogyny in hip-hop. Any time you watch any videos, you’re going to see the obvious stereotypes about women. You either have to be super sexualized or thugged out. I’ve never subscribed to that. We still have a lot to acknowledge when it comes to women. Especially, when it comes to Indigenous women, when we have the issue of the inquiry [into missing and murdered Indigenous women] about to go down. It’s important to be a strong presence in any aspect.
As I got older—I’m in my mid-thirties—and had my daughter, that perspective really punched me in the face. Now, I have to talk about being a woman. I have to be sure she grows up to be a proud Indigenous woman. I didn’t grow up being ashamed. [Laughs] Now, my music has shifted to talk more about being a woman. I still shouldn’t just be labeled as a woman who raps. I’m just as good as any man.
Devin Pacholik is a writer living in Saskatchewan. Follow him on Twitter.