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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

The 2024 Juno Awards featured the largest number of Indigenous nominees

BY Joshua Janke Apr 19, 2024

Alternative-indie musician Aysanabee reached a pinnacle in his career with two Juno wins last month. 

Aysanabee won the coveted Songwriter of the Year award as well as the Alternative Album of the Year prize for Here and Now. This makes him the first Indigenous artist to win in either of these categories. 

In his acceptance speeches, Aysanabee thanked all who helped him realize his dream and honoured all the other Indigenous nominees. “One thing I want to recognize is that this is the most Indigenous artists that have ever been nominated,” he said. 

Speaking after the event, he said, “To be seen, to be heard, to be recognized by my peers, by people who I have the deepest respect for, is humbling and it is a light that will help guide me as we continue to do the work, as we continue to push boundaries and as we continue to carry and tell the stories of our time.” 

The Canadian music gala, held in Halifax March 24, featured a record number of Indigenous nominees this year – 38 – with many nominated outside the two contemporary and traditional Indigenous artist categories. 

The awards weekend featured the Indigenous Honouring Ceremony, where all the Indigenous nominees were feted. Hosted by the Eskasoni First Nation, the largest Mi’kmaq community in the country, the outpouring of respect and gratitude was highlighted by the emcee’s fabulous solo chanting, dances, and musical performances from Mi’kmaq fiddler Morgan Toney and Métis fiddlers Red River Ramblers.

Dancer Sarah Prosper and her brother, drummer Aaron Prosper, both from Eskasoni First Nation, opened the gala by welcoming everyone to Mi’kma’ki. Then local Juno nominees Jah’Mila and Morgan Toney – up for traditional roots album of the year – joined forces with rappers Wolf Castle and Owen O’Sound Lee and fiddler Wendy MacIsaac for a stirring version of Jah’Mila’s song “East Coast Family.”

Many of the nominees attended the ceremony, including Inuk singer Elisapie, folk and country singer William Prince and Darren Metz of Snotty Nose Rez Kids. When Regional Chief Andrea Paul noticed Aysanabee in the crowd, she paused her speech to let him know how she felt about his music. “I’m totally fangirling, I think you’re incredible, I downloaded all your songs on Spotify,” she enthused. 

The awards ceremony put a national spotlight on Indigenous music. That versatility could not have been better expressed than by the collaborative performance of Elisapie, Toney, and singer Jeremy Dutcher with their enthralling blend of traditional and electronic beats, playing classical and contemporary instruments while singing in several Indigenous languages.

Dutcher, a nominee for adult alternative album of the year, began his set with the sobering “The Land That Held Them as They Died.” 

“As a young Indigenous person in this country, I look at the news and I see things that are unacceptable,” Dutcher said, naming Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine as people whose stories come to mind. 

“We sing for them so that their stories are not forgotten. These people are not headlines, they’re people. Each verse of this song is looking at one of those stories and trying to put light there. These songs hold up their stories for a minute, in the hopes that other people can too.”

Elisapie won her first Juno as Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the year for her 2023 album Inuktitut. “I dedicate this album to my uncles, to my family in Salluit, Nunavik,” she said in her acceptance speech. 

Inuktitut, the album, is not just a cover album, it tells a story of three decades in such a short, short, short time. We were nomads, and we had to settle into communities, and I think music was very important. Artist in Inuktitut doesn’t even have a name. We’re all creators, we’re all meant to be free.”

Joel Wood, from Maskwacis Cree Nation in Alberta, took home the award for Best Traditional Indigenous Album for Sing.Pray.Love. Wood has been singing his whole life as a member of a powwow family and of the acclaimed Northern Cree Singers. As his beats played over the loudspeakers, Wood powwow-danced his way to the stage.

“I want to give a shout out to all those little rez boys, rez girls back home who turned over their mom’s laundry basket and they jam them powwow songs and Sundance sound and prayer songs,” Wood said In his acceptance speech.

Allison Russell, Aysanabee, Logan Staats, Shawnee Kish, Julian Taylor and William Prince came together for a moving tribute to the late Gordon Lightfoot and Robbie Robertson, performing “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Weight.” 

It was powerful to hear so many contemporary singers and songwriters honour two musicians who have influenced generations.

“As a First Nations man who once questioned my own place in the world and where my songs and voice belonged, I can empathize with a man discovering his Mohawk identity late in life,” Prince said in his tribute to Robertson. “And then for him to give to the Indigenous people so selflessly in the last hours of his time, it was very selfless. So, it was easy.” 

He also spoke of his pride to come from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, “where there are so many talented youth who could be on this stage tonight. So, I’m just trying to be a good foot forward for that community.”

Prince took home the award for Best Contemporary Roots Album for his Stand in Joy album, in a category filled with Indigenous artists.

“To all the youth of the Peguis First Nation, it takes a real village to lift somebody like me so high, so thank you so much for this honour,” he exclaimed. “All of you, stand in joy!”

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.