A Tribe Called Red: Music sends a potent political message with a subtle touch


A Tribe Called Red plays its showcase at Townhouse during SXSW in Austin, Texas in March. (Erich Schlegel/For The Washington Post)

Here’s what A Tribe Called Red remembers about last Thanksgiving: A swarm of beery bros in RGIII jerseys wobbling down U Street, trying to keep Grandma’s pumpkin pie from making an encore on the sidewalk. On a national holiday celebrating hearth and harvest, the Washington Redskins had just defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 38-31.

Inside U Street Music Hall, the Canadian DJ trio were about to throw a much different kind of party, spinning dance tracks that meshed traditional powwow music with bullish digital bass. Out on the dance floor, at least a dozen wore burgundy and gold. But nobody in the DJ booth grabbed the microphone to trash Dan Snyder.

“Personally, I want to see those changes from the inside,” says Bear Witness, who helped form A Tribe Called Red in 2008. “I don’t want to have to fight against a football team to get them to change. I want them to realize that they have to change.”

The music of A Tribe Called Red — Witness, Ian “Dee Jay NDN” Campeau and Dan “DJ Shub” General — sends a potent political message with a subtle touch. Over the years, the group’s brand of electrified powwow music has become associated with Idle No More, a growing protest movement in Canada advocating for indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection.

The trio’s riveting new album, “Nation II Nation,” is its third big release in less than a year, and it’ll keep the group on the road through the summer, including a stop at Washington’s Tropicalia on Wednesday. True to traditional powwow music, A Tribe Called Red’s songs celebrate togetherness and survival, steering the group’s aboriginal heritage into the urban future.

They’ve taken their message a long way from home, including high-profile appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last month and the South by Southwest music festival in Austin in March.

“Being political . . . it’s automatic,” says Witness in an interview at SXSW. “I wake up and get dressed and walk into this world, and that’s political, because everything that’s been done on this continent has been done to stop that from happening.”

Getting dressed, especially. When members of A Tribe Called Red take the stage sporting Atlanta Braves caps or Cleveland Indians hoodies, they say they’re taking ownership of hurtful images by integrating them into their art.

“We like to call it ‘active decolonization’ or ‘indiginizing,’” says Campeau, a father of two who recently launched a campaign to rename the Napean Redskins, a youth football team in Ontario. As artists, however, Campeau says his group is “taking these images that send the wrong idea about First Nations peoples and we’re wearing it, and using it, and saying something with it.”

During their sets, the trio bob and bounce in the DJ booth like firing pistons, but the most potent visual component of their performances comes from Witness, who projects video collages of Hollywood stereotypes onto the nightclub walls. A scene from “Back to the Future Part III” — men in feathered headdresses chasing after Marty McFly — often turns the most heads.

“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I loved that movie when I was a kid but I never realized how racist it was!’” says Witness. “We love that. People can make their own connections instead of us saying, ‘You’re racist!’ ”

A Tribe Called Red has put a premium on inclusion since 2008, when Witness and Campeau first teamed up to DJ a monthly dance party that quickly started drawing aboriginals searching for a place in Ottawa’s nightlife scene.

“We just wanted to have a party,” says Campeau. “But soon, there were people from rural communities — reserves that were super-isolated up north — who were coming to Ottawa for school and never felt comfortable going out.”

They dubbed the party “Electric Pow Wow,” and called their group A Tribe Called Red, a play on the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, as well as a nod to various powwow groups whose names start with those same three words.

Once General joined the group in 2010, the three were making tracks that combined their skills as hip-hop DJs and Campeau’s experiences playing in touring powwow groups as a child. Before long, they had a stamp of approval from Wesley Pentz, the tastemaking DJ better known as Diplo.

“We sent him a track on Facebook,” says Witness. “Two days later he blogged about it. And two days later, we were getting tweets form MTV.”

The media attention that followed led to international bookings and a personal discovery. Witness and General weren’t just collaborators — they were family.

“We were on the cover of NOW magazine in Toronto,” says Witness, “and a cousin of ours was like, ‘Do those guys even know they’re cousins?’ ”

“Pretty close, too,” says General. “Our great-grandmothers were sisters.”

All three say their families are proud of their music — which wasn’t necessarily a given.

“In our own community, I don’t think 10 or 15 years ago, people were ready for what we’re doing,” says Witness. “We’re pushing a lot of boundaries . . . walking a fine line, trying not to clash with our own traditions. . . . Our grandparents’ generation moved to the city to assimilate. Our parents’ generation, they went back and said, ‘What did we lose by coming to the city?’ We’re the first generation that can be aboriginal and urban at the same time.”

During the final throes of South By Southwest, the cousins and Campeau were onstage doing something that’s practically impossible at a festival of this size and scope: performing music that sounded like nothing else in town.

There were ancient drum cadences, sci-fi bass belches, samples of comedian Louis C.K. cracking race jokes and swatches of Paul Revere and the Raiders belting “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).

Amid other fragments of sonic satire, the trio unflinchingly repeated their most effective trick, dropping new beats like fine China and splitting the tempo in half. The crowd responded — over and over and over — with wild, liquid movements, as if bouncing on some time-taffying trampoline.

It felt like a nullification of physics, a rebuke of empire, a protest, an epiphany, and above all, a party.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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