Benally, who is Navajo and San Carlos Apache, was one of two dozen mostly indigenous DJs from across North America who were part of the third Virtual Pow Wow Fest, a regular event on Twitch that got going in March as stay-at-home orders kicked in. (Twitch is owned by Amazon; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Each DJ typically leads an hour-long set of electronic music. That day in April, a steady chat stream flowed off to the side of Benally’s screen. The Twitch channel now has had thousands of views.
When one thinks of a powwow, one probably thinks of dancers in regalia, not a DJ spinning. But DJ Sean Beaver reminds me there are different kinds of powwows. “It’s a social gathering,” he says. “It’s about being indigenous and coming together to meet, dance and socialize.” These things, he explains, are all part of the powwow experience.
Drum Beat Entertainment’s owner is Richard Sparvier of Calgary, Alberta. The 26-year-old Blackfoot, originally from the Siksika Nation, is a full-time environmental consultant but does music as a side gig. Spinning as DJ BLKFT, Sparvier specializes in what he calls “rez house,” a form of electronic dance music that has a heavy beat, with indigenous sounds mixed in. “The [music] industry has come to a complete halt,” he says. “Many of us who rely on performances or workshops or performing our art for income are now suffering.” He figured, too, that those who would normally come out to hear their music might also be suffering, cut off from their social circles. A fellow indigenous DJ brought up the idea of a mini music festival online, and the Virtual Pow Wow Fest was born.
Organizers wanted to feature indigenous DJs or those of indigenous descent, though they are also open to allies of indigenous people. They just had to be able to live-stream. “We saw it as an opportunity to connect with people from across Turtle Island,” Sparvier said, referring to the name for North America used by many indigenous people. The fest would be a way for the DJs to share music and culture with others, both native and nonnative.
The first Virtual Pow Wow Fest featured five DJs. By the second weekend there were 19. By the third, there were two dozen, including Benally. He says he’s been DJing as a hobby for about two years, though he’s been producing music for more than a decade. He usually spins various styles of electronic music mixed with indigenous sounds like Navajo chants. He explains that Beaver had followed his music and invited him to be in the fest. “It was supposed to take place during the time when I had a show in Phoenix,” he says. “But I had to cancel all of my shows.” The Navajo Nation has been especially hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, having one of the highest infection rates in the United States. Many on the reservation, where tourism is a main industry, have also been financially affected. “Native people say music is medicine,” he says. “It’s my medicine for whoever wants to receive it.”
Beaver, who is Cree and originally from the Driftpile First Nation in northern Alberta, also performed during the third fest. He was one of the first people Sparvier contacted. Beaver, 40, is a radio producer in Calgary by day and an award-winning solo artist. He mostly spins his own music: techno with such elements as native drumming. He explains that he’s been working as a kind of tech support while everyone is locked down. “One of the hang-ups for a lot of the performers is that you can’t just go to an electronics store and buy yourself a webcam or other things that you need,” he says. “There were a lot of workarounds within the live stream.”
One bonus is that he gets to see DJs that he wouldn’t otherwise — and they get to see him. The first weekend, he says, he kept it pretty minimal, using his phone and computer to broadcast his set. But after seeing what others were doing — making references to the pandemic by wearing a mask or spraying disinfectant, using elaborate lighting and video projections, and filming in dramatic settings such as Benally’s performance in front of the Utah bluffs — Beaver decided to up his game. He got out lights, added another camera and even DJed in his pajamas. “Hey, it was 3 in the morning!” he says. “It was a pa-jam party.”
Another DJ who was part of the third fest is Matt Wood, 36, who performs as Creeasian, a nod to his Cree and Vietnamese heritages. Wood, who is from Edmonton, Alberta, is a full-time DJ. Sparvier had also contacted him to join the festival. “I got the digital smoke signal,” Wood says, adding that the group of DJs has been incredibly supportive, something he doesn’t always see. “I learned how to do this in some very aggressive and hostile environments where it was like, ‘I’m better than you. I’m going to crush you, I’m going to make you quit,’ ” he says. “So to see the energy of a positive community is really, really special to me.”
Lia Kvatum is a writer in Maryland.