An Inconvenient Indian: Part 1

I’ve never known a lot about Aboriginal history in North America, and I would fall asleep in history class, so reading about it from the witty perspective of Guelph author Thomas King seemed like the perfect fit for me.

Note: This book is non-fiction and is about an ongoing issue, so my analysis of it may be different than others.

An Inconvenient Indian is, as the cover says, “a curious account of Native people in North America.” It’s author, Thomas King, is Native himself, and does not shy away from including his own remarks and frank explanations of how Western culture shaped the image of Indigenous people. You can tell he is done holding white peoples’ hand and rightly so; it’s been decades, centuries, and though mass genocides have generally stopped, the government and society as a whole have been dragging their feet to right their wrongs or to have any native representation in the media. Their only representation is when their culture is commodified, either as a racist symbol on a sports team or tub of butter, or in the ways their cultural practices have been whitewashed into “luxury retreats”.

King remarks that “‘Our relationship with the earth’-sounds worn out and corny. But that’s not the fault of Native people. Phrases such as ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘in harmony with nature’, and ‘seven generations’ have been kidnapped by White North America and stripped of their power.” (King 67) He then went on to list the many brands and products in our daily life that have taken Native phrases or titles and made them the name of a thing that has absolutely nothing to do with Indigenous culture. One of those products I actually own. I use all natural cleaning product “Seventh Generation,” and had no idea that it was a phrase from Native culture-I just thought it meant that the company was in the family for seven generations! ¬†Obviously, I won’t be buying it again, but the point King makes connects to his theory of “Dead Indian”: Western culture does not see Native culture as an evolved, modern society, and doesn’t want to. What they (or we) want instead is to see the stereotypical “Indian”, with a headdress and bone necklace, who is stoic and speaks “wisely” and lives in a tipi, because God-forbid they stray from that image and live in a wigwam or a longhouse.

As a reader, I find this book to be incredibly educational so far. ¬†I’ve never felt educated enough on this important topic, and I want to be able to encourage discussion and be an ally to Indigenous rights without becoming a “White Saviour.” This book serves as a reminder that while yes, Native people have been treated horrendously, they are not a charity case. Most media outlets covering Indigenous rights paint them with a broad brush stroke as one group. An Inconvenient Indian brings back the humanness to this issue, making it about individuals instead of one, historically obscured, cause. I can’t wait to read the rest.

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Is Anything Original?

I love July Talk, in case I’ve never mentioned it before. An amazing Canadian indie-rock band that actively makes an effort to make their concerts safe spaces and does not shy away from politics, baring a very feminist philosophy and using their platform to point out social injustices, particularly in Indigenous communities. Their new record, Touch, came out in September 2016, for which they’ve already won a Juno and a Prism prize for. My favourite track from that record is Beck + Call, a song about being stuck under a lover’s thumb, featuring backing vocals of Inuit throat-singing from Tanya Tagaq.

So imagine my shock and horror when I read his tweet, retweeted by Ian Docherty, a member of July Talk:

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This couldn’t be true. Indie bands are supposed to be independent, original! Could my beloved alt-rock band July Talk sound the same as my beloved alt-rock band The Black Keys? I had to google this.

Sure enough, the intros have the same beat/rhythm. (Please do yourself a google as this basic plan won’t let me upload video/audio.) I was shocked, shocked I tell you! How dare something not be completely original and never heard of before and – you get the point, I didn’t really care. Sure, they have the same beat, but the songs go in different directions and have different sounds to them. I don’t consider a single beat/rhythm/note to be exclusive and that to use it in more than one song to be a copy- it’s when more than one of those elements are used. For example, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” uses all the same bass-line, piano keys, and cymbal “tsk”s as Queen’s “Under Pressure”. It was a blatant copy. Beck + Call vs Howlin for You, though? Just a similar beat.

The argument really begins to flare up when we talk about remixes, particularly in hiphop, an entire genre built upon the concept of cutting and pasting sounds. I love Netflix’s The Get Down, so when Grandmaster Flash was referenced in this video I got very excited, mainly because it reminded me that he’s actually a real guy and not just a character from the show.

One of the bigger themes from season 2 of The Get Down is questioning the legitimacy of hip hop music. Set in the Bronx in the late 1970’s, The Get Down explores the birth of hip hop through the eyes of (dreamy) Ezekiel, as he explores his passion in poetry through hip hop, while his (even dreamier) girlfriend Mylene pursues her career as a rising disco star.

Mylene hates that Ezekiel is into hip hop, stating that it’s not even “real music”, and that it won’t get him anywhere in life. (Uh, way to be a supportive partner, Mylene!) The Get Down also faces the problem of copyright laws; they want to get big but how can any label sign to them if the work they make is with copyrighted songs? They’ll get sued into oblivion, causing them to be stuck in a rut of only underground gigs, with no way up.

The messages brought up in The Get Down are ones that I personally don’t think about very often, but that I agree with. I don’t believe that remixes are complete ripoffs, in fact nowadays most remixes have the title(s) of the original songs used as their titles. It’s in cases like Led Zepplin, where they use iconic bits but perhaps play it in a different key and refuse to credit the original source, that it turns into copyright infringement. I feel like certain remixes could almost be classified as parodies sometimes. If it’s just 2 or more songs cut and pasted together, with nothing original added from the DJ, like a mashup, then they didn’t really rip them off, did they? They never claimed to have written the songs they mashed together, they simply reworked them. But a remix with only a few distinctly recognizable elements of another song with added orignal work from the creator? Well then, that needs some credit.