Indivisible: A Tribe Called Red’s Activism Is Both Accessible and Prescient


“We have been called the Indians. We have been called Native American,” intones the renowned activist and poet John Trudell over powwow chants and a distorted hip-hop beat. “We have been called many names. We are the Halluci Nation. We are the human beings.” This is the invocation for Canadian DJ collective A Tribe Called Red’s third album, We Are the Halluci Nation, which arrived September 16. Trudell, a former chairman of the American Indian Movement, recorded the intro before he died of cancer in December. Despite a generation gap, Trudell was a fan before they met, DJ Bear Witness tells the Voice. “When we finally connected, he already [wanted] to collaborate with us. There we were, meeting a hero, and he was telling us what our music meant to him.”

Trudell wrote several poems that circled the idea of a unified, awakened nation, which ATCR extended to the concept of using music to save the world from colonialism. “I had this idea of us being superheroes, like the Justice League,” says Bear, who, despite being a comics fan, grew up “not having superheroes and icons that reflect yourself as an indigenous person.” The album sees Bear (Cayuga) and fellow DJs Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau (Nipissing Ojibwe) and Tim “2oolman” Hill (Mohawk) “creating our own heroes” as members of the borderless Halluci Nation. “It was the words that [Trudell] gave us in that poem that ended up giving us our storyline.”

The collaboration with Trudell is the most prominent of ATCR’s career, which now spans almost a decade. “When we started making this music, we were making it for indigenous people,” explains Bear, recalling how he and his bandmates plastered Native student associations and clubs in Ottawa with promo posters.”[But] after our first
album, we got the huge surprise that everybody else was interested.” Setting First Nations activist messages to hip-hop and EDM turned out to have broad appeal: In 2014, ATCR became the first indigenous group to win Breakthrough Group of the Year at the Juno Awards, essentially the Canadian Grammys. They had submitted their music to that category, and not Aboriginal Album of the Year, because, as Campeau said in an interview at the time, “I’d rather be in a category with music of the same genre [as ours] than to be nominated because of race.”

Halluci Nation also includes a wider variety of collaborators than ATCR has incorporated in the past. Black Bear Singers, a drum group from Quebec that has appeared on ATCR’s other albums, offer the same drumming, singing, and dancing they perform at Native gatherings. But, says Bear, “for the first time, we went outside powwow music as far as indigenous music goes,” adding American hip-hop (“R.E.D,” featuring Yasiin Bey) and spoken word (“The Virus,” featuring Saul Williams) to contributions from Australian Aboriginal band OKA and Swedish-Sami singer Maxida Märak. Colombian singer Lido Pimienta adds Afro-Colombian influences with “The Light,” an airy duet in Spanish, and “For You (The Light Part II),” an English version of the same song. “With them, everything is a road to experimentation-land,” Pimienta says with a laugh.

These inclusions are intended to reflect the parallels between First Nations peoples and people of color elsewhere in the Americas. “There’s a shared experience of colonization,” says Bear. “When you’re connected to an indigenous community, you have that history. You find allies there really easily. You don’t have to explain [it] to someone who has gone through similar experiences.” On “The Virus,” this history stays front and center: “They harvest the mountainside/They divided us according to the regional filters of their minds/We are now the conquered people.”

What’s wisely left unchanged is ATCR’s signature merging of First Nations musical traditions with the hard beats and big drops popular at EDM festivals worldwide. Bear says this seemingly incongruent pairing works because there’s a strong, if not immediately apparent, thread. “It’s dance music. That’s the connection between electronic music and powwow music.” He continues: “Powwows are social gatherings. You’re there to dance, going out, getting dressed up, going to shows. The same elements as club culture.” Jennifer Kreisberg, a Native women’s activist who sings the soulful Halluci Nation love song “The Muse,” agrees that the mixing of indigenous and non-indigenous genres feels organic: “In all the different communities I know and come from, Native people have always loved hip-hop, rap, soul, funk, jazz.”

As Native activists in North Dakota work to block an oil pipeline from snaking through their land — and as thousands of supporters flock, in person and online, to join the resistance — Halluci Nation‘s message now seems not only timely, but prescient. “We need to remember our connection to the earth, to the sky, to each other, and [to] our place within the natural world,” says Bear. “People are finally starting to address it in a real way.” What’s happening right now in Standing Rock is a manifestation of the Halluci Nation the album envisions — one nation, under humanity. “This isn’t Nation-specific,” says Bear of the record’s call for change. “This is for all people.”