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NWT artists head to New Orleans summit ‘decolonizing’ music industry

Digawolf, left, and David Dowe, a Yellowknife teacher in New Orleans this week. Photo Courtesy of Jesse Reid

When Fort Smith’s Veronica Johnny arrived in New Orleans, it was to fill future stages with Indigenous artists.

The Johnnys, comprised of her and her husband Dave, joined dozens of musicians for The International Indigenous Music Summit, held from Jan. 22 to 26. Other NWT musicians that made the trek south include singer-songwriter Leela Gilday and rocker Digawolf.

The summit hosts a number of showcases, where the acts play short sets introducing themselves and the North to an international music industry. 

At the Johnnys showcase, the band opened with Your Girl, a song dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. At the end of the song, The Johnnys invite audience members to sing, asking them to join in the tribute.

It’s one of the ways the Johnnys aim to support Indigenous voices in the music industry.

Digawolf, left, and David Dowe, a Yellowknife teacher in New Orleans this week.
Photo Courtesy of Jesse Reid

Originally, from Fort Smith, the band is currently based in Ontario, while making frequent trips back to NWT. For Veronica Johnny, the band’s presence helps make way for the next generation of artists in the territory.

“I feel like me living my dream and me being myself helps people in my home territory — people back in Fort Smith, and Hay River, in Yellowknife, in Inuvik, in Fort Simpson — it helps people see that can do it too.”

“Because (back home), I’m just Veronica,” she said. “We’re out here and we’re doing it.”

She said the band’s work at the summit was about claiming space for Indigenous artists who hadn’t necessarily been seen in the industry previously. For her, that includes clearing time for younger and emerging Indigenous musicians.

“(It’s) decolonizing the music industry, bringing in culture, bringing in family, bringing in self-care bringing in connection,” she said.

While the band looked to build contacts and rally support for their music — which includes crowdfunding for an album — she recalled these connections included experiences like bonding with Australian artists over mutual experiences of forest fires.

Her husband and bandmate Dave added that starting the Johnnys in Fort Smith lends a humble, down to earth quality to the band’s music.

“I think that comes from the North and our community and our friends and trying to connect with people as people,” he said. 

Rock musician Digawolf also attended the New Orleans summit. He said he was taken with the hotel rooms crammed with new musicians. 

“It’s buzzing with music everywhere you go, which is pretty awesome,” he said. “I’m blown away.”

Visiting New Orleans, and sites like the French Quarter, also meant reconnecting with some of the birthplaces of the blues influences in his music – something he put on display as he performed a showcase.

At the performance, he said he had the audience howling like wolves during the breaks in his song, The North, as he introduced the audience to NWT as “Canada, then you go further.” 

He said that all the jams and showcases contribute to make contacts, friends and community over music. Ultimately, he said, he’s grateful to represent the North’s musics alongside artists like Gilday and the Johnnys.

“I feel that it’s an honour to share my language in the songs that I write and I let them know I’m from Behchoko, outside of Yellowknife,” he said. “You have to sort of let them know where that is.”