Looking to the future of music: rising Indigenous artists to watch and listen to.
From pop country that would fit seamlessly into the radio machine to activist anthems and tribal hymnals, Indigenous artists have long been creating a vibrant soundtrack of their lives and tribes. And music’s the better and richer for it. Spanning the Sonoran Desert up to the farthest northern reaches of Turtle Island — also known as North America — Indigenous artists are making memorable country, Western, and roots music.
Vincent Neil Emerson
East Texas-based artist Vincent Neil Emerson (Choctaw, Apache) has always been vocal about his Indigenous roots in his music, something he delves into further than ever before on his forthcoming album The Golden Crystal Kingdom out November 10.
The first single, “Little Wolf’s Invincible Yellow Medicine Paint,” he tells the story of a medicine man who motivated warriors going to battle against white men by convincing them the yellow paint he covered them in would make them invisible to arrows, bullets, and any other weaponry. A music video released alongside the song features Native American bareback horse race champion Sharmaine Weed and was filmed in Wyoming near the Wind River Reservation, bringing fans closer to his Indigenous roots than ever before.
Emerson shared more about his Choctaw and Apache roots and music during a panel at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles in October as part of its upcoming Native American Heritage Month programming in November.
After making his acting debut as Taabe on Hulu’s Prey, Arizonan Dakota Beavers (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) is eyeing a return to music by launching his own solo music career. For years the artist lived in Nashville and worked part time at a TJ Maxx while trying to earn a big break with his songs and family band WesternBoy, but to no avail.
With the streaming success of Prey, Beavers is looking to have another go at it. During an interview last November with C&I’s Hunter Hauk, Beavers let it be known that he had a lot of original material that he hoped to record in between time on set filming.
With his deep country drawl, group harmonies, and pop-fueled hooks there’s a little something for everyone to like in Beavers’ sound, much like the acting that’s thrust him into the spotlight.
Although she's had numerous songs hit Canada’s Top 100 Country Charts in the past decade, Desiree Dorion (Opaskwayak Cree Nation) fully hits her stride on the recently released That’s How I Know. Through its eight songs she effectively crosses between emotional gut-wrenchers and light-hearted, comedic creations to make her most biographical recordings yet.
This includes confronting a family member addicted to alcohol on “Love You to Death” and “Sometimes I Drink,” a tongue-in-cheek co-write with Crystal Shawanda (Wiikwemkoong First Nation) that focuses on drinking to escape life’s problems. The latter is one of three singles from the project — along with “Your Last Name” and “Wouldn’t That Be Fun” — to reach the top spot on the Indigenous Music Countdown.
After taking home Alternative Country Album of the Year honors at September's Canadian Country Music Association Awards for A Traveler’s Lament, Calgary native Kyle McKearney (Métis Nation) has reinforced himself as one of the country’s top emerging independent country acts in recent years.
It’s a development that’s even caught McKearney by surprise after returning north following years in Nashville and gaining traction posting cover songs to YouTube at the height of the pandemic.
But is original songs — like Lydia Sutherland co-write “Mercy” and Don Amero (Cree, Métis Nation) collaboration “Devil Water” — have truly won fans over and earned him praise as an artist to keep an eye (and ear) on.
He burst onto the Canadian country music scene in 2017, when his debut album, Earthly Days, earned him a JUNO Award, and now William Prince (Peguis First Nation) is building a name for himself stateside as well.
The Winnipeg-based artist was just nominated for Emerging Act of the Year at the 2023 Americana Honors & Awards held September 20 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The recognition came on the heels of Stand in the Joy, Prince’s fourth full-length album. Released in April, it looks back on his Indigenous upbringing in search of a more universal human element as a way of healing long-held pain and bringing folks together.
Ottawa-based Amanda Rheaume (Métis Nation) is a trailblazer not just with her own songs but also with the platform she’s provided others.
The artist works with the National Indigenous Music Office, as the operations manager for the International Indigenous Music Summit. She’s also the co-founder of Ishkōdé Records, an independent women-owned label started in 2021 with fellow artist ShoShona Kish.
Rheaume’s latest record, The Spaces in Between, sees the songwriter mixing activist music with empowering ballads of self-discovery in what is her most dynamic work to date. On it she moves between ruminating on the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others (“Death of the American Dream”) to opening up about her identity struggles as a white-presenting Indigenous woman (“Do About Her” and “All Sides of Me”), serving up equal parts stillness and fury and captivating listeners in the process.
You’d be hard-pressed to find more authentic Indigenous music today than what’s coming from British Columbia native Saltwater Hank (Gitga'at, Ts’msyen). On his new album, G̱al'üünx Wil Lu Holtga Liimi, he sings almost entirely in the Indigenous Ts’msyen language Sm’algyax, flanked by fiddle, steel guitar, and drums in tunes that take the shape of everything from waltzes to Western swing and rockabilly ragers to tribal hymns.
Born Jeremy Pahl, Hank covers the topical and emotional gamut, singing out about police violence on the reservation (“Na Waaba Gwa̱soo”), picking salmonberries (“Liimi Maḵ’ooxs”), and barbecuing rabbits captured on a local college campus (“Dm Yootu Stukwliin”) on the sometimes perplexing, but always intoxicating, record.
Julian Taylor (West Indian, Mohawk) experienced major label success in the late ’90s and early 2000s with the rock band Staggered Crossing, and now the Toronto native is doing it all over again, this time under his own name.
Taylor is putting his songwriting front and center with new country- and folk-focused compositions that have brought new fans to his music and old fans back.
His breakthrough came with 2020’s The Ridge, an album that netted him Solo Artist of the Year at the 16th annual Canadian Folk Music Awards along with multiple JUNO Award nominations.
Now Taylor is looking to tie all of his musical chapters together with the 18-song compilation Anthology Vol. 1. Released October 20, it combines some of Taylor’s most popular hits from Staggered Crossing, the Julian Taylor Band, and his two solo records with three all-new tracks.
She may not wield an instrument, but when you’ve got vocals as powerful as Jade Turner’s (Misipawistik Cree Nation) you don’t really need one.
The Manitoba-based artist immediately made waves with her 2017 debut North Country, earning the award for Best Country Album at the 2017 Indigenous Music Awards and Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2018 Manitoba Country Music Association Awards, thanks to songs like the self-assuring “Worth” and the soulful, hard-driving “Mr. Miserable.”
Her talent for penning a great song remains as polished as ever on her self-titled follow-up and ensuing singles like “Stay Wild Child” and “Deadweight” that illustrate how taking creative risks and staying true to yourself can pay off.
Los Angeles-based Raye Zaragoza (Pima, O'odham) has never shied away from politics, womanhood, or her Indigenous, Asian, and Latina heritage with her music.
One of her earliest singles, “In the River,” is a protest anthem against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the 2020 album Woman in Color homes in on how her identity fits into the American landscape with songs like “Fight Like a Girl,” “Warrior,” and “Rebel Soul.”
While her latest album, Hold That Spirit, encapsulates a similar feeling, it's far from all Zaragoza has been up to recently. She’s also been filling time between her own tour dates by going out on the road with Peter Pan: The Broadway Musical in the role of Tiger Lily.
Artist Amanda Rheaume – Photo courtesy of Jen Squires
Artist Saltwater Hank – Photo courtesy of J. Joshua Diltz
Artist Vincent Nail Emerson – Photo courtesy of Thomas Crabtree
Artist Desiree Dorion – Photo courtesy of Chantelle Dione