Anishinaabe MC, singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner is making music to work through grief

The ongoing global pandemic has Anishinaabe MC, singer/songwriter Leonard Sumner sitting on his new music for more than a year.

Thunderbird was recorded at the end of 2019 and mixed and mastered by January of 2020.

When the pandemic hit, the Juno nominated artist decided to hold off releasing the album. But on March 3, his child’s first birthday, Sumner decided it was time to get the music out to the masses.

“The album is something that helped me get through grief,” says Sumner who lost his mother, last year.

Some of the songs that make up the eight track album deal with loss, the child welfare system and residential schools. Sumner says he’s trying to address root issues in his lyrics, while telling a story.

One of the new songs is called Flooded. Sumner grew up in Little Saskatchewan First Nation in Manitoba’s Interlake region. Ten years ago, the First Nation was among many in the region that were flooded out.

While the governments of Canada and Manitoba didn’t admit wrongdoing, in 2019 they did agree to pay out more than $90-million dollars to residents of four of the First Nations, including Little Saskatchewan.

Sumner and his family were among the thousands who were uprooted from their homes and territory following the flood.

According to the federal government, 200 people still haven’t returned a decade later.

Sumner says he’s always been someone who has worked out of grief and he feel that part of his musical gift is to help others get through hard times.

His two previous albums, 2013’s Rez Poetry and 2018’s Standing in the Light both achieved critical success and garnered awards and nominations but Sumner says the most fulfilling part of his career, is the connection with the fans.

“Where I feel like the most rewarding things come from are the personal messages I get from people, where they’re grieving themselves. One particular song helped them through that process. That’s definitely where it makes me feel like I’m doing something rewarding, it makes me feel like I’m doing something that’s beyond myself and it keeps me humble,” says Sumner.

That connection with his audience has been missing over the past year. The pandemic has shut down touring and concerts at live venues. Sumner says at the start of his career, touring was the most important thing.

“It really encouraged me to learn a lot more language. It encouraged me to learn a lot more culture, like ceremony. Because then I could share these things with people around the world and connect with them on that level and then it encourages you to learn more about other cultures as well and you start to learn that we have a lot more similarities than differences. And that’s what I miss the most is the being able to connect with the family that I meet on the road,” says Sumner.

Live streaming events have tried to fill the void of live concerts. Sumner has taken part in a few of them and acknowledges they are a way to supplement some of the lost revenue from touring but Sumner feels he’s an artist that you need to see in person.

“When you’re sitting playing to a phone, its hard to capture an emotional connection. It’s like you’re throwing stuff into the void,” says Sumner.

With touring out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Sumner one he’s been able to make some money and keep his family afloat are royalties from streaming services like satellite radio.

Recently, Sumner was featured on Amplify. The show, that airs on APTN is billed as a “musical performance art documentary series that amplifies the connection Indigenous song-writers have to the stories, culture community and the challenges and justice they stand up for.”

For his episode, Broken Justice, Sumner chose to focus on Colten Bushie and Tina Fontaine.

“I feel like to create the song, it gave me a sense of a little bit of justice for them. To tell them know that their lives were not in vain that somebody still cares enough to think they still deserve justice which a lot of our communities, everybody in our communities and a lot of the non-Indigenous communities do, as well,” says Sumner.

“It’s important to speak out against injustices and especially when we’re speaking about our young people losing their lives.”

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