Aysanabee and Northern Cree play the 2023 Juno awards

Aysanabee’s new album Watin highlights the experiences of his grandfather in residential school.


Aysanabee at the 2023 Juno Awards. Photo credit: iPhoto/CARAS

This article mentions the residential school experience

Less than a year after recording artist Aysanabee released his first album, Northern Cree and Aysanabee played at the Juno Awards, the largest stage Canada has to offer.

“Northern Cree family is very happy to be here representing Treaty 6 territory on Treaty 6 territory,” said Joel Wood, a four-time Juno- and Grammy-nominated Cree artist from Maskwacis, Alta.

Evan Pang, better known as Aysanabee, was working for CTV News before he traded in his reporter’s notebook for the recording studio.

The first song the groups played started with a hologram projecting the testimony of his grandfather about growing up in McIntosh Residential School in northwestern Ontario.

“I made the album as a way to remember my grandfather and his stories,” Aysanabee told reporters after his performance on Monday night.

The Oji-Cree, who is Sucker Clan from Sandy Lake First Nation north of Thunder Bay, released an album in November 2022. From then his rise to fame has been meteoric.

When he moved to Toronto to pursue a career he would have daily conversations with his grandfather that evolved into an album entitled Watin.

Aysanabee and Northern Cree play on stage at the 2023 Juno Awards in Edmonton. Photo: iPhoto/CARAS

Since the album came out, he said his grandfather decided to forgive those involved in his residential school experience and is moving on with his life.

“My biggest fear was that it would traumatize residential school survivors,” Aysanabee said of the album. “I wasn’t thinking anyone beyond my friends and family would hear it…but recently there were two residential school survivors who reached out and said they found the album healing.”

Aysanabee’s Juno fashion

Aysanabee wore a jacket designed by Anishinaabe artist Travis Shilling and fashion designers at Call and Response. Shilling learned to paint from her father Arthur Shilling who taught himself to paint in residential school.

“His father would grab charcoal from the fires at residential schools and he would paint pictures of food underneath the bunk beds…the kids would go under there and look at the food,” says Aysanabee.

APTN News has previously reported on residential school survivors having inadequate food and being the subject of experiments.

“So Travis Shilling is out there painting a lot of his culture and his life, his experiences. It seems appropriate with the context of my album that we worked together on something,” says Aysanabee.

Shilling and Aysanabee designed the coat with 122 feathers and numbers that represent the potential unmarked graves announced at the time.

Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams

Aysanabee has had a varied career.

He says a lot of his experiences have helped him get where he is, and exist in the cultural moment that is honouring Indigenous people’s experiences.

As someone who did not put out an album until he was 30, Aysanabee says he wants young people growing up like he did to know it is OK to pursue their passions.

“For young people I would say, ‘Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.’ I didn’t right away…my grandmother would say, ‘You have to work 10 times as hard to get half as much’ so when I moved to Toronto my Plan B (working in media) become Plan A for a while,” he says.

Now he is really happy to see the next generation embracing their Indigenous identity.

“I am really excited about the music that is coming from the youth right now…all over TikTok you see Indigenous pride and that is such a beautiful thing…it took me a long time to find that for myself,” he says.

“I grew up mainly in Thunder Bay and there’s a documentary they’ve made about that place…it took me a long time to find self-love.”

He officially hit Number 1 on alternative radio for his song Nomads. This is the first Number 1 hit by an Indigenous artist on the Mediabase Canada Alternative Rock chart.

The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides 24-hour crisis support to former Indian Residential School students and their families toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis seeking immediate emotional support can contact the Hope for Wellness Help Line toll-free at 1-855-242-3310, or by online chat at hopeforwellness.ca.

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