‘It’s the spirit of who I am’: Shawnee Kish on being Two-Spirit in the music industry

If you want to hear heartfelt lyrics sung by a powerful voice, Shawnee Kish is the artist for you.

The singer-songwriter recently released her sophomore EP titled Revolution – one she calls “a new beginning”.

“I’m ready to celebrate. I’m ready to feel that sense of pride, and I want to share that,” says Kish.

Kish is a Two-Spirit Mohawk whose mother holds status from Six Nations of the Grand River and is originally from Welland, Ont.

She has been open about her journey with mental health struggles and says Revolution is a statement of how far she’s come.

“In every song, there seems to be this like strength,” says Kish, ”I wanted to say how strong I feel, and I feel like this new part of my life is a bit of a revolution in a sense where I finally feel strength and pride in who I am, where I’ve come from, what I’ve gone through and I was ready to say that, in a vulnerable way with songs like “For Me” but also celebrate with songs like “Haunt” and “Stella”.”

The six songs on Revolution vary from upbeat pop to reflective and vulnerable ballads, exhibiting the wide range of vocal capabilities Kish holds.

Collaborations with Canadian music including Serena Ryder, Sara Quin (Tegan and Sara) and Max Kerman (Arkells) mark a first for the artist who usually writes alone.

“My connection to music is so vulnerable and it’s like writing what I’ve gone through, and that’s what I’ve used music for so this was like a new transition,” says Kish, “There were things in my kind of career and in my writing that I felt like I really wanted. Like, I wanted to celebrate who I am, I was ready to celebrate those things and celebrate the strengths, and writing with these people helped kind of bring that out.”

A champion for mental health, Kish has used music to share messages of hope with her listeners so that her songs can help her fans as much as writing the music has helped her.

“Music saved my life. It still does. Music genuinely saved me and at times where I did deal with depression at a younger age and even suicide, I thought ‘What’s the point? What’s the point in any of this? What’s the point of me, what’s the point of tomorrow, what’s the point of anything?’”

She found taking the time to write out her feelings, putting it to music, and sharing it with others helped her feel less alone.

“All of the sudden, I had this, like, purpose and was like ‘oh I can share what I’ve been through, I can share what I’ve gone through’ and that is a reason to be here. That is my strength.”

Honouring her Two-Spirit identity

The Juno Award-nominated singer says that the industry didn’t always make sharing her music easy. She says she was told not to reveal her sexuality in order to find a fan-base when first starting out.

“That was that dark period,” says Kish

She says she was excited to ‘come out’ and accomplish her dreams with music as her true self, but music industry bigwigs had another idea.

They told her that in order for people to buy her music, show up to shows, and relate to her, Kish would have to keep her long hair, speak a certain way and wear revealing clothing.

“’If you’re taking off your top – people will get it’,” Kish remembers one person saying, “Those kinds of statements made me feel so devalued.”

She says that was just another experience that pushed her to reflect and be her authentic self.

“I have to decide to be whole-heartedly who I am or I am in deep trouble in my life and especially in this industry,” Kish says she remembers thinking at the time.

Although her identity was an issue at first due to homophobia, now she finds there’s confusion over what being Two-Spirit really means and that it isn’t always properly represented.

She mentions being wrongly identified as a transgender woman in one article due to the reporter having a misunderstanding of what the term means.

Not all Indigenous transgender people identify as Two-Spirit and not all Two-Spirit people are on the transgender spectrum. A Two-Spirit person may identify as gay or lesbian and cisgender, meaning their gender aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth as is the case with Kish.

When asked how reporters can better represent Two-spirit identities, Kish gave this advice.

“I think listening is key. Listening to the individual because me being Two-Spirit might mean something different than it does for [someone else],” says Kish, “You have to ask the questions of how I [or others] identify.”

Despite all of these difficulties, Kish says her Two-Spirit identity is the reason why she feels so strong to share her voice.

“Being Two-Spirit, is just like, it’s the foundation, it’s the very core, it’s the very being of and the heartbeat of who I am. It’s the spirit of who I am,” says Kish.

Kish is excitedly working on her debut album, which will include what she calls ‘genuinely the most vulnerable music’ she has made and is expecting a set of twins with her wife, Olympic rugby player Jen Kish.

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