When Tanya Tagaq takes the stage in front of a genial and buzzed Yellowknife crowd on a grey Saturday night in July, she’s disarmingly sweet. This might seem at odds with her art, with her defiant and unapologetic stance on Arctic, Inuit, First Nations and women’s issues in the media. But there she is, smiling and politely introducing her band and asking if there are any Inuit in the crowd. She’s overjoyed when they raise their hands.
This is a homecoming show, of sorts: Tagaq grew up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and she attended high school in Yellowknife.
Are you ready? she asks. Everyone moves in closer. We think we are. And then it starts. Tagaq takes Inuit throatsinging through new soundscapes, using it as a jumping off point to tell stories through song. She once told the local paper she used to get nervous in Yellowknife, performing in front of family and friends. But tonight there’s no holding back. She pulls us in with soothing, intimate moments, then rocks us backwards with ferocious growls and screams and demonic laughter. We marvel at the sounds she produces, the places she travels to, the personalities she channels. The mood rises and falls, then picks up again with sudden force and intensity. She keeps pace throughout, literally breathing life into the music.
She’d asked that no one record her show, because short, out-of-context snippets would make her look like a “freak show.”
Her sound isn’t for everyone: a friend of mine feels anxious and has to leave partway through. Some find it too different, too quickly, and are instinctively resistant. But the musicians who preceded her on stage stand dumbstruck, transfixed. In an age where we can’t go two minutes without pulling out our phones, our eyes stay locked on her for 40. She’d asked that no one record her show, because short, out-of-context snippets would make her look like a “freak show.” But the experience wouldn’t translate to video anyways. You have to see her face contort as she sings, a sincere expression of the emotion and energy exerted. You have to be a body, watching her body do the things it does, in person, to process the raw power.
Though she’s flanked by violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin on stage, she seems to be carrying the weight of the world up there with her. She’s seen soaring highs and gutting lows in the past two years. A Polaris Award win in September 2014 crowned her latest album, the hypnotic and at times unsettling Animism, as Canada’s best. This came after relentless and rabid attacks from animal rights activists, responding to what she thought was an innocuous photo posted online of her baby next to a dead seal, appreciating a successful hunt. But she didn’t back down, challenging southern ethnocentric logic with her own eloquent retorts, and even using the most hateful and personal insults hurled at her as fuel, conjuring up that vitriol to inspire performances on a 2014 European tour. “It’s very cathartic,” she told VICE.
Because she hasn’t shied away from confrontation during her rise, she’s become an Arctic spokesperson. The face of Northern cool, rebellion, and a source of Inuit pride. (Yet she was criticized early in her career by traditionalists who found her throatsinging style too radical. She’s way past that now.)
She first performed at the Folk on the Rocks festival 16 years ago, as part of a throatsinging duo with friend Angela Kadlun. It was there that she hit a groove with African reggae artist Njacko Backo, and the Kugluktuk Drummers, for one of the more memorable and successful festival collaborations. She’s since shared stages with Björk and the Kronos Quartet, travelling the world many times over.
The show ends and we erupt; a release of collective tension, awe and appreciation. And after baring so much grief and feeling, so unequivocally, Tagaq is once again bashful. She calls up Tiffany Ayalik, Kathleen Ivaluarjuk Merritt and Angela Hovak Johnston to do some group throatsinging. When the four young women break into laughter as the singing crescendoes, the crowd cheers gleefully. “Thank you, Yellowknife!” Tagaq exclaims.
Her music, her daring, her determination, her success and how she’s used it to spark important national discussions—there was never any question Tanya Tagaq would make this list.