Kinnie Starr has become a master at mixing worlds, transcending borders and declaring sovereignty.
Ever since her 1996 debut album Tidy was described by L.A. Weekly as “hip hop aggro groove,” the Juno award-winning singer, rapper and producer has crossed into guitar-heavy indie-pop territory, been featured on television soundtracks – and even briefly joined the circus.
In February, the self-described "half-breed" Mohawk-Canadian star is releasing her sixth album, Kiss It – and she is doing it on her own terms. And though she may have accolades and global recognition, including an upcoming Canadian talent showcase in France, Starr is independently fundraising online for the album's release mid-February.
“It's definitely the most hip hop record I've made in a while,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “On this record, my concept was to use as little instrumentation, as little money, as few pre-amps, as little gear as possible. I programmed and did everything. That's not really bragging -- it's a concept. I am proud of myself for it -- I programmed all the beats, played all the instruments, sang everything, wrote everything -- because I am interested in the idea of sovereignty. I was really adamant about wanting to do it myself.”
The album brings Starr full-circle, re-engaging her roots in political hip hop – with songs like “Home is Everywhere” and “Everything Changes” proclaiming the importance of relationships to one another and the land.
“I think about the way we treat each other a lot,” she said. “Even as strangers, the way we greet each other, you can make a person's day incredible, or you can ruin their day, in a simple exchange. That extends into political relationships too.”
Kinnie Starr in the recording studio; photo by David P. Ball
She cites as an example the ongoing hunger strike by Attawapiskat First Nation chief Theresa Spence, who on December 11 declared she is willing to die if the government doesn't transform its relationship to Indigenous peoples and meet to discuss abhorrent conditions in Aboriginal communities. Spence's hunger strike came a day after thousands rallied for Aboriginal rights in communities across the country, under the banner Idle No More.
At its core, the crisis stems from the government's refusal to Indigenous voices, Starr said, for instance with controversial Bill C-45, which makes it easier to sell off reserve lands, and a raft of new legislation gutting environmental protections in Canada.
“It does apply to politics on a large scale,” she explained. “Take the Attawapiskat chief doing a hunger strike. These questions, and Bill C-45 passing -- if there were real listening between the government and First Nations people, between chiefs and citizens -- this bill would not be passed. There's no way that people would agree to it. My father, mom and brothers tell me I'm desperately naive about the way people relate, and that I need to have a tough skin, suck it up and deal with the way the world is. But I can't! It's just not in my nature to blindly accept.”
The song “Everything Changes,” a new wave hip hop tracks blending minimalist electronic beats, includes Starr's signature spoken-word stylings and a singalong chorus. When asked about it, she bursts into melody in her typical fashion mid-interview:
"Borders are drawn by the white man's hand / History made by a line drawn in the sand / So flip over sidewalks, you've got your own feet / Take own spot, put your heels in the street."
For the 42-year old lyricist, maps, place names and modern landmarks erase to long histories of the land.
“When people are taught about land in Canada, kids and adults use current land references,” she said. “But topography and map-making has really thrown people off-base. People reference an area by the marking on the side of the highway, but the history of that land is so much deeper.”
As in her music -- undefinable by strict genres, even “hip hop” or “singer-songwriter” being grossly inappropriate -- Starr defies boundaries and borders in her lyrics.
“I have trouble with nationalism in general,” she said. “That extends to being particular to any boundary inside a community, a fashion, a race. Conceptually, I have issues with boundaries and borders. I've been writing about this, but there's something inside me that I've felt since I was very, very little. I can't speak for other Native people or white people. Integration is lacking in many facets -- in the queer community, in the Native community, in the hip hop community. People don't really listen to each other if they have an agenda based on borders between each other.”
But despite winning a prestigious Juno award for her production skills, and landing another nomination in 2004 for New Artist of the Year, Starr said today's music industry has changed since she first started 17 years ago.
“I entered the music business when there was real money changing hands,” she explained. “There's still real money changing hands, but it's pretty much at the top tiers now. The gap is wider than it used to be. People think you walk on stage, become a star, and then you get a record deal. But there's so much more to the equation of making music. As artists right now -- because there's so little money changing hands in the music business -- we need to be very innovative and think outside the box.”
Hence Kiss It's Indiegogo campaign. Always aiming to relate directly to her fans -- jumping off-stage at shows to read poetry face-to-face in the audience -- Starr is offering everything from personal yoga instruction to song-writing workshops in hopes to do this all herself with the help of her supporters.
“The hardest part is right now,” she said. “It's getting the record out. I'm doing a fundraising campaign to be able to finish it – to master it, for publicity and stuff. This record will come out, come Hell or high water!”