Leonard Sumner: Rap and Americana, Anishinaabe style

Interview by Alain Brunet

Composer, performer, organizer, singer, rapper, activist… Leonard Sumner carries within him the legacy and hope of the Anishinaabe nation.

Genres and styles : Americana / First Nations / Hip Hop

Additional Information

In 2019, Winnipeg-based Leonard Sumner won the Juno in the Indigenous Music Album of the Year category. Standing in the Light was a testament to the lucid and fervent commitment of the Manitoba-born Anishinaabe writer, composer, and performer. To this day, this commitment is matched by a composite stylistic approach: Americana (country, folk, etc.) and hip-hop lend a magnetic force to Sumner, who was invited to perform as part of Mundial Montréal. PAN M 360 connected with Sumner to find out more.

PAN M 360: You’re often presented among important new voices on the First Nations roots music scene today. How do you see that, yourself?

Leonard Sumner: I don’t see myself as a new voice anymore, but I feel it’s still important for these stories to be heard.

PAN M 360: Since a few years, there has been a great renaissance of indigenous cultures all over Canada, and it appears to be much more than a trend. How do you see your own contribution to this very important cultural expansion?

LS: If Canada wishes to advertise itself as a multicultural society and nation, it needs to fully recognize the Indigenous peoples and nations that have been existing prior to colonial expansion. 

PAN M 360: Did you have role models when you defined your artistic personality and identity?

LS: I was inspired by hip-hop and country music. 

PAN M 360: Who are your favourite musicians, songwriters, rappers and beatmakers?

LS: My current favourite MC is Black Thought, my favourite of all time is 2Pac. Steve Earle is probably my favourite songwriter.  

PAN M 360: Folk rock, country, and rap are important components of your art form. How did it come together?

LS: It just happened naturally. Once I taught myself how to play guitar, I started mixing my lyrics into that.

PAN M 360: Could you explain the way you also include elements of traditional Anishinaabe music and singing, and/or other First Nations?

LS: I sing some traditional songs and insert as much of my language into my set as I can. I also include songs I composed in the language.

PAN M 360: For you, what are the specific aspects of your own craft? What makes the difference between you and other songwriters/rappers?

LS: The ability to seamlessly bring multiple genres together on stage.

PAN M 360: Of course the First Nations’ and native cultures’ many issues are a huge part of poetic inspiration of your lyrics. How do you transform those crucial concerns in a poetic way?

LS: With heart!

PAN M 360: What are the other dimensions of your lyrics?

LS: Spiritual.

PAN M 360: What is, for you, the tension between directness and abstraction? I mean between reality-based concerns – sharing stuff that’s real – and more abstract themes?

LS: Fiction can be shaped however a writer wishes it to be. Fact is a representation of the truth, and it’s important to speak the truth when speaking of serious issues.

PAN M 360: You seem also to have performed all over in the First Nations cultural networks?

LS: Yes, this is true. 

PAN M 360: How are your songs perceived in this great indigenous diversity in North America?

LS: They are received well. We all have not had the exact same experience, but people have empathy because there are commonalities. 

PAN M 360: What are your hopes for an international career?

LS: I’ve toured Australia and played a bit in the U.S. I would like to do a European tour eventually.

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