Natasha Blackwood on Music, Activism, and Tokenism

"We both wish that aboriginal groups especially, weren’t just invited to drum a song and go away, but were invited to sit at the table for the discussion."

natasha-blackwoodNatasha Blackwood has been playing music in St. John’s for over a decade with a number of bands including The Long Distance Runners and Eastern Owl. She currently producing a new album with Eastern Owl called Not Quite Like You.

She is also a powerful voice in Newfoundland and Labrador who frequently speaks out against social injustice in our province. Blackwood is the Youth and Community Coordinator at the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council and recently worked with the DMV to insure that refugees and immigrants who aren’t completely fluent in English are able to get their licenses. This year she also spoke out about the most recent provincial budget and it’s devastating impact on families.

I spoke to her about how inseparable the relationship between music and activism are for her. We also discussed the discrimination that women performers face in the St. John’s music scene as well as how aboriginal musicians are often tokenized in our city.

What are you working on right now?

Right now Eastern Owl is producing our own album. It’s called Not Quite Like You, which is a title of one of the songs that’s on the album.

My husband, Aaron and myself are recording it and mixing it, we’ve done the whole thing in our home. I’ve played on lots of different records but this is my first time not as a side musician.

I’m also currently working with Rogers Rasing The Grade to develop a free, inclusive music program for teens at the Buckmaster’s Circle Boys and Girls Club, with local luthier Sharleen Simmons. We received some pretty great funding this year and just acquired an amazing work space, so we’re all very excited! 

Where did you grow up and how did you begin playing music?

I grew up in Kippens, which is outside of Stephenville and both my parents are musicians. My whole family is musicians, my dad plays drums and my mom sings, one sister is a choir conductor and the other is a singer/songwriter. I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life.

How did you start playing in bands?

I started at a really young age. My dad is a blues drummer, when it came time to pick an instrument for Schoolband my dad told me I should play saxophone so I could be in a rock and roll band. So I started playing the saxophone and being from a small town there’s not a lot of saxophone players. I started playing with rock and roll and blues bands in the Stephenville area when I was in high school. I kept playing in that scene while I was at CNA studying Recording Arts.

After that I was encouraged by my teachers at CNAto go to music school and I studied jazz at St. Francis Xavier University.

Do you think there are barriers for women who want to play music in St. John’s?

Yes, Absolutely.

I went to CNA and studied recording arts and became a sound technician, then I went on to be a performer. The whole time I was studying music I was a sound technician for St. Francis Xavier University and I spent my summers at the Stephenville Theatre Festival as a sound technician.

When I moved to St. John’s I decided to be more of a performer and less of a technician so I didn’t tell people I had that skill set. If people know you’re a sound technician they always want you to do sound and I wanted to play, so I kept it on the downlow.

I found it odd how male dominated the music scene in Newfoundland is. It’s really common that men assume you don’t know anything. I’ve played in larger ensembles and when we’re on stage the sound technician will refer to all the men by name and assume they know what they’re talking about, but when they get to me they’ll be like ‘okay honey, make sure you don’t point the microphone at the speaker’ and just assume that because I’m a woman I have no idea how to use a microphone.

It seems like even after a decade of performing consistently in St. John’s the assumption is that I don’t know anything. And even if I’ve been playing with the same band for years technicians will remember the men’s names and remember that they’re not new, but the assumption about me is that I’m fifteen years old and I don’t know anything and I need to be reminded how to not make things explode.

I think that dismissive behaviour can be enough to make people want to quit really early on because it doesn’t seem to matter how long you’ve been around or what your skill set is, people will dismiss you because you’re a woman and that can be exhausting. It’s hard to stay in a field where you don’t feel respected or valued.

What’s the relationship between music and activism for you?

I don’t really separate them, my feelings about social justice and social injustice comes across in everything that I do. Especially in Eastern Owl because our music is so political. We don’t try to make it that way but we can’t help it, we have strong feelings about a lot of issues we see in Aboriginal communities. Missing and murdered women, residential schools and the intergenerational trauma they caused, the lack of clean drinking water and mental health services, the way that aboriginal people are treated as “others” in their daily lives, to name a few.

Art reflects life, and this is real life, it’s happening around all of us every day. Even when we try to write a fun song, most of the time a serious song comes out. We couldn’t turn it off if we tried.

There’s a really great cultural music scene here in St. John’s. There’s bands from everywhere, people are playing Klezmer music, Ukrainian music, and Inuit music to name a few, but you don’t often see those groups getting invited to play at things where they’re not being tokenized.

You can see these social injustices happening everywhere and it’s really hard for me to separate artist me from well, I don’t call myself this but other people have called me, a social justice warrior.

What are some steps we can take to stop tokenizing these artists?

People should start looking at ethnic minorities as a valuable voice in the arts and not just because they are ethnic minorities.

Some of the aboriginal music coming out of Newfoundland right now is incredible and I wish groups like Eastern Owl, Wa’pek Muin, and Strength of the Drum would be invited to play a full set, not just a welcome song, not just an honour song, and then be shooed away.

These groups should be treated as legitimate artists who have something equal to contribute, not just to the performances but also to the conversations. There’s lots of times when there are conferences or award shows on the go and you don’t see any representation from these groups.

I had this conversation with one of my band mates in Eastern Owl, we both wish that aboriginal groups especially, weren’t just invited to drum a song and go away, but were invited to sit at the table for the discussion. They have valuable things to contribute to the discussion not just as aboriginal artists, but as artists and as members of the community.

What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as musician in this city?

One moment that was great for me as an individual was a show I played recently at Factory with one of my cover projects, N’ar Doubt (a No Doubt cover band). Lee Tizzard was our sound technician. He was so respectful, he asked my opinion, he remembered my name, and we had a really great nerdy chat about microphone pickup patterns.

I was so surprised and excited to see a male veteran of the sound world who was willing to talk to a woman (who just so happened to be eight months pregnant at the time) with respect and dignity, as an equal with expertise. He didn’t even say “Wow, it’s so rare to meet a woman who knows things about sound equipment!”  I’m 32 years old and that’s the first time that ever happened to me. I can’t wait until I need a sound technician so I can call him again.

One of the things that was really wonderful for Eastern Owl this year was showcasing at LawnyaVawnya where we were invited to play a full set at two shows. We were also invited to play Vish Khanna’s talk show, which was great.

No one said, ‘where’s you regalia?’ and it was for more than just one song. We felt like we were valued as artists and that people were really listening. We’re not just valuable because we’re aboriginal women, we’re also valuable because we make good music. It’s nice to be valued for both of those things.

Written By
More from Eva Crocker

Megan Gail Coles’ Our Eliza Opens The 2017 Perchance Theatre Summer Series

“There were really nice atmospheric additions to experience, given that we were...
Read More

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.