Meet Two-Spirit Musician Shawnee

Shawnee is a two-spirit Mohawk singer-songwriter that uses her soulful music as medicine and to inspire social change. Named one of the “Top Gender Bending Artists,” by MTV, her songs support and empower LGBTQ2S and Indigenous communities, as well as those struggling with mental health issues. Her undeniable talent is clear, as she was the recipient of the CBC Searchlight 2020 competition with her song ‘Building a Wall.’ She is outspoken about her own past struggle with self-identity as well as her journey towards healing. Shawnee has worked with organizations such as We Matter and Kids Help Phone in order to lend her strength and spread messages of positivity to the young people that are currently struggling.

FRONTRUNNER spoke with Shawnee about her Indigenous heritage, her journey to pursuing music and creative process. We learn more about why music is such a powerful healing tool and the importance of embracing and acknowledging your own personal struggle and using it as a force for change.

Can you tell me about how your Indigenous heritage, coming from the Six Nations of The Grand River, has influenced your music?

I grew up in Welland, Ontario. I didn’t grow up on the reserve, but my family is from Six Nations on my mom’s side. I didn’t grow up knowing who I was as a Native person. That was lost in the beginning years of my life. I didn’t really discover that part of myself until about my mid-teenage years and not knowing… it’s hard to explain because I feel it in my blood. I feel it in my soul. Hearing the drums and getting to know myself as two-spirit person. The feeling is intense. The draw is intense. Not knowing that part of myself growing up was a struggle because a part of me was missing. My identity was lost in not understanding that aspect of myself.

The more I grew to know myself as an Indigenous person and my heritage and how it has affected my family and how it has affected me as a person…has influenced my music entirely. I’m naturally drawn to a very strong powerful voice and heavy drum in a lot of my songs. It influences me. Outside of that, the language and topics that I use, and that I talk about in my music, is heavily influenced by wanting to acknowledge Indigenous culture and embrace and spread that awareness but also recognize Indigenous youth. It was a growth period and it still very much is a growth period but it influences my music heavily.

Photo credit: Jo J

What ultimately pushed you to pursue your passion and become the musician/advocate you are today? 

I was drawn to music naturally by being a creative, it was an artistic expression. I’m an emotional being, so that was also a struggle growing up. Having that outlet and recognizing that outlet influenced my life in a very positive way so at some point I felt it wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t an option. It was a way of life. This is how I’m going to live. I am going to express myself artistically and grow as an artist and dedicate and devote everything I have to that. But furthermore, use that to be able to influence and inspire and empower other people the same way it has done for me when I needed it most.

You know, I really struggled as a young person. So, to be able to express myself artistically and creatively is powerful. I think I was 15 when I got my first music job. I was always drawn to it but it wasn’t until I was really struggling…or I was like, “I need something,” and music was the only thing that could pull me from that. This is my calling. This is where I have to keep running no matter what happens in my world. Keep running towards that.

I think it’s inspiring that you listened to your calling. There are people that struggle with that or don’t listen to what their gut is saying, you know?

It’s funny, I guess struggle has a way of doing that? When you are left with very little hope or options you are more drawn to a way of healing. You know? We all want to be at peace. We all want to feel at peace within ourselves and in our own worlds. The world has a way of throwing stuff at you, to kind of shake that ground. Everyone has their thing. Everyone has something that makes them. That drives them. Even if you don’t know what that is! Try new things. Maybe it’s not art? It could be anything! Discover yourself in different ways and try new things so that you know what drives you in times when you need that power within yourself.

You already mentioned you identify as a two-spirit individual. Can you tell me more about what this means to you and how it impacts your music? 

I grew up not embracing that part of myself. But I knew…my soul knew, but my brain wouldn’t allow me to embrace that based out of fear. Music was giving me strength to eventually – in a point in my life – come out. I came out as lesbian and as I grew to learn more and know about my heritage and my traditions and what two-spirit meant culturally and historically it felt just like when I heard the drum, you know? It just felt peaceful. I felt understood…and based on the fact that it was practiced within my culture.

I find sometimes the boxes are hard. It’s like, “Okay, so you’re gay? Or do you identify as he? Or she? Or him?” There could be five people in this room who identify as two-spirit and we are all entirely and completely different. Our pronouns are different and it doesn’t matter. The two-spirit is not your label. It’s your identity. Your sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with it. It’s your spirit’s calling of understanding both the masculine and female ways. So, I find freedom in that because some days I truly feel more my masculine traits and that comes out in my personality and that comes out in my music but other days I feel really feminine and that will come out in my everyday life. This can also be confusing at times because it’s like, okay, who are you today? I learned to embrace that about myself. We don’t have to be one box, one person. You could just be embracing who you are fully.

You’re a huge advocate for LGBTQ2S, Indigenous youth and mental health issues. How do you think music will succeed at bringing about social change? 

Well, music is an outspoken powerful, powerful language and I know that because, like I said, it has completely saved me from my own self. There was this self-destruction phase that I was coming up against as a young person and not being able to…you know, being so desperate for hope? Being so desperate for understanding and peace and then music is the ultimate, for me, power that provides this sense of feeling and hope and love and understanding and bonding and a sense of community. It brings peoples together. Even if you don’t feel that it’s your partner in crime, you could be alone in a room and feel okay because of a song, even if there are no words and it’s just a language that moves us. It’s very powerful. That’s the power that it has.

Due to the current situation in the world, you aren’t able to perform live, at the moment. Do you find it a struggle to continue empowering people with your music?

It’s been challenging mostly because it’s shaken up my whole world. I’m used to living in the structure of…the cold season is when I write. Then I get on the road and I do shows and I interact and I share my new music and that’s a chance to get the creative flowing out in the world. When shows started getting cancelled I was like, what am I going to do? What am I going to do all spring and summer? There were days when I was like…I don’t know how I’m going to do this. A week before everything started shutting down I won the CBC Searchlight contest which came with these amazing opportunities where I was on the phone all day. I was talking with labels and signing with an agency, discussing the Junos, doing tours – all this stuff and everything came to a screeching halt.

So, now I had an option. I can sit and sort of like self-wallow in that or make the best of this opportunity. I’m going to write an album out of this. I had time to set up my music space because I’m new to Edmonton. Interacting with people like through Kids Help Phone – that probably would not have happened. I’m learning so much about myself through this experience and I think it’s important just to continue challenging myself to self-growth.

What is your creative process for creating powerful and honest music like “Building a Wall,” “Warrior Heart,” and “Mirror Me?” 

I do it on purpose to not come up with any formula. It’s always different. I can hear entire songs in my head sometimes so it’s about getting that out – whether it’s certain melodies or instrumentation or a lot of the time I’m driven by the lyrics, the words.

I write probably 6-7 times a day on my phone. I’ll jot down notes, sometimes full songs based on what I’m feeling in the moment. There is no real formula to it. It’s just about feeling inspired and it’s constant creating and emotion whether starting by instrument or starting by lyrics. A lot of the times it’s lyrics and depending on what you’re saying it sort of drives where you’re going to go with the instrumentation. Creating something home base, then getting into the studio and making it into a full product.

Photo credit: Jo J

What parting advice would you give to those that are currently struggling – whether that’s related to mental health, their self-identity, or anything else they might be facing?

I would say to them that when you feel that struggle, because I know what that feels…when you feel that intense pain and suffering and self-struggle that that’s exactly the thing that makes you stronger. So, to not be afraid of it. To embrace it. You don’t need to understand it. You don’t need to fix it. Know that it makes you great because you have an understanding of yourself that you’re tapped into. Because a lot of people shut it off, right? They don’t want to feel it. They shut it off. They get rid of it. It comes out in other ways.

It’s important to feel it, embrace it, acknowledge it and then know that it makes you great. It will make you great. It will make you accomplish things that you never thought possible and it’s going to drive you and it’s like fuel for the fire. I truly believe that so…just to connect with yourself and connect with earth. Whatever it is that drives you and gives you a spark to connect with that and if you don’t entirely know what that is that’s okay too. Try different things and grow. It’s a growth period. That pain and that struggle is a growth period. It’s important to go through. It’s important to conquer and overcome because at the end of it you are this enlightened person.

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