Carving a bold musical space

Music is engaging storytelling for Anishinaabek MC and singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner, who performs a mix of roots, country, and hip-hop. Sumner brings to the Chan Centre on March 5 his people’s tradition of storytelling by speaking truth to his experience, and encouraging others to do the same.

“It’s super important to see Anishinaabek people telling their experience. My wife always says we’re the experts in our experience, and so that’s who should be telling the stories. It shouldn’t be somebody else,” says Sumner.

Navigating experience through music

Music has a deep and multi-faceted importance in Sumner’s life. To start, it’s been a means of expressing himself and growing as a human being: whether that involves processing grief and moving forward, reflecting on the experience of love, or speaking truth to power.

But Sumner is equally as concerned with how his music resonates and is received by others. It’s not that he is trying to be a crowd-pleaser. Rather, he hopes his work and his art can shine a light on his culture and encourage others, whether it’s his audience or his own family, to be able to engage with their identity wholeheartedly.

“It’s super important for me to show my daughter that her dad is out there sharing our culture and my experience. She’s gonna grow up, I hope, with a stronger identity from the start,” he says .

Music has a deep, multifaceted importance in Leonard Sumner’s life. | Photo by Darcey Finley

For Sumner, given the historical and ongoing repression of Indigenous identity, culture, and experience, there’s a unique meaning to be found in carrying forward the tradition
of storytelling.

“A lot of the storytelling time was done in winter. That was a time when you did all your work to ensure that you could survive through another winter and… keep yourself entertained,” he says. “That’s where people shared their stories, and that was obviously disrupted by colonialism.”

When he first started making music, Sumner says there was a kind or responsibility placed on his shoulders to carve out a bold space, speaking intently about his identity and experience. While Sumner insists that it’s never felt like a burden, he’s excited to see a bit more room for Indigenous artists nowadays.

“Now that there’s a lot of new Anishinaabek or Indigenous artists that are coming up [and] maybe they don’t feel like they have to have that weight. They can just make a song about whatever they want to sing about, which is very beautiful,” he says.

A musical blend

Sumner says hip-hop, the genre that first got him into making music, has also seen a kind of transformation in the last few years: moving from an insistence on intricate bars and lyricism to a greater focus on emotion.

Sumner’s latest album, Thunderbird, sees him return to a more hip-hop-focused sound as he processes his own emotions, including love and grief. And while Thunderbird represents a return to where he started, he notes that the spirit and vibe of hip-hop has been with him throughout his musical career, even for his more roots – and country – influenced albums.

“I [would] write to hip-hop beats and then I’ll put it onto my guitar with some chords. So there’s a lot of times where, for a lot of my rap stuff, there’s two versions of each song and some of them never see the light a day,” he says.

For his next album, Sumner is looking forward to a sonic mix of hip-hop and country, a bit like some of his older material. But for now, he’s taking it one day at a time, moving through life, processing and making sense of it all before translating it into the musical form.

“I never know what to call it. I used to call it Rez Poetry, but I’m not really up from the rez anymore,” says Sumner. “So it’s kind of like a little bit of a new journey, even in the past couple years of fatherhood and the pandemic, and trying to figure out how to write music that isn’t about sitting at home.”

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