Indigenous resilience through music: two artists breaking boundaries and revitalising culture.

Editor's note : After venturing as far East as Singapore and South all the way to South Africa, it's time for the Logbook to hear a very Northern point of view, with our next guest writer originating from the town of Inari, Finland, which is located beyond the Article Circle. Saara-Maria Salonen, herself a Sámi, immerse us in what it means to write and perform Indigenous music in the actual world today, far from common stereotypes, and how it resonates with the youth of today, locally and around the globe in other Indigenous lands.

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Saara-Maria Salonen
Saara-Maria Salonen. Picture by Thomas Swan

About the author:

Saara-Maria Salonen is an Inari Sámi journalist from Inari, Finland. She is currently residing in Brighton, United Kingdom where she has lived for seven years. Saara-Maria is passionate about promoting Indigenous music to everyone and plays music from around the world on her radio show.

Mainstream Western culture loves the image of Indigenous people and Indigenous cultures and both have been appropriated in mainstream culture. Yet this interest is often lost when it comes to acknowledging the actual living culture.

Indigenous cultures look good on paper as something decorative that has no connection to actual living culture, nations or people. Indigenous filmmakers, painters, storytellers and musicians are not finding the foothold in mainstream society where some aspects of their culture are celebrated.

Indigenous music has not found its place in mainstream society but perhaps it does not need to. Indigenous superstars are stirring the pot in their own communities and beyond. Young musicians all across Indigenous communities are pushing boundaries between traditions and modern music, birthing musical masterpieces that not only revitalise culture but strengthen cultural understanding and excitement for their language and culture that previously could have been viewed as archaic by Indigenous youngsters.

It is understandable that Indigenous music does not make its way into the mainstream. Non-Western (and non-English) music hardly ever gets the same recognition and is often left in the margins. But there they are, from the small pubs and clubs packed full to the bigger stages of music festivals around Indigenous lands. What might seem like everyday gigs are about so much more. The packed clubs and the passion of the fans show that this is about reclaiming the culture that has been pushed down for so long. They are intent on revitalising the traditions, music, costume and performance. They connect their heritage with new music styles, breaking the stereotypes of what it means to be native, and how to navigate the modern Indigenous lifestyle.

I got together with two indigenous musicians who are breaking the boundaries to discuss their view on Indigenous music, its importance and their own place in the scene.


Aqqalu Berthelsen. Picture by Bolt Lamar

Activist, DJ and music producer Aqqalu Berthelsen, of Kalaallit Nunaat (eng. Greenland), has been working in the music industry his whole life.

Aqqalu composes beats for circumpolar rappers and produces his own music under his stage name Uyarakq, meaning rock in Inuit languages. His music ranges from modern mixes of traditional Inuit drum dance music to modern electronic with titles such as Move, I’m Indigenous.

His role, however, is mainly in beat making and producing music with Indigenous rappers.

On the subject of his revitalising role, Aqqalu says, ‘My role in all of this is to help maintain the music scene that is good quality, make the music and make it marketable to the outsiders too.’ This is not always an easy task and some creative sacrifices are needed in order to make the music accessible to everyone. ‘We do not have the Western tones in singing. Like throat singing, it is weird to Western people, they do not have the ears for it.’

Move, I'm Indigenous - Uyaracq

Shaking up the traditions and modernising culture is not always straightforward. For years, Aqqalu was hesitant to sample traditional drum dance music into his electronic albums. ‘The community really cares for the traditions, and I felt I needed to understand the culture well enough to do it.’ Aqqalu continues to say that he practiced his composing for years before being confident enough to sample drum music. However, hard work has paid off and, until the pandemic, Aqqalu spent the majority of his year touring Indigenous lands across the globe.

There is a growing sense of connection within Indigenous musicians around the globe; access to the internet makes it easier to connect with other Indigenous people across the globe and find people with similar experiences.

‘We need that connection because the communities are small, and bringing your culture out there makes you feel a lot more proud of it.’ Aqqalu explains. When music can be a way to relieve ethno-stress and anxiety that comes from prejudice and racism, it can also be a tool for raising the collective pride of one's heritage.

Aqqalu grew up in Greenland before the internet was widely accessible, he only heard stories of other Inuit people in Alaska and Canada. Now he works with them. ‘I can now see where I belong in the big picture... I can now see the similarities in us, I feel like I have connected the Indigenous dots,’ he laughs.

Ailu Valle

Ailu Valle in Northern Sámi outfit. By Marko Vasara.

Ailu Valle is a Northern Sámi rap artist from Finnish Lapland, where he makes a living rapping about social issues, politics, the importance of nature and calls for social change. He started his career by rapping in English and Finnish, before changing to his native language, Northern Sámi. Ailu has released three studio albums and has been involved in many projects with a variety of different artists. Arguably the most prolific and most well-known Northern Sámi rap artist, his music has travelled far and taken Ailu across the globe.

The lack of urban vocabulary in the Northern Sámi language has not deterred Ailu, and his lyrics are often used as teaching materials by Northern Sámi teachers in beginners classes as well as universities. However, the importance of his work and its impact did not come easily. Historically, the policies of the Finnish government have worked to erase the Sámi culture which, according to Ailu, ‘has left a sense of shame to the previous generation, and it is the reason why so many Sámi parents stopped teaching their children the language and culture.’ Ailu discusses that trauma often in his lyrics, and says he feels an obligation to revitalise his culture via his music and lyrics. ‘I have so much to say, I am filling this void inside me and I am trying to do at least something to the culture and the people.’

One of Ailu’s core messages is the balance between the importance of nature and modern lifestyle, as well as the importance of the Indigenous view of the world. ‘I was also criticising the banking system and the monetary system, and the system that makes us be in debt for nature, and we only respect the economy. We think that the economy is the god that we worship, or we try to keep the balance of the economy instead of keeping the balance of nature.’ This is a message that resonates with many Indigenous people and communities. ‘In my lyrics I am trying to think about the situation of Sámi youngsters who are living in the modern world.’

For many Indigenous musicians, it is difficult to separate their culture from their music. The decision to write music that is considered Western is a conscious decision, and a step away from traditions. Ailu brings up the issue of ethno-stress and pressure from the community. When old and new traditions collide, it can feel like balancing on a trapeze. The older generation wants to preserve as much as they can, while the younger ones want to move forward. Ailu thinks that the younger generation is in the position that they have to choose whether they want to learn the traditional way of life, or they want to continue with the modern world. ‘How can they find a balance between these two, and not feel this guilt of turning your back to your ancestors?’ he asks.

Ailu Valle performing. Picture by Kevin Francett Photography.

For Ailu, his music has been a way for him to regain control over his identity. ‘The language is easing my stress over who I am in this world. This is a way for me to do something very important for my people.’

While only a few Indigenous musicians have made their way to mainstream music, the impact they have on local communities is strong. In a world where many native youths have to find a balance between traditions and modern life, artists who are stretching the boundaries of both cultures pave the way for a new era. This era is one where the new generation creates art without being faced with prejudice – from both sides of their culture.

Collaboration between different Indigenous groups can help the young musicians to get more visibility for their music and it can also work to dismantle the generations of trauma and confusion. Connecting with others from around the globe who are different but share similar experiences can be very empowering for young people who struggle between cultures. Music brings different indigenous cultures together, where each artist can display their traditions. Indigenous music’s true meaning is conveyed on the stages of native festivals and sung through native tongues. Perhaps this is where they are needed most. The thought of young, Indigenous music makers and artists bringing their passion and healing power to the stages is a thought that brings hope, joy and - most of all - pride.

March 2021. Written by Saara-Maria Salonen in Brighton, UK, and edited by Compass Music in Paris, FR and London, UK.