This week the City of Edmonton announced Matthew Wood, best known as a grass dancer who has toured and performed with electronic music outfit A Tribe Called Red, has been chosen as the city’s Indigenous artist-in-residence for 2021.
“It’s a really cool opportunity,” Wood told Global News on Friday. “(The residency provides) a support system… allowing the artist to kind of play around and use their skills to kind of grow from there and come up with a body of work at the end.”
Wood, also known as Creeasian, plans to use the opportunity to merge his passion for longstanding Indigenous teachings and traditions with his love of hip hop, two cultures that he says have many parallels.
“My late mom exposed me to powwow culture, round dances… so the energy from that, I couldn’t quite pinpoint it at the time, but then as I matured as an artist and learned more about my heritage and also hip-hop culture, they became very parallel because of the elements,” he said.
“The teachings, when I think of the medicine wheel and the values… the colours that represent the nations within that medicine wheel… think of the elements of hip hop: the values that they have within the dance, the oral tradition, like rhyming, poetry, spoken word.
“(In hip hop) you’ve got the DJs… they’re keeping the energy alive by playing music, so that’s very parallel to powwow singers and drummers… graffiti is very similar to our arts, our beadwork or even our paintings… It just made sense to me the more I learned about and studied and did my homework on the culture, it challenged me to basically question myself… ‘What draws you towards hip hop?… Why do you dance the way you dance? Why do you like the music the way you like it?’ And it all just basically came full circle back to my heritage and my Indigenous roots… It just made sense.”
A founding member of musical initiatives like the Sampler Café Collective and Cypher Wild YEG, Wood said his evolution as a multi-disciplinary artist reached a turning point when he began working with A Tribe Called Red.
“(I’ve had) an opportunity to meet artists on my journey and see them also tap into the same frequency, where they’re also incorporating their culture from dance steps to music,” he said, noting he and A Tribe Called Red have been unable to tour since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“They take powwow music, which is dance music, and electronic music, which is dance music, and it just makes sense to put together.”
He said it’s been a privilege to dance for A Tribe Called Red alongside fellow dancer Angela Gladue and to show Indigenous youth that “they can have their own identity, with tradition, too.”
“Touring with them (A Tribe Called Red), it was like instant family,” he said.
“The synergy just clicked right away.”
The 37-year-old dancer, DJ and producer said that while he was born in Edmonton and makes his home in Alberta’s capital, his family’s roots are on Goodfish Lake First Nation and that he spent his youth both on- and off-reserve.
“Even though I live in the city, (that) doesn’t make me less of an Indigenous person,” Wood said. “We all have a voice… on-reserve and off-reserve.”
Aside from Winnipeg, no city in Canada has a larger Indigenous population than Edmonton. Wood said he believes there’s a strong tradition of exceptional Indigenous artists in Alberta’s capital, and suggested more could be done to support them.
“It’s evident that there’s many amazing talented artists that come from this area,” he said. “There’s strong Indigenous artists out here.
“Having more opportunities like this, the city will become more rich for sure. We are rich in culture, but nurturing that is definitely important.”
When it comes to his dancing, Wood said exploring traditional powwow steps and street-dance styles has been “healing” for him.
“Our duty as a grass dancer is to dance for those no longer able to dance, and dance for the new ones that come into this world,” he said. “It’s a healing dance for yourself with many others around you.”
Edmonton’s Indigenous artist-in-residence program is aimed at fostering relationship-building and an “appreciation for Indigenous arts and culture.”
Run through the City of Edmonton and Edmonton Arts Council’s joint cultural plan, the one-year residency will see Wood be supported with supplies and a work space before he puts together a showcase of his completed work at the end of the program.
“What’s fuelling… me is language and my culture and having the best of both worlds that I’ve come to know… street/hip hop culture — street culture — and also my heritage — Indigenous culture,” Wood said. “I hope to really bring forward the seven sacred teachings within my work.
“I want to be able to share and get my point across.. and be honest.”