Qacung Stephen Blanchett’s new album may be solo, but it has some big Indigenous pop super group energy.
Qacung, who is one of the co-creators of the Inuit band Pamyua, brought several other Indigenous Alaska musicians along for the ride on his inaugural solo album, including Juneau’s Arias Hoyle who goes by Air Jazz.
The result is Miu: a record imbued with the polish of decades in the music industry, the rich texture of soul, funk, rock and hip hop, and the wisdom shared across generations of Native pop artists.
Qacung grew up in Bethel, but relocated with his family to Lingít territory in Juneau a few years ago.
“That’s one of the reasons I moved to Juneau, because of the art scene here, and the culture,” he said. “And I knew around that same time that I was going to work on this album — I hadn’t gone in the studio yet — but I knew in my mind, I’m going to work with Arias; I’m going to work with Byron Nicholai; Aku Matu. These artists are coming into their own style of music, and they’re also hip hop. I wanted some hip hop in my project.”
For Juneau’s Arias Hoyle, who is a generation younger than Qacung, there was a lot of value in working with another Native pop musician — especially someone like Qacung who Hoyle says has seamless creative and cultural expression in his work.
“The things he does are exactly what I strive to do,” says Hoyle. “Because as long as you’re representing your people, there’s no right way to do it. You just express yourself, and it’s gonna slap. That was the best wisdom he ever gave me.”
Qacung said working alongside someone with Hoyle’s colorfulness pushed him to step up his own style.
“He kind of came on the scene just fully formed, baked out, just ready. He knew what his style was, and his sound. He has a maturity in his performance,” Qacung said.
That strong style can be seen in the video for “On That Day,” shot at Amalga Distillery in downtown. (KTOO’s Chandre Szafran is in the video.) Without giving too much away, masks from many different Alaska Native cultures feature prominently.
“We want to story-tell in a way that’s different,” Qacung said. “In a way that people have never seen before, or maybe have seen but not in that way. The old ways of using masks, were used in dancing, in ceremonies. Telling stories, because the masks told stories — that’s what’s the function of them. They weren’t made for wall-hangings and stuff like that. A lot of the masks that you see nowadays are made and put up on someone’s wall as a piece of artwork. Those masks were made for performance; those masks were made to tell stories. Unfortunately, that was one of the first things to go. With the suppression of our dances. With the missionaries, and the colonizers, they really used the masks against us. They used our songs, and our dances, and our ceremonies — and especially the masks — against us. And so we want to bring those things to light, and bring them to life.”
As for the future of Native pop?
“I want it to explode,” said Qacung. “But what is it that’s gonna make you stand out? For a lot of Indigenous artists, it’s their Indigeneity. The love of your culture, of your language. When they’re rapping and hip-hop in their Indigenous language–that sets them apart from everybody else.”