Sonic Insurgency Research Group
Joe Rainey is a Pow Wow singer. On Niineta, he demonstrates his command of the Pow Wow style, descending from Indigenous singing that’s been heard across the waters of what is now called Minnesota for centuries. Depending on the song or the pattern, his voice can celebrate or console, welcome or intimidate, wake you up with a start or lull your babies to sleep. Each note conveys a clear message, no matter the inflection: We’re still here. We were here before you and we never left.
These first sentences by Steve Marsh, senior editor for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, are taken directly from the liner notes of Joe Rainey’s debut album Niineta released in 2022 by artist collective and digital platform 37d03d. More than inner-sleeve fodder, the notes give an important summary of the historically interwoven story of Rainey’s life growing up as a Red Lake Ojibwe powwow kid in Minneapolis, the birthplace of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Marsh’s notes point to the tensions between belonging to a metropolitan Native community and the regimes of authenticity that sometimes accompany the rural lifeways of the reserve. What does it mean to represent both the heterogeneity of an alienated sonic modernity rooted in the urban and the communal tradition of powwow? What does it mean to perform both in the avant-garde art-house music venue and the open terrain of the powwow campground?
Much of the album’s electronic textures are the result of Andrew Broder’s production, which combines the dramatic ambiguity of the cinematic score with the noisy grain of lo-fi electronica. The album, overwhelmingly well received, has captivated both Native and non-Native listeners in part because of how it hauntingly brings together dynamic powwow performances and experimental distortion. We implore the reader to pause here and listen to Niineta to have a richer context for the following conversation and, of course, to support Rainey by purchasing the album. The album’s approaches to contemporaneity and tradition are the distorted backbeat, tape hiss, and dark reverberations that center our playful meanderings and critical conversation.
Sonic Insurgency Research Group: One thing about the record that’s nice is the insert that has an extended text written with you about your early experiences becoming a powwow singer. The liner notes mention you growing up near Little Earth Housing Project in Minneapolis and a lot of deep ties between that particular community and the 1970s American Indian Movement (AIM) and their fight for Indian-controlled housing.1 What were your experiences like and how did this impact you?
Joe Rainey: If you know Southside Minneapolis, you’re familiar with Hiawatha Avenue and its light rail. Back when I was growing up in the late 1990s, there were train tracks there and I lived literally on the other side of the tracks from the projects. That was a weird little divide. My mom still lives there. It’s a nice pocket of Minneapolis that’s called the Seward neighborhood. I was babysat in the projects a lot and I guess that’s what led me to seeing the formation of The Boyz, a drumming and singing group. It was important having that visibility, seeing singing going on in the city. That’s where it started, in the projects. A family friend was teaching and mentoring young singers in Little Earth. That’s where the drumming and singing group Little Earth Juniors came from. I found my way to sit down with them through Darrell Kingbird, who I referenced in the liner notes.2 The liner notes you referred to were written by Steve Marsh, who has always been a great friend of mine. He approached our drum group at Eaux Claires Music Festival. By his natural way of questioning, I knew it was going to be a pretty cool friendship. For the most part, it was all him. I gave him the information about where the samples came from and that’s what I added to the text.
SIRG: Can you reflect on what it means to you to be a powwow singer and the meaning of the powwow as a form of gathering, as a space of tribal and intertribal community with non-Indian folks being invited into that space? What is it to perform in that space and what is it to hold those traditions musically and push them forward at the same time?
JR: I think there are a lot of layers to being an Indigenous singer or being a singer of your community. There are a lot of songs that are essential to where you come from specifically. That seems like an obvious statement, but there are just so many songs out there that I have yet to learn or even know about.
Part of being a singer is being humble and doing what’s asked of you. That’s what I’ve been taught all my life. The life of a singer is not easy. You do what you’re asked without questions, without asking how much money there is going to be. Without really asking if there will be food. If you’re called upon in a non-powwow setting, you’re supposed to oblige. But powwow, like you said, can be enjoyed by anyone. I feel like in the 90s, so many people would be at these powwows, and that’s what made it so jumping. But now, it’s just singers and dancers and their families, and nobody’s camping anymore. That’s something I don’t like about powwows nowadays.
About preserving or holding space, I do think it’s easier now. But even still, the erasure of Natives in general makes it difficult for a continuation of preservation on a large scale because you can’t put a price on anything we do. There is no value for certain people to really invest in preserving Native culture. I mean, how much do you say it’s worth? There has to be some money. Preserving it now is a little more difficult just because we are in the United States – we’re not in Canada where they have shit together. I feel like a broken record when I say that, but it’s the truth. It feels like there are no people out here searching for the real. It doesn’t have to be me representing. It could be any of my friends who are talented themselves. Maybe they haven’t found the right resources or catapult yet. People need a hit across the knuckles with the ruler because it feels like we’re behind in helping Indigenous culture and media here in the United States.
SIRG: We got to see your performance at Constellation Chicago, a kind of art-house music venue, which got us thinking about the different contexts you perform in. Are there expectations you feel in those different spaces because what you’re doing crosses so many worlds, or does the context itself present anything to you as a performer that you respond to?
JR: Going from place to place, I knew that whatever I was going to do was going to be new to the people at whatever space it was, whether it was Constellation in Chicago or Gabe’s in Iowa City, where we played the next night. Gabe’s doesn’t have a green room, so you’re just chilling with everyone, which is dope. They have a TV by the bar. It’s two different vibes. It just varies. For the most part, it’s been great everywhere we played – the sound and my voice carry regardless of the setting. As long as I can hear my tapes, it’s all good. I know some places won’t be able to amplify the sound how we want, but we will take advantage of the places that we can.
SIRG: Part of that question was about the difference between performing not only in different clubs or music venues, which have their own qualities, but what it means to perform in a club in general versus performing in other kinds of contexts like powwow.
JR: I just really appreciate Indigenous voices being there in the club or music venue, especially stateside. I have nothing against Canadian artists or Indigenous artists that come from up there, but there are some places that prefer to look elsewhere, outside their own backyard. Or they want to be lazy and just look through the old Rolodex. It’ll cost double to book a Canadian artist than it costs to book someone from South Dakota or Idaho or some homies from out West, and I guess I have a problem with that. I do want venues to step up their game and not be so lazy and just go hire The Halluci Nation.
SIRG: At the Chicago show, we loved how you used your tape recorder like an instrument.3 Were you speeding up and slowing down the tape somehow?
JR: That tape recorder has a speed control dial so I can either speed it up manually or I can put it on double. It can go really slow. Some of the tapes you heard me playing were made just for shows. Some of that stuff I ripped from my computer after I pitched it down. Some of the tape manipulations are live. Some of the tapes you heard at the show are actually recordings from the last couple of years that I made at different powwows and different introductions. I made sure I was capturing what the emcee was saying so I could pitch it down live with my tape recorder. We figured this part out during rehearsals for the first couple of shows. I was feeling like I had to do something. I’m a bit of a fidgeter and wasn’t down to just stand there and sing.
The practice of including powwow field recordings in live performances came on its own. I just plugged in the tape player one day. There were parts in the rehearsals when Broder wouldn’t end the song. He would just sit there and make more synth and ambient sounds, turning dials and knobs. He would sit there and vibe, and I pressed play during one of those times. We looked around the room like Damn! There was a guitar pedal, so we hooked up the tape player to it. (Shout out to Ryan Olson for loaning us the pedal!) That was literally just something we added right then and there. We found the missing element that was going to add to the show. We were thinking about this missing element, but this idea of me using different samples, switching up from place to place, was the best way to vary the show.
SIRG: To circle back to the album, the sound is so unique. It’s not a highly produced direct synthesis of hip hop, EDM [electronic dance music], and traditional Indigenous music styles but denser, richer, and more ambient. There are moments in the record where the drums almost feel out of sync, which makes it sound bigger.
JR: “Bezhigo” is the only song where there is a drum, an actual hand drum that I use. It’s in that part where you hear my lower register and it goes DOOM, DOOM, DA DA DOOM DOOM. Everything else is Broder’s production and my voice. There were parts he wanted to add [Native] drums to, but I kind of told him no. We were very straight up with each other during the whole production process. We could say, “Man that sounded way too Hollywood. You have to take that drum out.”
We were making a video for WNYC, and Broder was live playing that part. Justin Vernon [singer and songwriter for Bon Iver] let us use his rehearsal area for the video, and it has a garage door. We had it open. In the distance, you could see a tree line, probably a mile and a half away. Looking out there, I finally figured out that the big drum sound was Sasquatch – Bigfoot stomping around in the trees. Maybe in the mixing process, I told Broder to have it sound like Bigfoot jumping in the distance. Some of it was hand drum-driven, but I wanted to set Broder free from trying to be a Native drummer and just let him do what he does – what I call Minneapolis noise.
My collaborations with Marijuana Deathsquads set me up for the vision of what I wanted this to eventually be: lots of noise and my singing. Quarantine gave me that period of time and then came Niineta. It came from being able to take some time and let your creativity catch up. It doesn’t matter what kind of job you have, you just get caught up living life too fast. I think I finally had that period of time in my life as a thirty-four-year-old man when I made this.
SIRG: Are you going to release more music with Broder?
JR: We did the two singles lined up with Psychic Hotline. We had those ready for after the album release. But I really feel like we’re going to ride out the places that want to hear us for the next year or so. I’m really happy that Broder took this on. I didn’t know he was working on a movie score that he released during the Covid-19 quarantine. He’s a really hard-working dude and I’m super happy that I call him a good brother.
What you were saying before about powwow singing being scratched or cut up, that happened to me on a Chance the Rapper song. People were like, oh you got to work with Chance the Rapper. No, my sample was scratched up and used by Justin [Vernon] who got me a writing credit. But I wanted a chance to sing over something electronic the way I really wanted to hear it. I had a chance with this album to sing over stuff and not get cut off or scratched up or scribbled up by a deejay. Midnite Express Singers, when I sang with them, they had one of the deejays from A Tribe Called Red come forward and say, hey I sampled you guys. And I’m like, cool, let’s hear it. It was just literally just ah, ah. [Rainey makes a super fast indistinguishable blip sound.] I’m like, okay, can you send me the whole song? Oh, we just want to know whose song it is so we can give proper credit. There’s literally no way I could figure out who made that song from these little blips of sound. That’s a little annoying. Shout out to them though – I don’t hate anything that they do. I just wanted a chance to do it from a singer’s perspective and not get cut off.
SIRG: We’re getting into some really interesting issues about what it means to produce from a singer’s point of view versus a producer’s point of view, and how you navigate those relationships. Because it seems like you have a pretty amazing relationship with Broder, who you called a good brother, and so you are not getting used by him.
JR: I was proud of the singer’s perspective being put out there. I really hope that my colleagues, the Indigenous sound nerds that we are, get to write that chapter in the sound book, that audio recording book that I have on my shelf over there. There’s no chapter on how to mic Indigenous voices or drum. You know, we go sing at a halftime show and dudes are pointing the mic down at the drum. What are you doing, you’re going to get nothing but drum. If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to give us all a microphone because you ain’t going to hear us. They mean well, but maybe if that chapter was in the recording manual when they went to school, they would have some prior knowledge on how to make us sound good. You are putting us down when you make us sound wack. When we get the recordings all we hear is drum. We can’t listen back to our solos. I didn’t really notice that until I got that book, damn there’s no chapter in here about how to mic a powwow drum or powwow voice. But you sure do want to give us all these token halftime shows during heritage month and have us dance for you at the fucking monument and shit. You have us do all these things for you and you can’t even mic us up right. We have to tell people how to do it. We have to tell people we don’t chant. I never was in Little Earth talking about, hey man, I can’t wait to see you next week at chanting practice, I got a new song to show you. [Heavy sarcasm.] That never happened. People are describing us that way still, putting me on their “best of” lists, saying the chanting was amazing. You all didn’t read the liner notes or really listen to anything.
[Holds up a Hinckley powwow tape]. These don’t have a place to live. Maybe the masters are floating around out there in the ether somewhere. They might be on someone’s desk. There’s nowhere to go to find these. That’s a little bit more of my mission, rather than when are we going to make the next one. There are singers dying almost every day, older singers dying a lot lately. It seems like the preservation of what this is [holds up cassette tape] needs to happen more than my next album. I feel like I need to go somewhere with this [preservation activity], with the people I’ve talked to that can help me, or maybe this album can help me get the word out about this.
You go look at some of these powwow videos and they have a quarter of a million views. This could have a lot more plays [shaking the tape to the camera]. Do we have the platform? No. Are old drum groups, old singers going to be like, let’s get those pennies, go ahead and take this and put it on a platform [like Spotify], let’s get those pennies. No older drum group is going to say that. Bandcamp has the best model. I had this article with Bandcamp, a long conversation with Harley [Oliver Brown]. She said, I’m on to something, I’m not on something. So, I’m on to something with this but there’s a lot more to be said for the music. So, that’s the vibe. I’m more about preserving than trying to be the dude out front making solo albums.
Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations between criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.