For more than a decade, Alan Greyeyes has worked mostly behind the scenes to support Indigenous music acts and events in Manitoba and across Canada.

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For more than a decade, Alan Greyeyes has worked mostly behind the scenes to support Indigenous music acts and events in Manitoba and across Canada.

He fears those days of relative anonymity will be a thing of the past after he receives the Manitoba Arts Council’s Award of Distinction today.

"It’s a little scary, to be honest. I don’t know if I can convince everyone that I’ve done great work," says Greyeyes, who will receive $30,000 along with the award. "I think this award is the most profile I’m going to have in a long time."

Unlike some previous winners of the award, Greyeyes hasn’t been at centre stage in terms of visibility. Instead, he is part project manager, part promoter and part mentor for Indigenous artists, as well as an educator for both Indigenous people and Canada’s music establishment, which is dominated by white people.

"Measuring the impact that Alan Greyeyes has had on the music scene in Manitoba is no easy task," Randy Joynt, executive director of the Manitoba Arts Council, says in a release. "When he’s not running the show, he is a champion for those who should be heard."

Greyeyes, who is a member of Peguis First Nation and lives in Winnipeg, got his break in the music business after landing a job with Manitoba Music in 2005.

"I went to university at the age of 20 and I decided I wanted to work on the business side of the music industry, so I started building the skills, which would be grant-writing, creating marketing plans, also photography, editorial writing, website design and graphic design," says Greyeyes, 41. "(Manitoba Music) was a super incredible place to learn... It was a great place to build networks and to get a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening in the music industry. It gave me an opportunity to figure out what the gaps were and fill some of those gaps."

It was those networking skills that proved to be key for Manitoba artists, says singer-songwriter Don Amero, who nominated Greyeyes for the award.

"Building a career in the music industry is never easy and I can tell you that when I didn’t have any collaborators, Alan connected me with a community," Amero says. "When I was ready to do the conferences and showcases, Alan helped me get them and then got artistic directors to come watch me. When I was ready to build a team, Alan vouched for me, and when it was time for me to give back, Alan pointed me in the right direction."

Greyeyes thought so much of the Manitoba Music job, he chose to give it up in 2018 and pass it on to the next person to build on what he’d done. He has since gone on to direct the Sakihiwe Festival. The event, formerly Aboriginal Music Week, is dedicated to giving those in less fortunate communities access to music and overcoming the city’s arts deserts.

His thinking about the future led to a similar decision with the Juno Awards, where he was on screening committees for rap and Indigenous categories. He recently gave up the Indigenous post.

"I stepped down to make room for new voices there too," he says. "I just felt I’d been there long enough. It’s time for new people to have a say in the direction the committee goes. Getting more people to have the opportunity is important to me."

Greyeyes is also on the Polaris Music Prize’s board of directors, but he says he hasn’t pushed Indigenous artists to be nominated for the award so much as watched performers such as A Tribe Called Red, iskwe and William Prince make their voices heard through their music.

"Recordings of Indigenous people have been improving, like getting really great, over the last 10 years. I just want to be there and make sure our voices are heard and use that stage to educate Canadians and challenge stereotypes," he says.

The year 2020 will be known for demonstrations against systemic racism held all over the world in the wake of the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police. Greyeyes believes the establishment’s reaction to the demonstrations will provide a seat at the decision table for people of colour, including Indigenous people in Canada.

"Diversity and inclusion discussions are important, but at the same time, a lot of administrators like myself are also working to build our own tables," he says. "So not only asking for a seat at existing tables, but really working hard to build capacity, build our own tables, so the people who follow in our footsteps have a stronger foundation to start from."

Greyeyes has made his mark in other ways, too. He’s an avid photographer but says he has never made money from his pictures. But when William Prince needed some photos leading up to his new album, Reliever, the singer-songwriter gave Greyeyes a call.

"William is one of my friends — our fathers are actually cousins, so we’re second cousins," Greyeyes says. "When he was unhappy with the photography that his label had put together for his cover, he reached out and said, ‘Can we do a photo shoot today?’"

Next thing you know, it’s Greyeyes’ photo of Prince that’s on the cover of the critically acclaimed album.

While Greyeyes will likely be considered a leader in the province’s music scene because of the Manitoba Arts Council award — if he’s not thought of as one already — he resists being tagged as such.

"I’m very uncomfortable to be labelled as a leader. I’m a helper," he says. "I believe I have a job because Indigenous artists need help, Indigenous families need help and I think the root of everything I do is not necessarily leading — I try not to take up a lot of space — but I do think it’s important to work hard and to help others."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

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Alan Small

Alan Small
Reporter

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.