Five years ago, Anishinaabe rapper/singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner burst onto the Canadian music scene with his debut record, Rez Poetry.

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This article was published 19/3/2018 (1278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Five years ago, Anishinaabe rapper/singer-songwriter Leonard Sumner burst onto the Canadian music scene with his debut record, Rez Poetry.

As the title suggests, it is a powerful and honest — sometimes painfully so — collection of thoughts and stories about life as an Indigenous person living on a reserve in Manitoba.

Sumner grew up in Little Saskatchewan — the reserve Indian Affairs labelled the 14th worst place to live in Canada. The water is undrinkable, mould grew in houses suffering from damage from floods in both 1997 and 2011, and, as Sumner explains, it still has a notorious reputation for being unsafe.

Sumner’s parents remained living on the reserve, but he chose to leave, heading to Brandon for school before eventually ending up in Winnipeg, where he found a job and began to save up enough money to put his first album together.

“A lot of people, when they start to feel uncomfortable listening to something, will just say, ‘I don’t want to be around that,’ so I have to approach music in a way that sounds good, makes sense and educates ‐ shines a light on these things, but doesn’t turn people off." –Leonard Sumner

At that time, at 25 years old, he put together a five-year plan — he wanted to get an album done by the time he was 30, and if that didn’t happen, he’d go back to school.

At 29, all the pieces fell into place.

It was a struggle, and things had to be done quickly — just three days in a recording studio with no time to make changes or edits — but the result was a record that catapulted him into the limelight, earning him praise as one of the most important new Indigenous voices in Canadian music.

"(Rez Poetry) had a five-year lifespan, which is unheard of for most artists, which I think is due to the fact the content is still relevant, in some cases even more relevant," Sumner says. "When I sing some of these songs now, like it means as much as it did when I was writing it.

"That kind of shows where we’re at as a society, that things haven’t changed a lot in the last five years."

“I’ve been figuring out what my next steps are as a human being, and whether or not music is a part of that future. I’m still trying to figure that out, because the songs don’t seem to be coming as often as they used to. But that might have just been a cognitive clog on my end because I hadn’t put this record out yet." –Leonard Sumner

Now, nearing the end of his second five-year plan, Sumner, 34, is gearing up to release his sophomore effort, Standing in the Light. The record, he says, covers a lot of the same lyrical ground as his debut, but he’s spent a lot of time trying to figure out new ways to tell those stories.

"That’s the hard thing: how do you find new ways to say the same thing? How do you find new stories within this and how can you write it in a way where people aren’t scared to listen to it?" he says.

"A lot of people, when they start to feel uncomfortable listening to something, will just say, ‘I don’t want to be around that,’ so I have to approach music in a way that sounds good, makes sense and educates — shines a light on these things, but doesn’t turn people off… I have to navigate those waters very carefully when I’m performing at places, that people have sympathy for the cause or the stories I’m trying to tell."

Even the title of his new album contains a story — Standing in the Light, Sumner explains, was derived from many concepts that all meshed into one, cohesive message.

The first was a book he read by Severt Young Bear, a powwow singer from South Dakota who explains that, in the powwow community, "standing in the light" refers to those who are at the centre of a group of concentric circles — they know about the songs, know the history and where they came from, and who wrote them or who the songs came to. As the circles get larger and farther away from the centre, the people in those circles know less and less about the powwow culture and are subsequently considered to be standing in the dark.

He also says the concept of standing in the light was based on an election process in a Treaty 3 area, where leaders are elected in a transparent vote with supporters literally standing behind their chosen candidate. Candidates with the fewest supporters are eliminated one by one, forcing people to choose a new candidate to stand behind, until only one is left, standing in the light with everyone behind them.

"And then, there’s the aspect of standing in the light, literally, for me, which is a thing I do quite often, standing on stage, on a platform," he says. "But I want the music to have that transparency, too, to have honesty and truth, so I don’t want to be saying stuff onstage that I don’t put into practice in real life."

Sumner has high expectations for his music, and the creation of Standing in the Light was slow-going because of that. For the first few years after the release of his debut, he says, his writing was stagnant — it wasn’t until this past year when he felt he "had the songs" he needed to create the journey he wanted his listeners to experience.

"The new way of doing music is to do a single and get it released on a popular platform and get it added to a curated playlist and all this — I’m not into that," he says. "Who knows what the future holds, but I wanted to have another good album.

"My first album has been successful and people like it and I didn’t want to have one good song on my second album with a bunch of other songs that weren’t to my standard of what I want to be as an artist. I wanted my legacy as an artist to be someone who has made quality albums and put them out there, and that’s what this is — this is a full-length album, it was a craft," he says, adding the record has the most impact when listened to in order, from front to back.

Considering his passion and dedication to his craft, it may come as a surprise Sumner feels his future in music is uncertain at this point. He says the time has come to start considering his next five-year-plan, and after he’s done this album cycle, he’s not quite sure what his path will be.

"I’ve been figuring out what my next steps are as a human being, and whether or not music is a part of that future. I’m still trying to figure that out, because the songs don’t seem to be coming as often as they used to. But that might have just been a cognitive clog on my end because I hadn’t put this record out yet," he says.

"Now that it’s going to be released, maybe the energy will start to flow again... I’ve started to see the trickle... I wrote one or two songs already since this album has been done. I feel the dam has started to break a little bit."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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