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At the 2018 Indspire Awards in Winnipeg, Inuk singer Kelly Amaujaq Fraser performed her hit song Sedna in front of 2,000 people at the Centennial Concert Hall.
"It was my first big break," she would later say.
Fraser died suddenly Dec. 24 at age 26. Her family and friends began gathering in Winnipeg on Boxing Day, at her sister Maxine Angoo’s home in Wolseley. I joined them there.
"She worked everywhere and anywhere to share her music and keep our traditions and language alive," Angoo says. "And always told youth they could do this too."
I knew this first-hand; the Indspire performance was the first time I saw Fraser perform.
Dressed as the beautiful and alluring half-woman, half-fish Inuit sea goddess Sedna, Fraser’s song told the story of a spirit’s desire to lure humans under the northern ice — which is only appeased when Sedna is told how beautiful and powerful she is.
"Tutsiatuinalutit (All you gotta do is pray for me)," Sedna says. "Uqautilaunga piujuugama (Tell me I’m beautiful). Uqautilaunga sangijuurama (Tell me I’m powerful)."
That night may have been Fraser’s big break, but it would not be the last. She was already known online through her covers of pop songs such as Rihanna’s Diamonds and Camila Cabello’s Havana — songs she translated and performed in Inuktitut to hundreds of thousands of views.
"She dedicated herself to being a bridge between cultures," says Buffy Handel, a mentor and friend. "And she knew that with art came criticism."
Fraser would regularly speak about how she would be bullied and criticized for incorporating Inuit culture into pop music. "I face a ton of lateral violence and criticism and hate," she posted on social media eight days before her death. "I’m just trying to make our language and culture stronger through music, that’s all."
And did she ever.
While only 21, Fraser released her debut album, Isuma, which unapologetically incorporated pop beats with Inuit language, history, and traditions. She followed it up with her remarkable album Sedna in 2017, which garnered a Juno Award nomination for Indigenous Music Album of the Year.
Fraser’s rise became meteoric.
"I hit the Juno Awards red carpet with little to no knowledge of the music industry," she admitted in a speech in 2019. "I found myself in Vancouver where I wore my seal-skin lit-up dress."
Then came an Indspire award in 2019 for "using modern pop music to strengthen Inuit culture and language and to promote the Inuit way of life to young people across Canada."
Then came plans for a third album, to be released in 2020.
She was a staunch activist for the Inuktitut language, and taught and delivered music across Indigenous and northern communities, encouraging youth to become musicians and follow their dreams.
She fiercely believed in the reincorporation of Inuit traditional tattooing, performed by elder women who use ivory or bone needles with ink and soot.
"Tattooing for Kelly was a way of life," Angoo says.
Fraser became an advocate for Inuit seal hunting, travelling to speak in New York at the United Nations as a guest of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett.
She also advocated for the environment, spending most of November on the Sedna Epic Expedition, a 3,000-kilometre snorkel relay for climate change in the Northwest Passage.
Fraser came a long way from her birth Aug. 8, 1993, in Igloolik, Nunavut. She and her family later moved to Sanikiluaq, Nunavut — a community that, like many Inuit, suffered deep trauma from residential schools, industrialization, and a radical shift to their way of life.
"When she performed, she lived. She was the most beautiful person I ever saw." – Maxine Angoo, Fraser's sister
"My grandparents’ generations went from igloos to a town," Fraser told a Winnipeg audience in June 2019. "As a result, my mother became an alcoholic, and I was raised by my stepmother, who was a counsellor, and my father, who was a social worker."
Later, her father died by suicide.
"My sisters and I sang his favourite Charlie Adams song at his funeral," Fraser said.
Music defined Fraser’s life.
"When she performed, she lived," Angoo says. "She was the most beautiful person I ever saw."
I later shared the stage with Fraser; she the singer, I the speaker. The thing I remember most is how she would find young people in the audience and speak to them after the show.
"I can’t sing," one young girl told her.
"I can’t sometimes either," Fraser told her with a laugh.
At 26, Fraser faced criticism, violence, and hate for bringing Inuit culture to the world — and gave it to it anyways.
Like her performance as Sedna, she is now under the water. But she will never be forgotten.
We will pray for you, Kelly.
You are beautiful.
You are powerful.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.