Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq on her fight for human rights

Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq - Credit: Archant

The Polaris Prize winning musician has courted much controversy, but Alex Bellotti discovers she is just trying to be a voice for her people.

When Tanya Tagaq walked up to accept Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize last year for her groundbreaking album Animism, she gained headlines across the continent for uttering two particular words during her acceptance speech: ‘F*** PETA’.

Outrage was instant. Here she was, an Inuit throat singer apparently objecting to Greenpeace’s campaign against seal hunting since the 1970s – just because her people like to eat them. Within five minutes of talking to the singer however, it becomes clear that she is one of the most peace-affirming, nature-loving artists out there and that those two simple words merely illustrated non-aboriginal people’s misunderstanding of Inuit culture as a whole.

“Greenpeace started the seal ban and everyone jumps on this bandwagon without realising that there are groups of very impoverished people trying to feed their children up there,” Tagaq explains.

“People don’t understand – when you’re on your computer berating someone for killing a seal, do you realise how many animals were killed excavating your plot for your house or how many animals were killed and how much of the environment you’re destroying using your computer, the plastic on your feet, leather or the McDonalds across the road from you?”

This is just one example of countless Inuit issues Tagaq is trying to raise awareness of. Born to an English father and an Inuk (member of the Inuit people) mother, she was raised in the icy hunting lands of Nanavut, Canada.

She began throat singing at university after her mother sent her tapes of the traditional music, which was banned by colonialist priests and teachers during her school years. Combining it with synth and drum beats that beautifully feed into its naturalistic atmospheres, on Animism she has crystallised a sound that is earthy, intense and movingly political even without the use of words.

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“It took me a decade to break into a demographic in Canada,” the 40 year old says. “The problem is that I’m the only one doing what I’m doing. It doesn’t belong in world music because it’s a little too f***ed up, it doesn’t belong in punk, it doesn’t belong in metal, it doesn’t belong in EDM; for a long time I felt like I was just skating around on ice and sticking to my guns artistically and hoping people would eventually catch on that this is awesome.”

Recent success with the Polaris Prize (Canada’s equivalent of the UK’s Mercury Prize) has elevated the mother of two to new levels of fame and this Tuesday, she will be making her first UK appearance since accepting the award when she comes to the Village Underground.

Each of her live shows is in its own way unique – both the instrumentals and her throat singing are improvised around each song, and Tagaq says this makes for an intimate connection with every audience.

“I like putting a phone ban on the room and saying, ‘I want us to experience this together as a reality, as a true moment of us being alive and having blood in our bodies, our hearts pumping and our ears working,” she adds. “This is for us greedy people in this room and it doesn’t belong to anyone else and no one else is allowed to feel what we’re feeling right now.”

Often the performances come with a message: lost within the ‘F*** PETA’ controversy was a scrolling screen behind Tagaq listing the names of 1200 Inuit women currently missing in Canada. Through the success of her music, she is hoping her voice can “reach across the ocean” and make the wider world, as well as her home country, aware of the problems of poverty and disenfranchisement which still plague her ancient culture.

“I know these are very lofty dreams, but you know what, I’m not musically trained and I’m just a little girl from Nunavut so if I can get this far, let’s see how far we can take it and see if we can get people to open their eyes to culture, awareness, modernity, women’s rights, indigenous rights and human rights.”

Tanya Tagaz plays the Village Underground on Tuesday. Visit for details

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