Cree music producers make waves on the world scene
by Patrick Quinn
Cree musicians took centre stage in Montreal February 12 when Steve Einish opened for G-Unit rap star Tony Yayo at the Belmont nightclub in a show co-promoted by his event-planning company Nomad Entertainment.
While Yayo was incarcerated in the early 2000s when his lifelong friend 50 Cent was blowing up, he was reinvigorated by seeing Eminem wearing a “Free Yayo” shirt at the Grammys. Yayo’s debut album reached number two on the Billboard charts in 2005 and his buzz has seen a noticeable resurgence in the past year.
“It was mindblowing, the show I just did,” said Einish. “Growing up as a kid in my generation, you’d see every kid wearing something affiliated with G-Unit. [Yayo] is the OG of the group. To be recognized as a good enough artist to open up for that show was just f---ing special.”
After hearing about Yayo’s cross-Canada tour in December, Einish was asked by his colleague, pioneering hip-hop promoter Rickey D, if he’d be interested in partnering with him. Having the opportunity to showcase his own music, released under the alias KONG, was the icing on the cake.
“When I met Tony, right away he locked eyes on me,” Einish told the Nation. “He knew I was Native. He asked, ‘Yo, what tribe are you?’ I said I’m from the Cree Nation in Northern Quebec. He started flipping out – it’s his first tour across Canada, meeting pure Natives in every city.”
Einish said the Cree Nation was well represented in the crowd of about 250. With funding from the Cree Native Arts & Crafts Association (CNACA), Einish recorded his set for a promotional video that will help him apply to future festivals and showcases. He sees it as another step on the long road to artistic success.
“I don’t want to ever have that mentality like I’ve made it,” said Einish. “It’s cool we did a great show, but I’ve got to keep building my business and creating this legacy that’s going to last for decades. Stay humble, stay positive and do it for the love.”
Originally from Whapmagoostui, the Cree/Naskapi music producer now divides his time between Chisasibi, Wemindji and Montreal. After studying at Recording Arts Canada in Montreal, Einish worked briefly with CBC North but had his sights on emerging opportunities in the music industry.
Funding from the Wemindji band council helped him launch Nomad Entertainment in 2018 while managing Naskapi rappers Violent Ground. A burgeoning relationship with Rickey D helped secure them an opening slot on a small tour by a group signed to Wu-Tang Records.
While the Covid pandemic threatened to derail his music career, restrictions eased enough in 2021 for Nomad to present the “Empowwowment” event in Whapmagoostui, featuring the NorthStars, Miigwin, Slice and Cjay Griz. With strict Covid isolation protocols preventing outside artists from entering the territory, Einish was forced to focus locally.
“I only started working with Nomad Entertainment since the pandemic,” said Christian-John Monias, better known as Cjay Griz. “Since he was staying in the Cree Nation, he started connecting with me and other local artists to keep Nomad going. It worked out and since then I’ve done most of his shows.”
Monias has developed a fruitful collaboration with Einish, producing many of his recent beats, alongside working with other rising Cree stars like Siibii and Slice. He also features on the mic in new video “Come Thru” with blind Oji-Cree artist Mattmac, who has been racking up millions of TikTok views lately with hit song “Rez”.
“I’m seeing it reach places I’ve never had my other music reach,” Monias said of the Mattmac collaboration. “We made that track in 2019, shot it last summer in Winnipeg and waited to release it at a good moment. It’s nurturing the scene we already have here, elevating ourselves.”
The Chisasibi-based producer and rapper has recently been trying his hand at stand-up comedy while keeping busy with multiple projects, including a follow-up to his 2021 release with BC artist EarthChild. Whereas a decade ago the Cree music scene was almost non-existent, Monias feels a new generation of confident artists are ready to take on the world.
“We want to grow here where we live,” asserted Monias. “We don’t need to live in Montreal or another city – there are a lot of resources now to make that happen. It feels good that people are starting to recognize it. I feel we’re making something out of nothing here.”
As their success reaches new regions, Einish and Monias are leveraging their growing network to bring great events to the North. Einish is working with promoter Robbie G for the Montreal stop on a cross-country tour by former Swollen Members rapper Madchild, who he’s bringing to Eeyou Istchee in May.
“Steve is starting to rub shoulders with all these people, getting ideas about bringing them up here,” Monias said. “We have a great relationship where we’re trying to help build each other up. If he can bring big artists here and have locals perform, it’s a great platform to showcase our music alongside these big names.”
Cjay Griz has been tapped to open the Madchild shows in Chisasibi on May 15 and Wemidji on May 16, which are already generating excitement in the communities. As with every opportunity, Einish knows these shows will lead to further possibilities that connect Cree artists and music lovers to the worldwide scene.
“We’re doing it right after Goose Break, giving youth that motivation for coming back to school and kicking off their summer,” explained Einish. “Not only am I taking it as a token of giving back to my community, but I’m starting something great that can be built upon, another market for this music industry.”
While it may be hard to notice when these music producers transitioned from writing songs in their bedrooms to working with established stars, they encourage anyone hungry enough to pursue their dreams to take that leap of faith.
“Go after that dream because you don’t want to wake up one day in your 60s or 70s and have that regret of what you could have done if you’d pushed it 100%,” said Einish. “No matter what you do, make sure you do it out of love.”
Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation