Rap, teaching and community the focus for Moosonee musician

When Chris Sutherland found his name, it felt like fate.

“I heard these two guys talking about a place called Shabastik out on the bay,” says Sutherland. “And the one guy asked ‘what does that mean anyway?’ and the other said ‘underground flow,' that’s how he translated it.”

Shabastik seemed like a perfect fit for the musician, artist and educator, who prior to that, was rapping under the name Cree Alias.

“I’ve actually overheard conversations of people arguing over who’s the better rapper, Shabastik or Cree Alias,” he says with a laugh.

His love for music has been a life-long affair, since his childhood growing up in Moosonee as a member of Moose Cree First Nation. He says music and writing first poetry, then lyrics gave him an outlet when he felt misunderstood.

“It was always something I used to vent and I had a hard time expressing myself as a kid,” says Shabastik. “When I would take time to put my thoughts to paper, I could show people and they would get an understanding of what I was going through.”

He wants kids that feel that pain, especially Indigenous youth, to find positivity in his music. Reaching those who have faced major trauma like residential school survivors, has expanded his work beyond music.

“I was told a lot that my music is dark and sounds angry, but the positive message is in there,” he says. “And if I made it sound all positive, the kids that need to hear it probably wouldn’t listen to it.”

Now, on top of several Indigenous music award nominations and touring, he also gives workshops in communities and high schools, speaking about his experiences both in the music industry and as an Indigenous man in Canada.

“Right from the beginning I wanted to use my music to share a positive side of the reserves and communities,” he says. “And to share the truth of what happened to us, as Indigenous people.”

He didn’t consider music a viable option for a long time.

“It seemed like the more shallow the music was, the more they would put you up on a pedestal,” he said. “I never thought I would do it as a career, and it kind of snowballed from there.”

After high school, it seemed that basketball, not music, was going to be the way for him to continue his education.

He went to Georgian College in Barrie with a starting place on the basketball team and the intent to pursue a fine arts degree.

While he succeeded in his basketball career, serving as two-time captain of Team Ontario’s basketball team at the North American Indigenous Games and winning a bronze medal at the 2018 Masters Indigenous Games, he wasn’t sure about the degree.

“It was too much for me, just being away from my community,” he says. “I thought I was just going to take some time off and figure out what to go back to school for.”

When he got back home, things started coming together.

That's when he started getting into making music and booking shows.

He made a decision as his music started to catch on that he was going to stay underground and not pursue mainstream avenues outside of the Indigenous music community.

“What’s kept me going more than anything is the support I’ve gotten from our Cree elders,” he says. “One of my first coffee house shows, an elder came up to me and shook my hand and thanked me for what I was doing, and it felt so good.”

While he worried that his work might be triggering for some of the elders and residential school survivors, he’s seen it have the opposite effect.

“I’ve had elders get up and dance,” he says. “I had one elder get up and thank me and tell me that she thought nobody cared.”

Whether it’s at a workshop or a concert, he says the connection to the people he meets and performs for is a driving force for his work. He wants to leave everyone who attends with a good feeling by the end, despite topics like residential school trauma being a big part of his presentations.

“There’s a lot of heavy stuff I bring up but I always try to end my talks and my shows on a positive note,” he says. “It’s very important that if you opened up these doors and these emotions, you have to find a way to help them close them.”

Shibastik likes to mix things up during his presentations to high schools to make sure there’s something that will grab everyone’s attention.

“I get that comment after, ‘wow, those kids who never pay attention were right in it,’ and that’s one of the things I’m able to do, is reach these kids,” he says.

He credits his father and the time the two spent hunting on the land with a lot of his cultural connection and his image of what it means to be an Indigenous man.

“There was so much hard work, but as a kid I never saw it as work,” he said. “This was just what we got to do, and it taught me that work ethic, and it’s something I talk about in the workshops when I’m talking about the pros of being out on the land.”

He says he works a lot of that into the music as well.

“They listen to the lyrics and realize ‘oh he’s talking about hunting’ and using guns and being a man in a respectful way,” he says.

He hopes he can show the youth in isolated communities what they are capable of and wishes there were more chances to reach out to the rest of the community as he can with the youth.

“If I could have this kind of effect on one elder, or one adult in the community, all the youth that would be affected by that one adult,” he says. “It could be so much more effective.”

He has a lot of gratitude for the community and the work he has been able to do, musically and in support of Indigenous youth.

“I believe my success is because my intentions are good,” he says. “I really feel like if I was doing this for the wrong reasons, I wouldn’t be here.”

Amanda Rabski-McColl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com