Siibii’s growing confidence has allowed them to live a truer life

by Patrick Quinn

With the new single “YOY” steadily climbing the charts, Cree singer-songwriter Siibii is not only launching the exciting next phase of an already impressive music career but also introducing their first music under their chosen Eenou name.

For the 22-year-old from Mistissini formerly known as Angel Baribeau, the name change a year ago was a decision to live truer to themselves and fully embrace their Eenou Two-Spirit identity. Siibii identifies as trans, queer and non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.

“My growing confidence in my ability as an artist shows in the sound and taking up space as Siibii,” they said. “Feeling more pride having my Eenou name, I think is recognized in the music industry as an act of reclamation, which has influenced my interactions with other Indigenous folks fighting along the same lines within their identities.”

Siibii announced their name change as a way of honouring their gookum (grandmother) Eva, who helped raise them and sparked their love of music. Having been forcefully taken to residential school at age four, Eva hid Siibii’s mother from Indian agents deep in the bush to protect her from the same fate.

Shedding their “biblical” birth name to become Siibii Petawabano, with their mother’s Cree family name, is a determination to pursue what colonization tried to remove. This courage to honestly express themselves on their own terms is part of what attracts many to Siibii’s music, which often confronts challenging and personal issues in the lyrics.

“It’s definitely lovely to see other folks feeling seen in my lyrics,” Siibii told the Nation. “Isolation is a factor in mental illness so knowing there’s a commonality for a lot of folks is really comforting and it’s lovely to see there are people rooting for me for those very reasons.” While Siibii has been hailed as a champion of mental health awareness since releasing their debut EP, For Those I Love(d) in 2020, making “YOY” the first song released from their upcoming self-titled album was a deliberate choice to be even more vulnerable in their art.

Its stirring music video depicts opening line “Getting high instead of getting help” quite literally as Siibii struggles to drag an unidentified burden. With infectious melodies and a soulful groove, the artist interrogates their own coping mechanisms while ultimately seeking self-acceptance through lyrics like “My inner child needs a little help to show some kindness to my future self.”

“I feel a nervousness about being vulnerable around how these topics relate to myself, especially talking about consumption, having not so good days,” Siibii admitted. “I know there’s a relatability to that but it’s scary putting it out there.”

Although Siibii’s lyrics may wrestle with life’s uncertainties, the music sounds more assured than ever, reflecting their remarkable growth as a musician since finding immediate success with their debut, which has already racked up over 300,000 streams. The exciting opportunities that have come with awards recognition haven’t hurt either.

First single “Love is up the River” earned the SOCAN Foundation’s Young Canadian Songwriters Award, while their song “Wish We Were Older” hit #1 on the Indigenous Music Countdown and won the “Best Music Video” award at the Toronto Indie Shorts Film Festival.

As grand prize winner of Canada’s Walk of Fame RBC Emerging Musician Program in 2021, Siibii got a showcase slot at last summer’s Canada Music Week in Toronto along with other prizes and perks like a virtual meeting with singer Sarah McLaughlin. In 2022, they were runner-up in CBC Music’s Searchlight competition.

“Since releasing my music, I’ve been able to survive on just my art, which has allowed me to see how worthy I am of investing in myself,” Siibii shared. “Doing more shows and live sessions forced me to work on my skills as a singer. Pride Winnipeg was one of the highlights of my career – my first ever Pride and I got to sing at it.”

A powerful addition to Siibii’s performance of “Savage” is a sample of former MP Romeo Saganash’s infamous F-bomb when questioning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament in 2018. The song has exposed Siibii to a wider audience since it was chosen to open the new Netflix documentary For Love.

“I’m super proud because the documentary is incredibly insightful and important,” said Siibii. “When making that song, my producer had this idea of putting in some relevant news stuff and I immediately thought of [Saganash]. I remember seeing that on TV and thinking that’s incredibly moving.”

Stepping further outside their comfort zone, Siibii recently did some work for Marie Clements’ film Bones of Crows and even voiced a rabbit character in an upcoming children’s project by acclaimed Indigenous author Tomson Highway.

“These experiences allowed me to build my confidence as a vocalist that people want to hire,” Siibii explained. “Using my voice for other projects has added a layer of legitimacy to myself as a professional. That’s really made an impact on how I see myself when it comes to recording and performing.”

With such rapid success, it’s hard to imagine how reluctant Siibii was to join inPath’s initial music workshops in Mistissini, which led to Mikw Chiyâm’s trailblazing arts education program. After Mikw Chiyâm teacher Marcela Henriquez tragically passed away in October, Siibii poignantly reflected on her profound impact through their tumultuous teenage years.

“I was just thinking the other day about who Marcela would have met and how far I’ve come from that person she knew,” Siibii said. “She became my mom – but when I first met her, she was just a teacher coming into the territory. She saw that growth and reminded me often how proud she was.”

As Siibii has become a respected changemaker through arts programming and more recently with a youth fellowship in the international non-profit Darkspark, they hope to eventually develop initiatives for land preservation. While they seem poised for global stardom, they most look forward to touring Eeyou Istchee.

“It would be great to bring the music home, considering this is where I started,” explained Siibii. “I was told successful people create realistic goals, and my first goal is to do Eeyou Istchee because that’s where the centre of my world revolves around.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation