Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here. This month, we spoke with Indigenous R&B musician Semiah Smith
Semiah is a Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) Turtle clan Toronto-based pop electro-RnB artist from Six Nations, ON. Born with a honey vocal tone conditioned through years of singing traditional songs from her Onkwehonwe background, Semiah sings with unapologetic honesty beyond her 24 years. Semiah’s distinctive sound is an eclectic mix of RnB, Electronic, Hip-Hop, Indigenous Vocal Techniques, and Dreampop.
Semiah’s songs radiate energy of an artist with an international heart who grew up touring around the world: from art festivals in the Australian outback to the beaches of Trinidad since the age of 7. Her adventurous spirit has continued to grow with her music career and influence her songwriting summoning reflections of love, fear, resilience, and recklessness.
Semiah first and top single, ‘Nothing Can Kill my Love for You’ released in 2021 which has now reached 106, 289 streams across all platforms. In the past year, Semiah prioritized developing her skills as a producer and songwriter leading to the release of her long-awaited and self-produced debut EP, ‘After the Night Ends’ on June 30, 2023. ‘After the Night Ends’ is a four-song collection of Semiah’s 2 am thoughts that strike like a jolt of fresh air on an open road to explore new depths of who you are and who you can become.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
I grew up on Six Nations and moved to Toronto last year to take a chance on myself and reach for my dreams of becoming a full-time singer/songwriter/producer. I spent most of my childhood in black box theatres and dance studios, being involved in my mom’s dance company. Early on, I was always interested in visual art and film and I did not fully pursue music until high school.
Sonically, I have rapidly grown in the past year after receiving a skills and development grant from the Ontario Arts Council. This grant covered my tuition for the Berklee School of Music Songwriting program. My newest EP, ‘After the Night Ends’ features some of my homework assignments from this songwriting program. This was a great opportunity because the professors challenged me to prioritize different elements or instruments for each song. I had never approached songwriting or producing that way before then and it sparked me to create my greatest tracks yet.
I enjoy writing a large variety of music from party anthems to more thought-provoking tracks. I am mainly inspired by the lyricism of Frank Ocean & Rage Against the Machine, the vocal stylings of Summer Walker & Willow, all with the sun-drenched liquid-light sounds of Tame Impala and MGMT. I also incorporate vocal techniques that I learned as a traditional singer and under the mentorship of Jen Kreisberg from legendary Indigenous woman acapella group, Ulali. I am always evolving as an artist and continue to find my sound from my vast interests and reflecting on the lessons from my life.
Your bio mentions that you’ve dabbled in various disciplines of art—from dance to acting to animation—before returning to music. I’m curious about how your experience working with different mediums influences your work and your practice as a musician.
I grew up in a family of artists/activists. My family was very forward thinking and always ensured that I was exposed to the world. They introduced me to some of my greatest artistic influences from musicians, architects, visual artists, philosophers, Indigenous cultural leaders and activists. Of these influences, I am especially inspired by the work of Jim Henson and Hayao Miyazaki who have the most impeccable imagination, drive, and subtle yet hard hitting storytelling. I strive to story tell through my songs as effortlessly as they do.
I also performed as a dancer, actor, and narrator in my mother’s dance shows since I was seven, so I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t in entertainment. I think this gives me an edge because I know the reality of being an entertainer and that is not all glitz and glam all the time which I think is a common misconception. I was also privileged to be able to travel around the world at such a young age from these opportunities and save my earnings from my childhood shows to fuel my current artistic career. I know that this early exposure has made it easier for me to feel comfortable during my concerts and connect with the audience. I also learned how to hustle. My mom was an entrepreneur and continues to be the best teacher on not only the creative side, but the business side as well which has had a huge impact on my success as an independent Artist.
I wasn’t always interested in music, as a child and early teen I thought that I would become an animator or do something in film. In high school, I made a close group of friends that were all as equally obsessed with art and anime as I was. They soon introduced me to cosplay. We would spend much of our time hand-making elaborate costumes together and sometimes we would take weeks off school just to finish our outfits. I have strayed from these passions since then, but elements of my past interests are still very much alive in my brand as an artist from my social media presence, album covers, outfits, and the curation of a full art experience at my shows. I love that being a singer/songwriter allows me to continue all of my passions from costume making and designing, graphic design, dance, film, and animation.
Was there a moment that you experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic that reminded you about the importance of your work as an artist?
I was set on becoming a doctor before the pandemic. I was in University for Health Sciences and I took my MCAT. But the pandemic really made me realize that I have a short amount of time to be alive and that I owe it to myself to try as hard as I can to share my gifts. With the time off in person classes, I had a lot of time to explore producing and songwriting. It was also a strong period of reflection and isolation, which I think is the foundation for a lot of the vulnerability I explore in my newest songs on my EP, ‘After the Night Ends’. As I mentioned earlier, I do write some more self-reflective songs and hope to encourage my listeners to explore within themselves, but I also write party songs.
I believe music doesn’t have to be serious all the time and I write music to hype up crowds. I think the pandemic made everyone realize how important coming together is and it is something I now cherish much more than pre-pandemic. I strive to find balance and nuance in all aspects of my life including what I choose to write about.
Your song “Broken Heart” blends together hand drumming with R&B stylization. I’d like to know more about the creative process behind this song.
Everyone was always asking me if I would ever blend my mainstream and Indigenous styles. I was hesitant at first but decided to give it a shot. I consciously decided I wanted to write an RnB hand drum song because I had never heard one before. I had experienced my first real heartbreak at the time, so ‘Broken Heart’ was a huge emotional release for me. I wanted to incorporate a lot of metaphors from nature in the lyrics which I think is an integral element to many hand drum songs and was the only way I could express the depth of my hurt.
The song began with a poem that goes, ‘When you look to the stars, I hope you think of me. I’ll be counting them one by one for all the times you broke my heart.’ These lines later turned into the chorus and informed the song title. From there, I improvised different ways to sing these lyrics using vocal stylings common to hand drum. I then decided I wanted strictly RnB verses and wrote that later, expanding on the context of my story and supporting the sentiment of the chorus. I plan to release this song on my upcoming album in Winter 2024. I only have a sample kick drum on there right now, but I will record hand drum myself on the final recording.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to emerging Indigenous musicians?
Don’t let anyone pressure you to sound a certain way. Strive to be authentic to yourself and you’ll go far.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photograph of Semiah Smith courtesy of Make Emarthle.