In July, Rising Voices ran a story about a young indigenous woman from Nunavut, Canada who has gained widespread attention for translating and recording popular songs in the local language Inuktitut and posting them online. Kelly Fraser's YouTube following has grown, encouraging her write her own songs, and to record a soon-to-be released album.
Let's start from the beginning. How did you start singing?
When I was ten, there was a talent show at school. So I decided I would make lyrics and perform, so that people might stop bullying me… My parents told me if I started going to guitar lessons that they would buy me a guitar, and that if I got really good they’d buy me an electric guitar. And I got both guitars!…
How did you get the idea to cover Rhianna’s Diamonds and PSY’s Gangnam Style in Inuktitut?
…This past year I attended a post-secondary school in Ottawa called Nunavut Sivuniksavut. It’s a school especially for Nunavut students to learn about the Nunavut government, Inuit history, and more about the politics and the government of Canada.
In the second year in my Inuktitut class… [we had to] choose a project, and I chose to translate songs because I was already good at it. I would translate old songs for my band like CCR [Creedence Clearwater], the Beatles, and stuff like that. But nobody really noticed the translations until I started doing these pop songs…
As soon as the songs got put on SoundCloud, they exploded. And I was surprised! Everyone was sharing the songs and everyone began to know who I am and what Inuit society is… I was pleased because I’ve always wanted my music to be recognized. So at the end of the school year I got many, many communities and festivals asking for me to go perform.
How have people reacted to your music?
…Some people think it’s not cool that I’m using Inuit traditions to succeed, or they say that my translations aren’t good. I always just smile and say, “Okay, that’s your opinion and I respect it.” I don’t try to explain myself. I can’t change those people’s minds. It’s hard to explain that I’m working to save the Inuit language. If someone asks me in a non-offensive way about what I’m doing, I will explain to people who want to know. But some people are dead set on being negative about what I do, and I try to turn a blind eye to that, because it’s better not to take that personally…
Do you think that your music has helped preserve Inuit culture and Inuktitut, particularly among young people?
Yes, it’s inspired tons of people. Many young people that thank me and say, you know, I want to be a singer too and I want to do this and that and you’ve showed me that it is possible.
I promote Inuit culture by singing about our culture and what we eat and what we do. I like to wear things that symbolize our culture, like clothes with ullus or inukshuks, stuff that shows Inuit symbolism. I am not ashamed of who I am; I’m not ashamed of being an Inuk.
Many older Inuit suffered through residential school, relocation and other really strong changes. They felt ashamed because the government made sure they felt ashamed of who they are.
What I want to do is say I’m proud of being an Inuk, I’m proud of speaking Inuktitut, and I don’t want to lose it. I want other people to think like that too and it’s been happening, which makes me happy. There have been so many young people that are looking up to me and saying, you know, you’re cool, you’re doing something different. No one [else] is doing it.
What’s the hardest thing about translating songs from English into Inuktitut?
The hardest thing is trying to make it fit. You can’t just translate, you have to change a few things but make sure it still means the same thing. I don’t want to make a lazy translation, like the hymns in church – they weren’t properly translated because they [missionaries] didn’t have the proper Inuktitut speakers to do it. The hardest part is getting the right words and shortening it, because Inuktitut is so complicated and [the words are] usually long…
How has technology helped your success?
That’s what what’s amazing about all this – it all happened on the Internet…
I want to be an inspiration to Nunavummiut [people of Nunavut] because we have so many problems and issues. We don’t have enough education, we don’t have enough people going to school, we don’t have enough people stepping up and taking control because we are still trying to “modernize” from living off the land, to become “modern” citizens, using cell phones and computers and iPods.
It’s a slow process. When I was at school I learned about these issues, about Nunavut and the Inuit culture – which we’re losing. You know, no matter what people say, no matter what we’re doing, a lot of our traditional culture goes away the more we learn about the other world, about being a Canadian…
I listened to the song, “The Struggle,” which you performed with Brian Tagalik. It’s very powerful. Tell me a bit more about it.
It’s the most recent song and the most recent collaboration that we’ve put out. It is really powerful. It digs deep into the issues that we have, such as not enough housing, suicide rates, issues with out grandparents and our parents and us. Our grandparents came right off the land and started living in houses and began to send their kids to school. And residential schools really impacted Inuit in a lot of negative ways.
In that song, Brian speaks about what is really going on. And nobody talks about it, because us Inuit have a value of staying positive and not talking about the hard stuff. .. I’ve had experience with suicide myself, growing up with a low self-esteem, around abuse, and with bullying. My father committed suicide so that song really touched me and it made me really sing and really say, you know, we have to open our eyes and stick together and think positive. We have to know that there will be a better outcome. Right now it might be hard but it does get easier and that was the message I wanted to send out.
You have an album coming out soon, is that correct? What was the recording process?
The Nunavut government has a department called the Economic Development and Transportation Department and they link up with Canada Council to create a an Arts Development Program. This program helps Nunavummiut with their art. You can apply to help get art supplies or instruments or you could even record in a studio. So I applied for support with the studio recording. And I was awarded some money from them and from another organization.
That covered the cost for recording, graphics for the album, production of 1000 CDs, photography, studio costs and travel for my band to go back home. We recorded the album in a week in Iqaluit. The producer did a brilliant job recording us and we finished recording in September.
When is the release for your album?
Will your album be available online?
It’s going to be available on iTunes, on YouTube, and it will of course be available in CD in small towns. The album is called Isuma, the name of our original song. “Isuma” means “to think,” and the original song means “I am not going to think of you any more.”
I know it’s a big question, but what is your hope for Nunavut and for Nunavummiut? The region is going through so many changes right now. What’s your vision for the future?
I want Nunavut to be able to run with Inuit employees and have educated Inuit and have a strong culture of Inuktitut. I want Inuit to take power – including me. I want to help and make our language stronger so we can identify ourselves.
That’s a really good vision, I hope it happens. What do you have planned for your future?
…I want to be a pop star! I know it sounds kind of silly to be a pop star, but with that responsibility of being famous I’d like to help Nunavut. Maybe one day I could donate money to help Inuit youth to get more recreational activities, for example. Because that's what’s missing. People feel like there’s nothing to do, there's nowhere to go. There’s hopelessness. That’s how they feel in small communities because there aren’t enough things to do. I’d love to make a foundation to help overcome and maybe give out scholarships one day. I want Inuit kids to think, “I want to be a doctor,” or whatever. I want them to know that anything is possible.