Tanya Tagaq doesn't need words to convey emotion.
Instead, her third album Animism — released last year — taps into the raw sounds that define human feeling. At times she sounds euphorically happy and dreamlike; other sounds are terrified — or terrifying. Tagaq is a part of the Inuit tribe now living in far northern Canada. She grew up in an igloo listening to Inuit throat singing, a form of gutteral noise making that is usually sung in duets.
Today Tagaq performs at Bonnaroo — her biggest American stage yet — and she's certainly an artist worth paying attention to. Last July, Tanya Tagaq beat out Drake and Arcade Fire to win the 2014 Polaris Prize for album of the year. At the award ceremony she performed two songs off her new album and, according to reports from the event, the audience was completely enraptured.
The first song she performed was "Uja," which begins with simple drums. A minute in, though, it becomes desperate. Tagaq's voice changes, overlaying sounds in a breathless, rapidly increasing chanting rhythm that makes your heart race. Soon her voice is layered on top of itself; the chanting, the gasping and the growling taking hold of you and sucking you into her world — and then suddenly, it stops.
There is a moment of simple drum rhythm and in its simplicity, it's easy to yearn for Tagaq's voice to return. It does a few seconds later, but it's gentler, and calmer. "Uja" is under three minutes long — a short, compact brush with fear and anxiety.
What makes this performance by Tagaq so intriguing isn't her beautiful red dress or the stark lighting, but how much control she has over the sounds coming out of her mouth and how far deep within her they seem to come from. It's sexual. It's hypnotizing. And it evokes emotions so much deeper than much of the sounds being produced today.
On a screen behind her, the names of 1,200 indigenous women scroll upward. They have all been lost or murdered in the last 30 years.
"If they are good shows, I pretty much lose consciousness," Tagaq told the Guardian in May. "Nothing exists, but it’s not scary, it’s total peace. I will hear a tiny voice, and it sounds like it is far away and it gets louder and louder, and then I realise it’s coming from my mouth.”
Though her music is wordless, Tagaq is certainly not. She's been outspoken about sexual assault, drug abuse, and violence in indigenous communitites. “During my childhood, everyone was trying to throw away Inuk culture,” she told the Guardian, "It has taken me 40 years to have a true pride in who I am."
The first track on Animism is a cover of the Pixies song "Caribou." It's the only song on the album in English. It's also one of the weakest songs on the album, lacking the character and desperation Tagaq creates through her throat singing. But Tagaq told the Guardian she did it because "the idea of Caribou being sung by someone who eats and hunts caribou, is… just funny to me.” It's a reclaiming of the culture that has been dissolving for hundreds of years due to colonization, hunting laws, sexual assault, and outright racism.
She's an artist, and Tagaq also views herself as an activist, which has stirred up controversy. When she posted a throwback photo of herself and her daughter posing with a hunted seal, Tagaq received backlash from animal right's activists and PETA. Tagaq was defiant, claiming that seals and their pelts are some of the only ways for her people to survive and make money. During her acceptance speech for the Polaris prize she shouted "Fuck PETA!," unrepentant and unfazed.
It's that passion and frustration — raw human emotions — that infiltrate her music and make it so beautiful. Without words, Tagaq manages to perfectly express what so many fail to do through art — what it means, and what it feels like, to be human.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.