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William Prince Blends Indigenous And Christian Roots In His Album 'Gospel First Nation'

William Prince (Courtesy of Shore Fire Media)
William Prince (Courtesy of Shore Fire Media)

Singer-songwriter William Prince has had a busy year even with the pandemic. He’s released not one, but two albums.

Last week, the Canadian folk and country artist released his third album, “Gospel First Nation,” just months after putting out his second album, “Reliever.”

“Gospel First Nation” explores the complicated relationship between Christianity and Indigenous people in Canada. The album’s title song talks about the beauty of Fisher Bay, Manitoba — a census-designated place that boasts less than 50 residents.

The award-winning musician grew up just south of Fisher Bay on Peguis First Nation reserve. He recalls the area’s beauty, including the tremendous Lake Winnipeg with its “serene sky and water.”

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For Prince, “Gospel First Nation” is a “delicate blend” of two crucial realms of his life — his heritage ties to Chief Peguis, founder of the reserve, and his ancestors who were the founding pastors of the reserve’s Prince Memorial Chapel. The church has been on the reserve since 1929, he says.

He’s “just as much the grandson of a great chief as I am a great preacher,” Prince explains.

Christianity and gospel music were known tools of the oppressor, he says, weaponized to colonize and assimilate First Nations’ Indian identity into Western culture’s norms.

He declared solidarity with Black Lives Matter after being inspired by the movement’s willingness to address systemic racism with the U.S., he says.

Canadians, emboldened by the “nationalism of great Canadian pride,” can be quick to turn a blind eye on racism in their own country, he says. First Nations people have endured generational trauma from being mistreated and displaced from their land due to oppressors’ colonization, and the development of pipelines and new industries, he says.

But similar to Prince, a lot of First Nations people were raised in the church. He says his dual identity is “a common tale.”

His songs have helped those who have found themselves in the “darkest, bleakest” of places, he says. In many North American Indigenous communities, suicide has become an epidemic as well as rampant alcoholism and substance abuse, he says, all “delicate” topics to write lyrics about.

“But the truth is,” he says, “it’s just coming from a place of honesty where I shared these songs with my family and I wanted to kind of capture the sound.”

The First Nations have historically struggled with alcohol addiction. “Alcohol was brought over by the colonizers, the settlers, and a dependency was formed on it,” he says.

It hits close to home: His father, who wrote “This One I Know” on the latest album, is a recovered alcoholic who was an Alcoholics Anonymous speaker for many years, he says.

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Over time, Prince has redefined his spirituality and says he wouldn’t call himself a Christian anymore. He says he’s as much of a scientist as he is a believer, and puts faith in the universe.

“I can thank and declare, you know, ‘Thank you, Lord, for this day. Thank you for opportunity, choice, privilege, [and] safety.’ You can have this dialog of gratitude that ultimately will attract better things in your life, I believe,” he says.

Country music doesn’t have a reputation for being diverse, but that hasn’t held Prince back.

“As a First Nations person, I’m used to having to work 25% harder for the equal amount of respect anyway,” he says. “So I very much believe that if you’re good at something, you’ll tell everybody. And if you’re great, they’ll let you know.”

He used to fight against his notable baritone voice, he says, because his younger self was set on being in an alt-rock band. But now, Prince embraces his powerful sound.

“Once you unlocked the idea that your voice is an instrument, it lends itself to a whole new category of uniqueness,” he says. “Think of the great voices — Tom Petty, Neil Young, the great Bob Dylan — these voices evolve and do wonderful things over time and I hope that I can lend myself to that, too.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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