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Jayli Wolf Reclaims her Indigenous Heritage with a Multimedia History Lesson

The Toronto-based musician & filmmaker charts her experience as an Indigenous Canadian. 

by Luis Minvielle

Jayli Wolf knows a thing or two about grit. In 2021, the multi-faceted Anishinaabe/Cree artist has explored enough creative avenues to prevent categorization. She’s been acting for a television series; she’s written, directed, and produced a short film; and this month she’ll release her debut EP, Wild Whisper. Despite her involvement in different media, Wolf’s artistic output reflects a structured resolve: a determination to reclaim her Indigenous heritage while introducing her audience to historical, dire struggles.

A singer, songwriter, actor, producer, filmmaker, and one-half of the Canadian electronic music duo Once a Tree, Wolf is also the daughter of a Sixties Scoop child. As she so pointedly explains in one of her many viral TikTok videos, the Sixties Scoop was a government-led set of policies that facilitated Canadian welfare authorities to take Indigenous children from their families and place them in foster homes or adoptive parents. “Child of the Government,” her debut solo release, attempts to relive this harrowing historical happening from the perspective of a taken child. Both a song and a short film, the beautiful and heart wrenching single depicts the middle ground between angst and confusion. While the dingy electronic track builds up into a dizzying drop that mirrors the after-dark sentiment of dubstep, the video casts a stern visual narrative that is just as unsettling.

Wolf succeeds at telling a bleak story because she’s experienced distress herself. She’s a survivor of a doomsday cult — Jehovah’s Witnesses to be exact — and to break off from its tight reins, she had to live through estrangement once again, mirroring the healing process she had to undergo by reconciling with her Indigenous roots. But Wolf does not tumble around grief. Her demeanour proves she’s a vivid person who’s grateful for her gift. The opportunities that have been presented to her through her acting and music career have been “a real blessing,” she tells RANGE. “Music,” she adds with optimism, “is my happy place.” For Wolf, the past accounts for shards of her identity. “I am learning about my strength, and I am not afraid to show who I am now,” she says.

We caught up with Wolf to discuss her debut EP Wild Whisper, going viral on TikTok, her acting career, what she learned from reclaiming her Anishinaabe/Cree heritage, and what’s coming next.

What does a typical day look like for you right now? 

I am filming a new series called Y: The Last Man, so I’m on the filming set most days right now! I wish I could say more about the project, but I am sworn to secrecy. [Editor’s note: FX recently announced that Y: The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic drama, will be released in September 2021].

How did you first get into writing and performing music?

My aunt lent me a guitar when I was 15, and I had no idea how to play it. I just started making up chords that sounded good to me and singing along to them. I have always loved to keep a journal, and it was so cool to discover this new way to express myself. I would sing about things that happened that day or how I was feeling. 

What kind of music did you grow up listening to? 

My grandmother used to put this channel on the TV, I can’t remember what it was, but it would play Johnny Cash, Temptations, and Elvis a lot.

Which came first, acting or playing music? How do you manage your time between the two? 

Music is my first love. Managing my time has been a bit of a struggle! I am trying to figure it out. I am incredibly busy, and I know I’ll have to find more balance soon. It’s just been a real blessing, though — the opportunities that have come my way. 

You’ll release your debut EP Wild Whisper on June 18. How would you describe its sound? 

It’s a fusion of different genres. I wanted to bend the genres that I loved the most. Each song has a different mood, but I would say overall, it’s dark pop.

The video for your song “Child of the Government” provides a visceral journey that introduces people to the atrocities of the Sixties Scoop. When did you realize this was something you needed to confront through your music? 

This song just came out very organically. I was thinking about my relationship with my father and how no matter what, we share DNA. I only exist because he exists. I started to think about this time he called me and tried to apologize somewhat. Then the lyrics just came out while I freestyled over a drum beat. After I wrote the “Child of the Government,” I wasn’t sure I would put it out, but so many of my friends had never even heard of the Sixties Scoop. That inspired me to create a visual and release the story into the world.

A lot of your social media content has been resonating with people on TikTok. How are you using that platform to reach a wider audience different from your music or filmmaking? 

It’s such a cool platform. I love it. I had no idea I could build a platform like that on TikTok. One day I just posted a video of my grandfather’s cat fortress, and it went viral. It was my first TikTok. So I thought, “wow, I’m going to talk about other things on here,” and then see how far these videos can go.

How has music helped you to overcome the struggles that you’ve faced in life? What have you been listening to lately? 

Songwriting helps me to know myself, and it’s a great way for me to check in. It’s also therapy for me: it’s incredibly cathartic. Music, in general, is my happy place. 

What have you learned about yourself through your Indigenous heritage? Can you outline how the Anishinaabe/Cree traditions influence your music? 

I think that, because my culture was stolen from me in the Sixties Scoop, my reconnection to my culture has brought up all different types of emotions. There has been a lot to work through. I think most Indigenous people are in a process of reclamation, and it’s going to take time. I am learning about my strength, and I have been reconnecting spiritually. As I grow and reclaim, my music changes to reflect that. I am not afraid to show who I am now.

Once the EP drops, what are your goals for this spring/summer?

I want to take a month off this summer and just be in nature. I would like to get back to writing and catch up on some sleep! Honestly, I want weeks of doing nothing much at all.

Jayli Wolf’s Wild Whisper EP is available June 18.