Kinnie Starr might look delicate, but looks can be deceiving. During a recent show at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre she told the audience if they remained in their seats they would be "asked to leave." Everyone laughed, but they stood up as instructed, because they knew she wasn't kidding.
"I'm not known for being polite," Starr said in a pre-show interview. "I respect people, but I don't hold my tongue."
Starr was thrust into the spotlight in the early 1990s when a friend pushed her onstage during an open-mic night at a club in New York. By her third encore, legend has it, the predominantly African-American audience was providing an improvised backbeat of djembe drumming, hand claps, and stomps. The experience convinced Starr , who had just started her first band after teaching herself drums and guitar, that she should write more songs. She released her debut cassette, Tidy, in 1996.
Starr's material often concerns itself with the history of the dispossessed. She believes that one of her jobs as a performer is to educate others about that history.
"I've started to realize lately that I get schooled, too," Starr said. "I'll be on stage shooting my mouth off, up there all arrogant, thinking I know something, and I'll get offstage and someone will pull me aside and tell me I'm wrong. It's kind of cool. I don't mind stumbling publicly."
Starr recently stumbled in a big way. She signed on as a performer in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity, a non-touring show performed twice daily in Las Vegas. But the regimented performance style bored her. She lasted only a few weeks.
"I'm glad I worked for Cirque," she said. "It was a sex show, so I was constantly told to be more sexy. I learned to be less restricted in my body, and I'm grateful for that."
Starr's music is an eclectic mix of hip-hop, spoken word, and pop, with dashes of grunge and hard rock thrown in for good measure. It's hard to categorize, and it means that she will never get mainstream radio play and the wide success that brings. But that's something she says she's comfortable with.
"Growing up, I was never the star athlete, or the star student," Starr said. "I was very awkward. My mom would take me and my brothers to get our hair cut together, so I had a boy's hair cut. I couldn't do sports. I was extraordinarily skinny, and a total geek. I am totally comfortable being the nerd. I really don't mind. I've realized that it's kind of my position in the world, as the outsider."
Starr did have a record deal with a major label, Mercury Records (Island/Def Jam), back in the late 1990s. But her music didn't conform to their formula, so they had no idea what to do with her. She was released from her contract and the album she'd recorded was shelved. Starr worked independently for a while, but in 2003 she signed a deal with Maple Music, which released her most recent CD, Sun Again.
"Maple Music is an open-minded record label that doesn't believe in sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into the marketing of an artist. There's no pressure on me to sell a bazillion records or take my clothes off. It's the type of label where I can call up the president and he'll take my call," Starr said.
Her reluctance to play on her looks wasn't the only way she resisted major-label marketing. She also refused to exoticize her Native ancestry. "When I started my career," Starr explained, "I didn't feel like I should talk about my Mohawk blood. I thought it might be used as a press tool. The white press is always like, 'Wow, you're part Native. That is so fabulous.' But why is that fabulous? To me, there's so much pain in being Native, and in being of mixed ancestry. It's a tough place to be sometimes."
She started researching her Native roots after meeting Mi'kmaq folksinger Willie Dunn at a music festival. "I didn't know a lot about my Mohawk heritage," Starr said. "Willie told me I needed to study Native history. I took him seriously, and I started readig. Then I started exposing myself as a mixed-blood Native person.
"The music world isn't exactly full of Indians," Starr said. "So talking about my heritage has been a really good thing. I know a lot of Native people say, 'Whatever, you're white, shut up.' And that's fine, because I am white too, and some people know me that way. I'm a different kind of Indian, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I can't be a kind of Indian.
"There are hundreds of thousands of mixed-blood people in Canada who are really scared to say who they are. It's a real problem, because if those hundreds of thousands of mixed-blood people were to align themselves and educate themselves-imagine how different it would be. We'd have such power in numbers."