The cathartic hip-hop of rising Nunavut rapper Shauna Seeteenak

Shauna Seeteenak’s album Therapy Sessions earned the Nunavut rapper four Arctic Music Awards including artist of the year. (Shauna Seeteenak/Facebook; graphic by CBC)

She wants her listeners to know that ‘it’s OK to not be OK’

Written by Kyle Mullin

DMX had his four-wheelers and trucks. Lil Wayne posed with a Rolls Royce on Tha Carter II’s cover. And rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg famously love bouncing Chevy Impalas. So in a playful and sincere homage to that longtime hip-hop photo trope, Inuk rapper Shauna Seeteenak donned a snowsuit and leaned on the front of her ATV for the album artwork of her debut, Therapy Sessions — an LP that garnered numerous 2023 Arctic Music Awards, building a momentum that she is riding into the new year toward her anticipated followup.

“When I was younger I wanted to become an ATV racer. It’s something I’m really good at,” Seeteenak told CBC Music from her home in Iqaluit, when asked about the Therapy Sessions cover art. Aside from her love of revving those engines, Seeteenak says she chose that image because “I wanted to show something different that people up north use. We’re allowed to drive ATVs on city roads. And all these rappers showing off their rides is something I wanted to do, too.”

Seeteenak paints an even more authentically nuanced portrait of modern Inuk life across Therapy Sessions’ 12 tracks. On “Makinnialiqtugut (We Will Rise),” she rhymes about the lingering stigma around mental health issues in her community, before rapping about her anxiety like it’s a foe worth beefing with. In the process, Seeteenak uses hip-hop motifs to subvert tired portrayals of tragedy in the North, outlining how many in her community remain committed to overcoming. Yet she doesn’t shy away from those pain points, especially on the bluntly candid “Too Many Coffins.”

But Seeteenak also loves to let her skills shine. “No Fakes” finds her taking down foes over a cutting-edge trap beat, using a bob-and-weave flow and stretched syllables à la Cardi B. And while the majority of her lyrics are in English, Seeteenak also sings in Inuktitut on some of the choruses of her best songs. There’s an inviting warmth for listeners, regardless of whether they understand the language.

Seeteenak, now 31, says she’s loved hip-hop ever since she heard her brother’s Salt-N-Pepa cassettes when she was 10 years old. She laughs, thinking back to her brother recording her on VHS tape, rapping along to that pioneering female rap duo with a toy microphone. Before long she began listening to Eminem, and was hooked by how he expressed emotion through music.

“I was an angry little girl, and I really wanted to find something that could help me. I eventually became dependent on alcohol and marijuana. There were no resources in my hometown when I was younger,” she said, adding that music became her healthy outlet.

“It’s getting better there [in Nunavut], with more counselors available,” she is quick to point out. “But there’s still a lot of stigma. So I still really want people to know it’s OK to have these kinds of feelings. It’s OK not to be OK.” Fans have thanked her after shows and on social media for speaking to those issues. She says she’s “happy to both help other people, and that other people can relate.”

All that would have been beyond Seeteenak’s wildest dreams when she was 14 and recording her first tracks via Xbox Rock Band. After posting one of her early performances at a talent show in her hometown of Baker Lake to YouTube, she was delighted by waves of positive feedback and invitations to perform at regional festivals.

Seeteenak attended and performed at many Alianait Arts festivals in Iqaluit from 2015 to 2022, and won third place at the Qilaut Inuktitut songwriting contest held by the Government of Nunavut, for her song “Malinnga.” She was invited by the forward-thinking record label and touring company Hitmakerz to perform at its first NuPop concert in Iqaluit, which featured all of the label’s artists. In 2019, she joined the Hitmakerz roster, an invaluable experience that she said “taught me a lot, from music production to marketing, and pitching songs for playlists.” She has since left to try her hand as an independent artist, working on singles and starting up a record label of her own, Ever Sick Productions.

In 2021 Seeteenak dropped Therapy Sessions, which received four Arctic Music Award nominations in 2023: artist of the year, single of the year (for “Qiviktailigit (Don’t Give Up)”), Indigenous artist/group of the year, and album of the year. Other accolades include 2023 Indigenous Hip Hop Awards nominations for album of the year, and 2022 Native American Music Award nods for hip-hop album of the year and breakthrough artist of the year.

More recently, Seeteenak has regularly released songs on SoundCloud, including the heartfelt, guitar-flecked “Sunshine,” the empowering “Thrive” and “Hulijut (Truth),” all off her forthcoming sophomore LP, Self-Determination, though the release date is yet to be determined. In late December 2023, Seeteenak released her grim but determined “Bad Vibes”: over cracked knuckle-evoking percussion and moody guitar samples, Seeteenak doesn’t merely scorch, but ethers the earth. Aside from spitting enough vitriol to satisfy any battle-rap fan, she elevates the song with meaningful bars about nixing toxic names off her contact list and drawing boundaries to benefit her mental health.

But music isn’t all about catharsis for Seeteenak — it’s also celebratory. Last Valentine’s Day, she released a sneak peek of “Ride or Die,” a love song on which she endearingly and succinctly calls her partner her “lucky charm.” “I love making my girlfriend feel special,” she said.

Regardless of whether they earn as much attention as Therapy Sessions, these new songs are cathartic for Seeteenak. She released “Hulijut (Truth)” on Mother’s Day, and over crackling 808s and minimal keys, she sings and raps entirely in Inuktitut, her mother’s first language. Though her mother pushed Seeteenak to learn English so that she would have more opportunities, she is now brushing up on her Inuktitut.

“I wanted to show her my progress with that. We had a rough relationship growing up, but now it’s getting better, and I wanted to be able to share this with her,” Seeteenak said.

Posting on SoundCloud has helped get her fresh works out quickly and easily, and creating meaningful songs has been helpful when Seeteenak feels low and struggles with writer’s block. “I try to release some stuff here and there just to keep my fans engaged, and to let them know I’m still here,” she said, of dropping “snippets” steadily on SoundCloud when the inspiration strikes, before gearing up to drop her next proper project when it’s ready.

In the meantime, Seeteenak says: “I’m still writing, I’m still making music. And I really hope that my music still helps people.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Short NFB film tells story of trailblazing Inuk teacher in Labrador, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Sami joik, symphonic music fusion from Finland makes int’l debut in Ottawa, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami-led project seeks to revitalize Indigenous education across Europe, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Award-winning novel set in Sapmi to get Netflix treatment, Eye on the Arctic

United States: How Inuit culture helped unlock power of classical score for Inupiaq violinist, Eye on the Arctic

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