Posted March 12, 2020
Kelly Derrickson is a First Nation artist from Westbank, British Columbia, where she enjoyed an idyllic childhood, growing up in a small town near a lake and the mountains. “Being raised as native, I was not feeling much racism in younger years, but as a teen I felt it,” she recalls. “I experienced a lot of bullying at my public high school in Kelowna, partly because I was native but also because my father had achieved great success in business and as a politician, a public figure – so there were two reasons to be bullied.” Kelly’s father is Grand Chief Ron Derrickson, a self-educated entrepreneur who led Westbank First Nation for years. During the height of her father’s controversial political career, Kelly experienced a few kidnapping attempts. Eventually the family decided to place Kelly in a private school, St. Michael’s University School, on Vancouver Island for her safety.
Kelly loved music from the age of four and, while at school in Victoria, she began studying at the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
“The VCM was like a breath of fresh air for me,” recalls Kelly. “I studied opera there and the training I received was the stepping-stone that opened up a whole new world for me. I was blown away and it really did prepare me for the rest of my career. I still go for daily vocal training and my coach says I have amazing range because of the opera training I received at the VCM.”
At the end of Grade 10, a close friend of Kelly’s passed away and she needed to take some time away from school. When she was ready to finish high school, she attended Neuchatel Junior College, the Canadian independent school in Switzerland, where she had exposure to different styles of music, from musical theatre to rock to classical. In her teens, she started sneaking out at night to play with rock bands. While Kelly lived for music, her father dreamed of her becoming a lawyer, an opportunity that he would never have had growing up when he did in Canada, when natives did not have access to post-secondary education. Feeling the desire to fulfill her father’s dreams for her future, Kelly was awarded a fellowship to the law school at the University of British Columbia and even completed an internship in a law office – but the pull toward music was very strong. She applied to the prestigious Berklee College of Music for Music Business and Performing Arts, was accepted and granted a scholarship.
Her father was not initially supportive of her choice. Kelly invited him to her first performance at Berklee and made him a deal: if he did not like her performance, she would go to law school. Fortunately, her father loved it and gave his blessing to stay in music school.
Since graduating from Berklee, Kelly has released two albums and three singles. Kelly’s music has been played on more than 1,200 radio stations in North America. She’s been recognized consistently at the Native American Music Awards across various categories, winning Best Female Artist for two consecutive years (2017 and 2018). She won the 2015 Coachella Valley Music Award for Best Country Artist, and her single, “40,000 Ft. Over You” was named the Best of 2016 in North America on the National Aboriginal Music Countdown. She was recently nominated for two 2019 Native American Music Awards: for Best Indie Single and Best Music Video Narrative for her latest song release, “We are Love”. In 2020, Kelly is writing songs for her third album and she will be touring again. There is a symphony orchestra in Europe that is interested in working with Kelly and she hopes to explore the classical influences in her music.
Her style has been uniquely described as “country tribal rock”, and her songs provide an honest perspective on the challenges facing Indigenous communities. Kelly wants to accomplish through music what her father has achieved through leadership and politics.
“Over the last decade, native music has blown up like crazy, with so many new talents emerging,” says Kelly. “Racism used to hold back native musicians but it was also the record companies who had so much control and groomed the artists they believed would have the greatest commercial success. Only a handful of people had the strength to stand up to the system and be open about their native background – people like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Redbone and Jimi Hendrix. I believe talent will always shine through, no matter what – but today individual artists can release their own music through digital channels, and do not have to answer to record companies. That’s why there has been so much talent rising over the last few years.”
“My advice to young musicians is be sure. You have to want it so badly. You have to feel you will die without pursuing a career in music, because it is not always rewarding with money — but life is not always about money,” says Kelly. “Your heart has to be in the right place to succeed in music. It is not about fame – the universe does not support that kind of effort. Lives can be transformed through music and that is important work. One native man wrote to me to tell me that he was going to kill himself; he had the gun in his mouth – and my video for my song “Idle No More” was on the TV just at that moment. He listened to the words and thought, if she has hope for our people, then I must have hope too. He said I brought some light into his life and that means everything to me.”