Intersections Between Industries: Music Meets Activism with Layla Staats

Photo by Vanessa Hill Photography

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Special Edition 2022 – I Belong

Layla Staats is an Indigenous filmmaker, speaker, and activist from the Turtle Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River. She uses her voice and platform to highlight systemic issues continuously affecting Indigenous communities. Her music and films reflect her experience and the realities many others face. 

“Protesting is the voice of the unheard,” and Layla’s activism speaks to just that. Her experience of being arrested for protesting for her community’s right to clean water is one of many examples depicting the necessity to fight for what is right. Her film Blood and Water shows how she uses music to bring awareness to Indigenous injustices. Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with Layla about the world’s intersections between music and social justice.

Who is Layla Staats, and where are you from?
I am Mohawk, Turtle Clan from the Six Nations of the Grand River. As a generational survivor of residential schools, my culture was taken from me. I had to reclaim my Indigenous identity and teachings on my own. I am a filmmaker and an activist who uses music and art to tell my stories on how to heal myself and others.

What inspires your music, and how would you describe your sound?
My music has been inspired by my learning and understanding of who I am. I would describe my sound as folk/electronica.

How did music and storytelling become one of your many passions?
In our Mohawk culture, our language at one time was completely oral, so nothing was written down. The only way to transfer knowledge was through speaking. My ancestors used stories to teach others. Music has been a way to express those stories and allow others to connect with the emotion of our experiences. I started singing backup vocals with my brother Logan Staats and recently claimed my voice in my solo project.

What are some issues affecting the Indigenous people of Canada and North America?
Generation Trauma from centuries of oppression and genocide, poverty, addiction, clean water access, land claims, and criminalization of those defending their traditional lands.

How did you feel while singing to a wall of Royal Canadian Mounted Police with snipers pointed at you?
I imagined my song “White Pine” was like a massive wave of energy leaving my body and entering RCMP. It didn’t stop them; it didn’t even seem to faze them at the time. If they could feel the song, I thought they might reflect on the situation differently. In the face of violence and dominant threat, we did not fight back, we did not lash out in anger, but we all stood in peace, and I sang from my heart. That is power. 

Describe your experience being arrested for standing up for your right to clean water for your community.
For me, water is not just a resource. It’s alive, and I am related to it. Just like my family, the water is part of me. Standing there, I felt like I was protecting my sister or brother. 

How has the moment of you being arrested changed your perspective on protest and activism?
The fact that colonial courts are still criminalizing us has made me realize what Canada thinks of Indigenous land defenders. It has made me question, “Whose laws do I live by?” For me, it’s the Great Law, the law of the land, and the laws of the original stewards of that land. That realization gave me the power I have used to fight for what is right.

Let’s talk about your film Blood and Water. Why is it important to raise awareness of the conditions of unclean water many Indigenous reservations face?
We live in a country with the freshest water sources in the world, yet the original people of this country still live in poverty without access to clean water, which is a fundamental human right. Even though we are talking about reserves, access to clean water is a human issue. We have become so disconnected from the water we have no awareness of where it comes from, where it goes, and the actual state of the water we all depend on. 

Where can people view your film Blood and Water?
Currently, private screening events are showing all throughout the country. You can book a screening for your organization, school, or community by emailing me at [email protected].

Your social media shows how often you and your brother perform together. How do you two use music to bring awareness to Indigenous rights and environmental justice?
We need a soundtrack for environmental issues such as climate emergencies; it can’t just be Indigenous people talking about Mother Earth. We need to see all voices coming together to bring awareness to the state of our world. Music has played a large role in historical revolutionary movements. Music has allowed our audience to understand our experiences and feel them deeper. Our fans have followed our journey of reclamation, followed us to the front lines, and supported us even when we were in jail. It makes Indigenous issues REAL because they know and are connected to us — because of music.