TORONTO – DJ and model ‘Gonnie Garko’ is making waves in the Toronto arts scene and beyond, amassing tens of thousands of followers as she partners with celebrities and companies from Nike to Coach to Drake, but her family roots in Wiikwemkoong remain an important part of her identity and the impact she hopes to make on the world.
“I really do feel a strong connection to Manitoulin Island. There’s something in the air and the trees that tells me this is somewhere I should be,” Ms. Garko told The Expositor.
Gonnie Garko is a stage name for the 20-year-old and it reflects one of her many long-time artistic passions.
“I really love movies. I watched ‘Donnie Darko’ when I was 14 or 15 and I just loved it and decided it was important to me. I was playing with that name and mixed it with ‘Gone Girl’ as my Instagram name for Halloween one year as Gonnie Garko and it just stuck,” she said.
Instagram continues to be the rising star’s main online presence. Her account @GonnieGarko has nearly 60,000 followers and she regularly appears on other pages through brand deals and partnerships.
She did some modelling work as a child and always imagined herself becoming a model, singer, musician, or other entertainment-world figure. DJing, however, did not strike her as a possibility until later in her life.
When she was 17, a friend asked her if she would model some outfits on behalf of a brand. The brand turned out to be musician Drake’s OVO Clothing label and when the photos came out, the Gonnie Garko name began to take hold.
“My picture was in the mall at the Eaton Centre, the biggest one around here, which was pretty cool,” Ms. Garko said.
By then, she knew her way around the turntables pretty well. She soon gained the opportunity to DJ at some OVO events and performed at some friends’ parties. Drake has been at many of those events and Ms. Garko said he has complimented her on her growth as an artist.
Ms. Garko has eclectic musical tastes that vary between classic jazz, R&B and soul, stretching into contemporary forms like hip-hop and dance music. This has given her a diverse sound that lets her plan setlists for a variety of occasions.
That influence comes partly from her parents’ own tastes and their heritage. Her father is Jamaican and Haitian and her mother’s family comes from Wiikwemkoong.
Ms. Garko grew up with her grandparents when she was younger, though they were not living in Wiikwemkoong at the time. She said her grandmother, June Shawanda, was like a second mother and very important to her life.
The family would visit Wiikwemkoong every year for the cultural festival and Ms. Garko recalled a time when the family went to support her grandmother at a residential school reunion.
“We don’t have so much of the Native traditions in our family because my grandma’s been through a lot in life and went to residential school. Their goal was to take the Indian out of the child and I really sadly feel that’s what happened to her,” said Ms. Garko.
Her family still carried forward some traditions like Indigenous foods and smudging and Ms. Garko attended an after-school program for Native youth which taught her a lot about her culture. She said she regrets not learning traditional dances and worried it’s too late to learn them now.
Ms. Garko has made a couple of posts on her Instagram that acknowledge her Anishinaabe heritage but she said she is frustrated by widespread ignorance of the history.
“It’s important to educate people on these things. Some don’t think Indigenous people exist anymore, they don’t understand what happened to us, what it means to be Native, intergenerational trauma and all that history,” she said.
“I’ve heard people make comments not knowing I’m Native—because I’m not visibly passing as that—calling them alcoholics, drunks and druggies, and we get into a huge debate. They feel like idiots because they don’t realize I’m Native. It’s interesting, the things you hear people say when they don’t think someone of that background is in the room,” she said.
Ms. Garko has vowed to educate others on the oft-overlooked and dark parts of Canada’s history. Her Anishinaabe background has long been an important part of her self-identity.
“I’m not tolerant of ignorance. I think that if you live in this land, you should know what the people here have been through. You should know that we still exist, we’re not all alcoholics and we’re just regular people,” she said.
Spreading education and awareness is a double-duty for Ms. Garko, who has also promoted Black Lives Matter.
“As long as I’m in a body that is recognizably of colour—I’m Black—I have to say something about these things. Anybody with Black or Native heritage shouldn’t deny themselves,” she said.
Taking on a public profile has been a transition for the self-professed introvert.
“When it comes to DJing, I picked up a few different ways to do it. I have to focus more on what I’m doing so people can’t bug me and it feels better to know that I’m actually doing my job,” she said.
Working the turntables has been a continuous learning and development process and is much more challenging than it may appear to outsiders.
Busy dance clubs have become a thing of the past during the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus has weighed heavily on the burgeoning artist. It has been challenging to find motivation to learn new skills and Ms. Garko has spent a lot of time watching movies. This, however, may offer long-term benefits for her artistic trajectory.
“I’ve gotten a lot into film. I’m not personally doing anything in that field right now, just watching a lot of movies, but I’ve always been passionate about it,” she said, adding that she would like to try working in that medium.
For updates on her modelling and music work, look up @GonnieGarko on Instagram.