Wednesday, March 11, 2015

THE SOUNDS OF SOVEREIGNTY :: Discovering the power of Indigenous Hip Hop ::


From the day I conceived of the notion to make a blog to this very moment has been a real journey, an eye-opening adventure. When I first set out on this path, I had no clear rhyme (pun intended) or reason. As per the goal of my course, I was to explore a theme about Native American, but what I really wanted was to create something meaningful that connected with my life’s passion: MUSIC. Although I listen to a wide range of music on a daily basis —at time of this writing my iTunes library has more than 9,900 items— I don’t assume that I know every genre out there. When I thought about modern Native American music, music that wasn’t solely flutes, tribal drums and chants, A Tribe Called Red came to mind….and no one else. I was nearly convinced that my blog would be that electronic trio, whose music I discovered one day last year thought was awesome for about three days and then promptly dismissed ever since.
Flash forward to now: I’ve spent countless hours digesting only a small fraction of the amazingly talented Native American artists… and that’s only in the hip hop genre! There are hundred of thousands of other types of artists, from electronic to rock and even to jazz; there are artists that defy genre labels. But I digress, I found that the most important and relevant genre for the contemporary Native Peoples today is hip hop.


When I told my friends and family that I was starting a blog on Native American hip hop, their response was always the predictable ‘there are Native American hip hop artists?’ Short answer: Yes, there’s plenty and these artists are musically some of the best musicians in hip hop regardless of race or circumstance. In a world where mainstream rap/hip hop has become sullied to either degrading women, flaunting money and social status, or asserting how “hard” one is, these Native artists are the only ones still keeping hip hop real. How does one keep hip hop real? By telling a real story, not one that the mainstream public wants to hear.


From dozens of talented, infectious Native American hip hop artists, I managed to find 7 that embodied the spirit of storytelling and hip hop. Each of these artists has a unique background that made them who they are and an unrelenting drive to break new boundaries. These artists are on the rise, on the cusp of a revolution that everyone needs to get hip to immediately. Please check out my summary of each artist and discover the world they inhabit:


Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Photo by Aaron Huey
Hip hop may have started in the Bronx, but the oral storytelling traditions of Native Americans predates European contact by a long shot. Hip hop is ideal for a storytelling culture, as it is the genre of music that hinges most crucially upon words. Even in lyrical rock songs, the dialogue is much more contained, usually clocking in at about eight bars compared to hip hop songs that come in around 12 bars on the low end. In other words, hip hop allows for a large window of opportunity, more time for a Native to express him/herself… and for a people that have been silenced since 1492, extra time makes all the difference. Hip hop is also the most accessible form of music: these rappers all struggled in poverty and did not have the means to buy expensive equipment and instruments; they utilized the instrument of their own voice instead.
Perhaps most importantly, hip hop is what the youth listens to. These rappers all understood that if they wanted to grow their tribal community they had to recreate the culture moment by moment. The youth had to embrace a new evolving culture in order to preserve old traditions. Against a nation that refuses to acknowledge your sovereignty so they can continue to break promises, the only way to survive is to sustain culture. The only way to sustain culture is to stay relevant: modify the traditional sports, speak the ancestral language, perform new dances at rituals…keep progressing forward. Hip hop has always been a swirling mixture of old and new, mixing new words on old beats and instrumentals. Naturally, Native Americans are finding ways to keep their old traditional ways fresh once again.


            When hip hop started in the poorest district of America, the south Bronx, unheard voices were finally able to broadcast their message. They were able to find solidarity amongst other Blacks, relaying hope to those in similar hopeless situations. Legendary hip hop pioneer Chuck D (of Public Enemy) dubbed hip hop the “CNN ofthe ghetto.” Finally Blacks were able to create dialogue about their issues, their struggles and their frustrations. After listening to each of these Native American hip hop artists, I’ve discovered the narrative is the same: members struggling within the community can be reassured that their voices are being expressed, their calls for help are not falling upon deaf ears.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Photo by Aaron Huey

  A corner stone of the global hip hop phenomenon is that of reclaiming lost space. Black individuals were cast aside to poor ghettos by an oppressive society, confined to spaces that society dictated. Hip hop was a means of reclaiming that space: in a physical sense taking any street corner or avenue to be a rap-battle stage or a b-boy arena, and in a more figurative sense by flooding into any space that had the right radio station on (or loud enough speakers). For Native Americans the struggle is even more overt: their lands have been seized out from under them and the government has forced tribes to relocate…and even still the government tampers with treaty lands. For Native voices to push back, invade the airways of cities through the medium of hip hop, is ultimately a form of reclaiming what’s rightfully theirs.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Photo by Aaron Huey
            Furthermore, hip hop is a peaceful expression, a form of catharsis in a dire environment. Many hip hop artists have found the collaboration and human connection in hip hop: instead of gangs fighting with fists and guns, individuals can battle one another with words and wit. Most importantly, hip hop is a creation: where people have nothing, whether that be the south Bronx or the Rosebud Reservation, they have created hip hop. For a blessed individual like myself, this notion is tough to understand. The idea bears repeating: these clever individuals have created a peaceful way to express themselves and contribute without any means but their own voice and ingenuity.


Recently, Rebel Music has featured artist Frank Waln and others as they utilize their art as a form of rebellion, reclaiming their power and freedom; view the film series here. For another storyteller's perspective, I encourage you to watch Aaron Huey's TED talk on how reservations are in reality prisoner of war camps. In addition, please visit to see other ways in which art and Native American activism have combined, and to get involved in the action... Especially relevant is the unbelievable list of all the treaties that various tribes have deemed broken, view that list here.

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