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Medicine Beats and Ancestral Rhymes - Tania Willard
Native graffiti art, indigenized ipods©, Inuit break dancing, indigenous-language hip hop and video, Indian bling and urban wear: the roots of hip hop culture and music have been transformed by indigenous cultures and identities into new forms of visual culture and music that echo the realities of Aboriginal people. Beat Nation is about music, it’s about art and it’s about the spirit of us as indigenous peoples and cultures.
The influence of hip hop on marginalized inner-city youth has been written about, Gucci© handbags have been made with graffiti art and car commercials feature hip hop tracks, but the culture of hip hop still has room for independent and local transformation, able to ignite youth expression and creativity. Hip hop has been used by youth and cultural workers from the Northwest Territories to South Africa as a tool for youth empowerment and expression.
In Vancouver BC, the unceded territory of Coast Salish peoples and a meeting ground for many different urban Aboriginal youth, hip hop has been an inspiration to art and politics since the early shows in the 90s put on by Shawn Desjarlais and Tribal Wizdom productions. On his political awakening and the inspiration of using Native hip hop for empowerment of Native youth, Shawn Desjarlais said, "I remember I felt mixed emotions back then: part of me wanted to cry, another part wanted to go out on the street and kick ass. Instead of scrapping though, we felt we should raise awareness through means other than violence. So we got out the spray paint and literally painted the town red, with all types of slogans, everywhere!"
In Vancouver’s slice of unceded Coast Salish territories, the influx of Native female MCs like Kinnie Starr, Rapsure Risin’, Jerrilynn Webster and the fast and furious stylings of Manik1derful and his partner in crime Os12 represent hip hop with a message. Hip hop as activism has been a driving force in Aboriginal expression.
From MCs to graff writers, video makers, painters and poets, Aboriginal rights and rhymes have inspired a new fusion of hip hop and diverse indigenous cultures. Distilling these influences into contemporary art and experimental music was an extension of using these mediums to engage young people in their culture(s). Aboriginal cultural lyricscapes peppered N8V hip hop tracks and from Cree to Inuit to Haida to Mohawk and more, our realities and our dreams were reflected in the music, the art, and the culture of hip hop.
The music and the culture was a way to attract both urban and rural Native youth to become more aware of our rights, histories and cultures. Redwire Magazine, a national Native youth-run publication, was tuned in to the power and influence of hip hop in 2003 when they released their first Aboriginal artist spoken-word CD, which they followed in 2005 with another release of Aboriginal hip hop.
Aboriginal artists have taken hip hop influences and indigenized them to fit Aboriginal experiences: The roots of hip hop are there but they have been ghost-danced by young Native artists who use hip hop culture’s artistic forms and combine them with Aboriginal story, experience and aesthetics.
In Kevin Burton's video, Nikamowin, Cree language becomes the heartbeat and pulse of the staccato beats that are the only audio element for this experimental work. Reconfiguring notions of ‘traditional’, the soundtrack – the work of sound artist Darcy O’Connor – consists entirely of the breaths, pauses, and Cree language spoken by Kevin. The landscape and cityscapes become fractured and jolted in relation to the breaths and the beats of speech, reflecting on indigenous cultural identity.
Nicholas Galanin's video works, Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan I and Tsu Héidei Shugaxtutaan II, are a pared down eloquent look at contemporary beats and traditional dance juxtaposing a contemporary experimental soundtrack with a traditional dance phrase and a traditional drum song on a contemporary dance phrase. This juxtaposition becomes an iconic exploration of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’.
The traditional art of West Coast formline designs are interpreted loosely in Sonny Assu’s series idrums: the form of an ipod© is gracefully assimilated into flowing lines and ovoids. In Sonny’s use of the ipod© as part of his visual language, ipod©s are not replacing indigenous culture; indigenous cultures are assimilating technologies as the ipod© itself is assimilated into the overall aesthetic of the idrum works.
An explosion of hot colour and saturated pallets in Andrew Dexel and Bracken Hanuse Corlett’s work are a giveaway to the influence of graffiti art. Andrew says of his evolution from graffiti tagger to formline design artist that he spent many years in graffiti art learning how to draw a line. That grace in line work echoes throughout his representational and abstracted forms.
Bracken’s explorations of graffiti and street art have informed his approach to ‘traditional’ art or the use of West Coast formline design. In his electric-coloured self-portrait, culture is represented by the sphere that is just out of reach. The search for culture through art and expression is one of the influences for the assimilation of hip hop forms into indigenous aesthetics.
Corey Bulpitt, a respected Haida carver, has his roots in graffiti art. As a younger artist he ran into legal issues with graffiti art and that, coupled with exposure to his Haida roots, led him to apprentice under his uncle and master carver, Christian White. He now works with urban youth in a graffiti mural program that mentors young people who have been busted for street art in the production of legitimate or legal graffiti murals as well as other aspects of their art careers. His Raven mural under the Granville Street Bridge in Vancouver, BC is a fusion of his grace as a carver and his roots as a graffiti artist coupled with Haida story and culture. Branding the cityscape with spray-bombed indigenous culture resonates with the idea of territory and reclaiming space in a city whose indigenous roots are often hidden or disguised in a province of unceded indigenous territories.
Madeskimo’s live sound and video performances are a cut-up of archival images of Inuit settlements and abstracted electric colours and shapes that pulsate with his inspired audio soundscapes. Influenced by his cultural roots, Mad Eskimo says, ” The midnight sun; the infinite vistas of rolling hills, sky, and water of the arctic; the long cold and dark winters punctuated by the surreal dancing of northern lights and the vastness and lushness of the milky way; the Inuit legends and myths of yore; the sounds of nature, traditional songs, throat singing, and drumming - are all filtered through the entity that is Madeskimo.” Shadae and Morgan create Hip Hop regalia fusing hip hop image and fashion with Aboriginal art forms and styles. In Shadae's beaded NDN bling there is an ironic creation of delicate beadwork that plays on hip hop jewelry. In Morgan’s work, black leather dominates along with electric green, imagining the embodiment of the regalia by an empowered female MC, a Native woman warrior, a dominatrix of proud Tsimshian culture.
Indigenous artists trace roots back to not only their indigenous culture but also to the influence of hip hop, on the other side of the imaginary line we call a border. Bunky Eco-hawk, Rose Simpson and Jolene Yazzie are three young Native artists who juxtapose urban styles and designs with contemporary Native issues and statements. From Yazzie’s comic-styled Warrior Women and Simpson’s graffiti art and underground hip hop inspired ceramic sculpture series to Bunky’s use of pop icons, Native warrior portraits like Sitting Bull and electric colours hip hop is the ride and Aboriginal culture and rights are the fuel for their unique imagery.
Jolene Yazzie also designs custom skateboards. Native imagery is inscribed onto the decks of this urban sport, becoming part of the lifestyle of being young, urban and Native. In Newfoundland-raised Jordan Bennett’s work, the skate deck is adorned with beadwork and trucks are carved out of whale bone, turning the ideas of traditional craft and urban culture into a 360º trick, spinning medicine wheels out of old skate decks and shining up surfboards with beadwork. Beadwork gets another twist with Doreen Manuel’s beaded hightops. An accomplished beadwork artist and filmmaker, Doreen mixes up her traditional beadwork with beading hightops as well as moccasins.
In Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s work, êkâya-pâhkaci, inspired by the conscious hip hop movement, Cree syllabics are tagged onto the urbanscape. Cheryl’s engagement with this work is about empowerment, about writing Cree culture back onto the land and cityscape.
Dancing the landscape with an amalgamation of hip hop and contemporary ballet, Melina Laboucan Massimo’s dance work in Leena Minnifie’s film Geeka takes a fresh look at environmental issues in this contemporary dance film. Conscious dance and indigenous environmental issues become the backdrop for the dance phrase.
Jackson 2bears VJ composition, Ten Little Indians, is an onslaught of beats, spinning and Hollywood Indian movie clips. His set features hypnotic video flashes and sound bytes of clichéd Hollywood Indianspeak, all to the racist tune of Ten Little Indians, but he takes ownership of this tune and he blows it up like a rhyme warrior.
Medicine beats and ancestral rhymes fuel indigenous hip hop, art and expression. Culture and identity are in a constant state of flux; new forms created today are becoming the culture of our grandchildren – hybridized, infused and mixed with older ‘traditions’. We continue to shift, grow and change. Whether the influences are hip hop or country music, the roots of the expression go back to cultural story, indigenous language, land and rights, and the spirit of our ancestors.
Our ancestors must be dancing for us: To see our culture thrive and survive they must be dancing to our beats. Like the beats of our sacred drums, we echo our ancestors in the expression of culture regardless of medium, whether electronic beats or skins, natural pigments or neon spray cans, beads or bling, break dancing or round dancing: We do it as an expression of who we are, as indigenous peoples.
Purple Turtle Speaks and Breaks - Skeena Reece
What is hip hop? What does it mean to be Indigenous? Loosely answered, hip hop is rooted in the Black communities on southern Turtle Island (USA). It encompasses graffiti, break dancing, MCing and DJing. Indigenous means original people of the land. “Indigenous Hip Hop” is a fusion and birth of a new generation of Native youth communities and lifestyle. Indigenous people have always experienced and used their environment towards the end of expressing our humanity and this perception only became stronger and more ‘evident’ after colonization. In the ability to document through common language (English) in the written form, and now through new media, we are seeing an immense surge of the Indigenous experience.
This genre, the hip hop subculture that is being engaged by Native people today, is one of the strongest and most valued and respected streams of human consciousness. What are we doing with this information? How are Indigenous people engaging in this culture? How is it helpful and how is it harmful? In the lyrics of Indigenous hip hop today you can hear some of the most valuable accounts in our human history and evolution and de-evolution. Through the visual work and documentation of Indigenous hip hop artists, the amalgamation of our time on earth can be seen. This is very important.
Where can Indigenous expression be seen? Or perhaps a better question is where can it NOT be seen? Mainstream television, blockbuster films, radio stations, government structure and even buildings themselves. The de-saturation of Indigenous expression is a sign of colonization. For some people a pencil and paper are the only tools seen as available to document the expression of oneself. The common denominator is spoken word. Thus, Indigenous hip hop is widely accessible and crosses over cultural barriers. What are they saying? What are they doing, and how is this impacting the world community? In the chorus of Ron Harris’ (aka Ostwelve), song Baphela Bantu BMedicine, he writes, “Be a medicine to yourself in a world that’s becoming poisonous, be a light in your own darkness in the silence to the noisiness…” After a trip to Africa he returned with stories of community organizations that aim to support African youth in the slums in need of basic services and using hip hop as an outreach tool. Living conditions can be seen as comparable to those on present-day reservations, and many youth have turned to hip hop as a primary source of expression. The words that come through are testimony to those living conditions and document the layman’s life experience there plainly for us to hear uncensored.
“Cards are definitely stacked against us, house rules in this yard that fenced us, how cruel are these guards that sensed us trying to escape culturally condensed us…” At the end of Ostwelve’s song we hear a spoken address, “Yo from Africa to the Americas to the Asias…Baphela Bantu: People Are Dying, you have to take it in your own hands to be a medicine to your people, not a venom, silence the noise within you..Baphela Bantu - The People Are Dying.” Ostwelve is a young Native artist who has first hand experience travelling to a third world country and who returned to share his message with a very clear audience, which is the collective ‘we’ as Native people.
I found a lot of the artists sing directly to ‘their people’. Christie Lee Charles, aka Miss Christie Lee, sings in the Musqueam language. “These words I have to say ain’t like anything you ever heard in your day, straight spittin’ my ways, this is how I play…you and me be living in a time that they was living for…believe it or not we the future of history so stop living your life like it was a mystery…” When she says ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘your’, I know that she is speaking directly to me as a Native person. A lot of these artists steer clear of the mainstream and feel quite comfortable in their own communities. Native community events, Pow Wows and Aboriginal cabarets welcome hip hop artists and see the worth in including them. One of my first experiences with Native hip hop was seen at a Tribal Wizdom show back in the early 90s. Kinnie Starr was a huge influence to me as an artist and to many Native youth artists, then and now.
This is where I was introduced to Indigenous hip hop and even dabbled in the art myself. Spoken word was something that I was really comfortable with, coming from a nation that practices oral traditions. I, like my fellow Native youth at the time, was drawn to the familiarity of the ‘plight’ of the poor Black communities who were singing, dancing and painting their way out of the system. There was a commonality that was seen in this rebellious culture. Not only did it come in the form of rap music and graffiti, but also in skate-boarding culture as these were intrinsically linked and were crossing class borders as well as race borders. At these gatherings that were popping up all around the city and during the time that the Native Youth Movement opened a Vancouver Chapter, Redwire Magazine began publishing, and that’s when I met a lot of budding artists. Derek Edenshaw aka Manik1derful, a now well-known MC, came on the scene and with him brought together a diverse urban hip hop community with ‘us’, the Native youth political activists in NYM. This was a perfect marriage as youth were so integrated with Black culture already through mass media. Here was a young person who could act as a catalyst, a bridge and an MC vocalizing and localizing ‘our scene’ and what we were facing and dealing with.
Hip hop was influencing these new artists and permeating their visual work as well, which can be seen quite clearly in the work of Andrew Dexel, a noteworthy emerging painter who began as a graffiti artist, and Corey Bulpitt, an established young Haida carver who now works with youth on Northwest Coast style graffiti murals. Dexel fuses North West Coast formline with graffiti in a clear and present way, gaining him new audiences wherever he exhibits. These trails blazers may not be ‘experts’ of their field, whether it is painting, rapping, graffiti or hip hop dancing, but it is a new genre very unique to our era, which in itself is worth talking about. These groupings, subcultures, crews or whatever you want to call them, are taken quite seriously by their peers. They are often revered and shown respect for the language they are creating and the cultural signifiers that contribute to the enrichment and meaning that they build on our cultural landscapes.
Naturally, we now see the results of this in the forms of social constructs, rules, laws – spoken and unspoken language, movement and the impending changes. The influence of pop culture and mainstream hip hop were described to me once as a danger. At a public gathering, I spoke about the importance of hip hop culture to youth and the importance of them using it as an uncensored tool for expression. A man who identified himself as an ex-con warned me of the danger of gangster rap and how people are using it to spread threats and push their agenda on the youth to include gang related ‘beefing’ or internal fighting amongst one another. I also see the idea of Conscious hip hop itself as being in danger of mainstream hip hop and falling prey to the ignorant mindsets of a few.
I think that a larger conversation needs to take place to really get to the root of what I am talking about here. We are now seeing on a grand scale, also due to the growing number of young Indigenous people coming of age, a massive documentation process and participation in mainstream culture. They are talking about their standards of living, their communities, their hopes and fears, and we need to listen. We need to open our eyes and really see what they are presenting and not just as a last resort to avoid any great catastrophes: we need to use it as a first resort for guidance in our roles as adults and guardians. Just as in any massive form of communication, there are going to be sentimental statements made, broad sweeping fears expressed and lots of ‘documentation’ to examine, but we should really consider ourselves lucky. Native youth, Native people, Indigenous people, hip hop people are presenting ideas, making connections, drawing conclusions and asking important questions. If we use this is as a basis of discussion, we can see that they’ve taken a lot of guesswork out of the equation and what we are left with is the essence of where they are at, exactly. As adults, educators, helpers, historians and just plain human beings we need to honour this subculture as much as we honour our own families. In doing this, we honour ourselves, our people and our humanity.