Native on the Mic (Outtakes)
Native Musicians on Finding Their Voices — A Sidebar from the Spring Issue of ND in Print
Editor's note: Below is a sidebar to a story titled "Native on the Mic," which appears in the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression in print, available for individual order and subscription. The Spring 2017 issue, "Heartland," explores the musicians and music culture of the American heartland. In light of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests which have drawn national and international attention toward North Dakota recently, we wondered what music, if any, is accompanying the demonstration. Writer Corbie Hill discovered a vibrant world of Native hip-hop that pulls together deep spirituality, traditional music and dance culture, and contemporary ideas.
The first hip-hop Supaman heard was "Rapper's Delight."
He was a kid and his parents were partying, and they put on the Sugarhill Gang's landmark song. Then his cousins started rapping along, and it just seemed like the coolest thing.
"Being from Montana," he explains, "we didn't really have any access or resources to that culture. Anytime we'd see breakdancing or anything, it was a treat for us."
Another thing that spoke to Supaman, an Apsáalooke rapper and dancer whose real name is Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, was what hip-hop emcees were rhyming about. As a Native American, the struggles African-American rappers touched on made a lot of sense to him. A hip-hop artist may have grown up in an urban center rather than a rural reservation in the great plains, but so much was the same. For the downtrodden and oppressed, hip-hop could be a powerful megaphone.
Supaman knew he could use this music to tell his own stories, and he wasn't alone in this realization; This music means the same to indigenous rappers like Drezus, Tall Paul, Frank Waln and Litefoot.
"It's a matter of spreading the word," says Jeremiah Manitopyes, a multiple award-winning Canadian artist who raps as Drezus. "A lot of people are under the assumption that we don't make music. A lot of people don't know about Native people, period."
"I [started] because it made me feel good. It was healthy for me," says Frank Waln, who raps under his given name. "Making music is like breathing."
"It gives me a voice to inspire and motivate others," says Paul Wenell, Jr, who raps as Tall Paul.
If indigenous children could use positive role models, Paul willingly takes on the responsibility. He remembers being young and Native, too, and being surrounded by drugs and alcohol abuse; he's clean today, but for several years in his teens he hit the bottle and the blunt — hard — and had some trouble with the law. Drezus, too, got a rough start, growing up in Saskatoon and then Calgary, Canada. He was young when he started smoking weed, but he also idolized gangbangers. He lived a hard life before going clean as well.
"I'm one of those people who has to learn the hard way, or had to, anyway," Drezus admits. "I took a lot of beatings — physically [as well as] mentally, from the drugs and the drinking."
Indigenous teens have a high suicide rate, too, and poet/activist/artist manager Tanaya Winder, Supaman, and Litefoot actively work to lift their spirits, to replenish their will to live. Aside from her work managing rappers Waln, Paul, Mic Jordan, and Def-I, Winder works with 103 indigenous youth as the director of an Upward Bound program in Boulder, Colorado.
"Because a lot of them live in poverty or always have responsibilities to take care of a grandfather or a grandmother or a sibling, you're not afforded the luxury or privilege of long-term thinking. If you see your parent living paycheck to paycheck, it's always that immediate crisis mode," she explains. "The youth, they don't always get the privilege of dreaming."
While Winder works with Upward Bound, Litefoot travels reservation to reservation as a motivational speaker. Born Gary Paul Davis, Litefoot is a veteran rapper, an entrepreneur, and an actor in films like The Indian in the Cupboard and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. He explains his diverse enterprises in terms of a sports car: if you have a good engine, you may as well tune it and run it as hard as it will run. The Creator gave him a powerful engine, he says, and he's not going to coast. When he speaks to indigenous youth, he imparts a spiritual message as well. You have a purpose, he tells them. Find it, understand it, and never let anyone take that from you.
"Your birth on this earth is your validation," he says. "The Creator bringing you into this earth is all the validation you will ever need."
From childhood, Paul also remembers occasional exposure to Native culture. He wasn't raised on a reservation, but in a city — Minneapolis. Still, he remembers his mom taking him to a protest against new highway construction that would damage a sacred site. He was exposed to his Ojibwe heritage, but also to a long indigenous tradition of resistance and protest.
"She was camping out, and I remember seeing the sweat lodge," he recalls. "[It was] very communal, kind of like what's happening in the North Dakota Access Pipeline protest in Standing Rock." The latter, more recent protests made international news several times, such as when North Dakota police sprayed water cannons on activists in sub-freezing weather, and have spread across social media with the #NoDAPL hashtag.
The artists Winder works with will not compromise who they are, she says: they're people of integrity and will make their voices heard. She, too, fits that description and has visited the Standing Rock camps. Drezus, like many of his peers, felt drawn to North Dakota. He's released several songs about the NoDAPL protests, and has also spent weeks on its frontlines. He's admittedly older than the Native youth Litefoot works with, but he seems to have taken the other rapper's advice to heart. He's found his purpose, he understands it, and he's using his gifts to stand up for what he feels is right.
"I don't have the matches," Drezus says, "but I can start some fires, though."