This is a love letter to hip hop. Not the cringe-worthy version: an assault of obscenities, misogyny and violence. These are new kids in town. Native American artists in their 20s and 30s, from local New Mexico pueblos as well as reservations all over the country, are reclaiming what started out as an inspiring format and returning to that original spark. Hip hop under their watch is having an extreme makeover. It’s a movement, one whose time has come and whose numbers are growing. And at the heart of it is not cynicism but love.
My favorite video, by way of introduction to this re-genesis, is “Prayer Loop Song” by Supaman, available on YouTube. The artist, a young man from the Crow Nation, dressed in full powwow dance regalia, solemnly fills the initial silence by clicking on the beat machine, the first layer of his song. As these beats record in a loop, he plays first a small traditional drum, then a small Indigenous flute, layered with the beats. Over this, he sings in a quavery elder’s voice, then a vigorous voice and then one that’s high and reedy, so that, looped, they’re all singing together. Next he manufactures his own sounds using his mouth as the instrument and, after adding sacred prayer chants from a record then scratching the needle across parts and repeating phrases,the background is complete.
Now he stands before the microphone. “I pray for the ones listening right now/Struggling, feel like giving in right now/Pray that you come back home/I pray that you understand you’re never alone.” Looking into the camera, he prays for “the single mothers and the deadbeat dads,” for wisdom and for power—“And I pray for being ready in the final hour/And I pray for those who keep judging men in the streets/And I pray for my friends and my enemies.”
Supaman is the hip hop name for Christian Parrish Takes the Gun. Previously, he was riding a growing wave of popularity in the conventional rap music scene until he realized that he was being more and more seduced by gangsta ego trappings. After a sudden transformative dark night of the soul, he completely switched gears. Still working within the hip hop genre, he shifted his focus to bringing light into people’s lives.
New Native hip hop artists across the country are picking up the beat. Many inhabit the YouTube scene. Because most of them resemble conventional hip hop players—scowling in hoodies—at first glance there seems to be little to distinguish Native videos from gangsta. But not for long.
The video for “I’m A Lucky One,” for example, by the group Tru Rez Crew, starts out with several guys, blank-faced, wandering through bleak rural reservation scenes over old snow. But listen: “This is dedicated to those among us/Who rose above us because they chose to love us/When we didn’t push ourselves, they were first to shove us/Sent from the sky, gave birth to the toughest.” It’s a tribute to parents who somehow manage not only to not succumb themselves to addiction or despondency, but who are role models for their kids as well. Not everyone is so lucky. Many, including Supaman, grew up in and out of foster homes.
A New Mexico-based artist, No-Sun (whose tribal affiliation is Ojibway and Shoshone-Bannock), remembersgrowing up on his South Dakota reservation. “One night,” he says, “I answered the door and there was my uncle with a bunch of his friends. It was dark out and they were gold. Their faces, their shirts, their hair, it was all gold.” Too young to understand at the time, he later realized they’d been huffing spray paint fumes. “It was the Midas touch with a whole different aspect,” he goes on, “know what I’m saying? Kids out there see stuff like that all the time, their parents and elders falling down drunk or stoned or passed out. As a kid, you think, ‘Is this just how it is or is this a fluke?’” Hip hop, Native kids’ main frame of reference, the ubiquitous music that framed their lives, had by the mid-1980s become a vehicle for glorifying the thug life, luring No-Sun and friends straight into it, too. Of the kids No-Sun went to school with, most are now either in prison or dead.
For young Native artists, this is their daddy’s hip hop—21st century style.Because what these Native artists are jumping off from now is hip hop as it first appeared, back in the late 1970s, bursting upon the national scene in the South Bronx like a fierce and exuberant wild child. It was a potent response to escalating gang violence and disenfranchisement, an endless saga of poverty, racism, drugs and alcohol. Early hip hop—like its name—was improvisational grassroots poetry taken to the streets, alive and lively, an uplifting positivity in a community previously without any. Extolling self-esteem, self-reliance and freedom of artistic expression, it aspired to provide a sense of community. In opposition to disco, its subjects were blunt and real—like facing down police racism and brutality in Boogie Down Productions’ song, “Who Protects Us From You?” Going back to hip hop’s roots allows these new artists to create songs that weave the past and present into an outspokenly heartfelt, creative future for Native America’s next generation.
But contemporary hip hop, Native style, reaches back farther than just the last half century. Tony Chavarria (Santa Clara Pueblo), curator at Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, calls music of the Southwestern tribes “the heartbeat of sacred life ways for more than two thousand years.” The ceremonial drum’s deep and steady voice, he explains, echoes the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
This connection is lifetimes deep, explains New Mexican artist No-Sun. “My upbringing, which included Native ceremony, always kept me grounded,” he says. “It makes you who you are, connecting with something greater, a universal being you derive power from.”
“It’s a celebration of a people who were able to overcome such adversity,”Tony says, “and it still remains a vital and living part of their culture.” The music contemporary Native Americans are making, Tony believes, “is not created in a vacuum.” The ceremonial drum’s heartbeat reappears in hip hop as “the beats,” anchoring all the rest of a song’s layers.
Perfectly capturing the sense of community that Native hip hop artists are engendering is nationally acclaimed Jesse “MC Red Eagle” Robbins’ video “Song of Survival,” filmed in Albuquerque. It’s a joyously stirring anthem to his ancestors’ endurance in the face of endless injustice, including genocide, who passed along to their descendants that resilience, along with dignity and a reverence for life.
We’ve got our own Native hip hop scene flourishing right here in New Mexico, as well. No-Sun is one of a handful of artists I spoke with. Working mostly independently, he finds inspiration in the warrior. His song “Rainy Days,” spoken over a thunderstorm he recorded in South Dakota and his own guitar riff, evocatively expresses the loneliness and discouragement of trying to balance between the red and the white worlds. By the end, No-Sun’s warrior meets that challenge by reconnecting with the love “of all my peoples / Meet y’all at the top.” Find his most recent album out in May at warmedicineempire.com.
The work of other Native hip hop artists from New Mexico can be found on Google and on Facebook, including Nataanii Means’ video “The Radical.” Intense and political(“I’m not a rapper/I’m an activist who rhymes”), Nataanii, whose tribal affiliation is Oglala, Omaha Lakota and Dine, passionately admonishes his peers to wake up, face reality and follow the lead of the elders like his father, activist Russell Means. Like his peers, Nataanii writes his own lyrics and engineers the music; he also shoots and produces his own videos.
New Mexican Watermelon 7 (Isleta Pueblo, Dine, Saponi and African) is an artist who revels in writing lively, experimental and hoppy hip hop, as in his song “Bounce Back” (“Draw, win or lose/Stand as a man”). His song “Gett Live!!” is so infectious it could have been recorded live in the streets at Mardi Gras. (You’ll find both at reverbnation.com/watermelon7.)
Fellow Native New Mexican b-boy artist Def-i (Dine) has his radically courageous, sci-fi-meets-spiritual-adventurer-meets-lust-for-life album “The Lightworker” at soundcloud.com/def-i. Check out the song “Traveler’s Guide”: “Some may say they’ve been to hell and back/The road less traveled you can’t put it in any almanac/ It’s lightwork like we was on call cuz/ We gonna keep ridin’ till the wheels fall off.”
And sidestepping lyrics altogether, the New Mexico artist known as Cloud Face (Dine, Hopi) explores “Secrets of the Invisible” in his hypnotic and haunting instrumentals, with ambient, life-affirming, futuristic elements merging with the ancient (listen to his album at cloudface.bandcamp.com/album/secrets-of-the-invisible).
No-Sun says of his own music, “People hear it, they feel better, they see that other people are taking that risk of following a new lead, they say, ‘Yeah! I’m gonna do that, too!’—and they do it!” He calls his music “sneaky motivational.” He says, “I feel like I’m the tip of a bullet speeding through. We’re gathering all these minds together, inspiring them to keep going, leave the reservation and then come back, stronger, help us make some serious mental, physical, spiritual changes. It starts right there, with those little guys listening to the music.” He smiles. “One little spark. That’s all it takes. And we say, ‘Here. Take this, bro, go set a bonfire!’”
Story by Gail Snyder