Originating in the streets of the Bronx in the early 70’s, the earliest forms of hip-hop music were blasted on street corners and shared at community block parties.
Decades later, hip-hop has transformed from its core, but maintained its vocal component of “rapping,” which has become the most popular form of rhythmic poetry and music today.
Much of the lyrical content of hip-hop deals with the struggles of living poor, the desire to be great, the acquisition of fame, and the drawbacks of said fame. It also deals with larger issues, such as police brutality, race relations and corruption.
In this sense, hip-hop is a response to the struggles of cultural trauma, and Native peoples are certainly familiar with that issue.
Many cultures have taken to hip-hop to share their experiences and culture with the rest of the world. Here are some Native hip-hop artists to check out.
A Tribe Called Red
A Tribe Called Red - courtesy
Ottawa based DJs A Tribe Called Red blend genres such as tribal drum, reggae, and dubstep. They are also known for their instrumental hip-hop beats that mix particularly well with First Nations style vocal chanting. This group won multiple Juno Awards for Breakthrough Act of 2014 and Electronic Album of the Year. In the U.S. they’ve started to garner attention by collaborating with hip-hop artists Das Racist, Angel Haze and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def). If you are a fan of heavier electronic music, instrumental hip-hop, or the familiar sounds of a Pow wow, be sure to check these guys out.
Gearl is an Indigenous Canadian MC from the province of Nova Scotia. He is also one part of an award-winning collective known as City Natives, along with MCs- Beaatz, IlllFundz, and BnE. City Natives make a wide array of bangers that have cross-over appeal for a more mainstream audience. Individually, each MC creates more personal tracks with familiar Native themes. Gearl’s lyrics display a level of maturity that is rare in his industry. Check out this track “D.R.E.A.M.” meant as a sort of homage to the Wu-Tang classic “C.R.E.A.M” but instead of glorifying the use of drugs or the profit to be made by selling them, he paints an honest picture about how drugs are negatively influencing his community.
Hailing from South Minneapolis, this young Anishinaabe MC crafts deeply-reflectional rhymes laced effortlessly on head-bobbing beats that any fan of the 90’s era of hip-hop will love. His lyrics deal with personal loss, his Native roots, historical inaccuracies taught in the U.S. education system, problems within his own community, and much more. Check out this standout track “Prayers in a Song” in which he flows between English and his Native tongue without missing a beat.
Frank Waln - courtesy
One of the biggest names in Native hip-hop, Frank Waln is a songwriter and activist from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Frank’s storytelling ability is matched by his intelligent observations about what the struggles of his community are and more importantly, possible solutions to those problems. His music is available through major streaming services such as Spotify and Google Play. He has also been featured on a MTV mini-documentary called Rebel Music- Native America: 7th Generation Rises along with other artists Nataanii Means and Witko. Check out this live performance of a song that Frank dedicated to his mother on NPR.
Self-described as “barely over 20,” Nataanii Means spits gritty rhymes about his experiences as an American Indian man in the 21st Century. He deals with the same issues as most young men his age- peer pressures, women, anxiety for the future; but he also writes about them through his personal Native lens which makes his music so unique. On “Warrior” Nataanii laments
“Call the coroner on another fallen warrior in the land of the forgotten- bad seeds already rotten. Poppin pills to fill the void of death knockin, you can guarantee the feds watchin, cuz we grew up around these revolutionaries who went to Wounded Knee to get their hearts buried.”
As the son of the great Russell Means, Nataanii shares his music almost as an extension of his father’s impassioned speeches, hoping it has a similar impact on the youth.
Representing Lakota, South Dakota, Mike “Witko” Cliffs emotional rhymes are authentic on his most recently released track, Alive. On the track, Witko repeats a somber chorus about the realities of life and death - “I’m alive so you judge me, when I die I’d bet you love me- that’s the way the f-ing world go.” - that is raw and honest like so much of the best hip-hop out today.
Chris G. Sutherland (aka Shibastik) is a multi-talented artist out of Thunder Bay, Ontario. He has been in the industry since 1998 but has also branched himself out as a visual artist, public speaker, and youth organizer. As a rapper, he flows nimbly over his own airy beats but his greatest strength has to be his uplifting messages about how communities should act when they desire change. On “Fire and Water,” he teaches “war makes war, peace makes peace, hate makes pain and love makes it cease.” A simple-enough message, but it is very refreshing to hear a message so easy to understand in these trying times.
Representing for female MCs and the Muskoday First Nation is Lindsay “Eekwol” Knight. This versatile MC performs with a wide array of flows, vocal inflections, and subject matter which all serve to prove that she is one of the most talented Native artists around today. Eekwol hasn’t released an album on her co-owned indie label Mils Productions since 2007, but just 8 months ago she dropped “Kisay’s Song,” a beautiful ode to her daughter and daughters everywhere. We hope this signifies more work coming in the future!