LOS ANGELES – For Happy Frejo, the International Indigenous Hip-Hop Gathering was a place to make a stand. Not just for Native artists, but also for women.
That’s because the lineup at the Sept. 14 show was mostly male. Frejo, a Seminole/Pawnee singer and emcee, made a shirt that she and two girlfriends wore in protest.
“Got Wombyn?” it asked on the front. “I Am Hip-hop Too,” it said on the back.
“Hip-hop is male-dominated, but there’s a lot of women in it, too – event organizers, mothers, emcees, artists, singers; we’re just not represented as much,” she said. “We just have to do what we can to make a stand and let them know we’re still here.”
In its second year, the event’s aim is to highlight Native artists within the hip-hop industry, most of whom are independent artists on the outskirts of the mainstream. That’s where artists like Prophecy are most comfortable – speaking directly to their communities about problems only they have experienced and understand, he said.
“Our goal and our focus is to emphasize the youth to our people,” said Prophecy, Anishnabe/Potawatomi, of Antithesis. “They’re the most underserved community in the nation.”
And hip-hop is a medium that can bridge the gap between youth and elders, he said.
The event began with workshops tailored to youth, including one by the creator of the Arizona skate-wear company Apache Skateboards. Performances by groups across Indian country followed, with emcees hailing from such tribes as Oneida, Navajo and Pomo, and regions including Chile, Puerto Rico, Mexico and El Salvador.
The stated purpose was to share “music, vision, unity, tradition.” At $25 per general ticket, and $18 for youth, that was a pricey task for some. But others traveled long distances to attend the event – the only one of its kind in the country.
Daygots, 22, Oneida Indian Nation Wolf Clan, flew to the event from New York with a friend. An aspiring emcee and producer, she came to meet other Natives using hip-hop to make their voices heard.
“I think it’s very important for Natives to be seen and be heard and to tell our stories,” she said. “Personally, I’m learning and developing myself. It’s really awesome to be here and exchange and to share with people. It’s a real good feeling to see Native people getting together for the purpose of hip-hop.”
Traditional music and dance were woven within the hip-hop performances by Los Nativos, Kinto Sol, Culture Shock Camp, El Vuh, Buggin’ Malone, Rebel Diaz, Akil Ammar, Audiopharmacy, Magisterio, Skool77, Antithesis, Pedromo, Yaiva and The Prophecy.
The Southern California Intertribal Bird Singers performed songs that were once on the verge of dying out, but were revived by tribal elders. Six young men and a little boy in black ribbon shirts kept the beat to their songs with rattles. Two women and a girl swayed back and forth, swishing ribbon skirts and making small steps to each side.
The men’s dance steps were heavy and rhythmic, pounding the pavement in traditional steps that almost appeared like the root of hip-hop steps performed by break-dancers.
Toby Rabugo, 15, a Pala tribal member, said the group usually performs at pow wows and the event was their first hip-hop gathering. He listens to more mainstream artists, like X-Rated, Brother Lynch and Tec. He viewed his performance there as education.
“I like to perform because it’s a way to express my culture and get the word out that there’s different types of Indians out there. When we go out of state, they’re really amazed. They don’t know that we’re modern and still have our traditional ways.”
The ties between the traditional and the modern were fused by many of the artists at the event. Designers had reprinted shirts with old images and new slogans: “You are on Indian land,” “We were here before the borders, we will be here after they fall” and “Terrorizing Native America since 1492” with a picture of Columbus.
And in the lyrics of songs.
“We possess an essence divine. Find it within our heart, spirit and mind. All my Natives keep your heads up high. Unified as a tribe once again we will shine,” rapped the hip-hop trio Antithesis.
“As indigenous people, we need to send out a voice to the rest of the world of our issues, of our lives, of our future, in order to preserve our cultures and society,” said Cee-Los of Antithesis, who is from the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska. “That’s what’s important to me about hip-hop.”