Recently Suzetta Amaya put up a post on the the CBC Radio 3 blog called Aboriginal hip hop: Sharing our Truth. The post is a short synopsis of her introduction and experience in the Native hip hop community. It started in 1995 when she heard the song Feelin’ Reserved by War Party, one of the first successful Native hip hop groups in Canada, from Hobbemma. (You can hear Feelin' Reserved at the end of the post)
The post put me into something of a reflective mood. Feelin’ Reserved was my introduction to Native hip hop in 2002. It was one of those songs that burrowed in and didn’t let go of your brain. Suzette points out that she realized that this was the way to share our stories with the larger community. I felt like that, but I was also drawn to the fact that this was a way to share our stories with each other, a means to build intergroup alliances that could grow on our shared commonalities and experiences.
It was a way to resist.
It was also a natural evolution, I saw of the Native cultural aspect of story-telling. We have always shared our stories in song. We have always lived by the drum, the heartbeat of the mother. I saw hip-hop as merely an extension of that idea. Native cultures have never been static, despite what colonial thinkers and scholars might try to tell you. They have always been welcoming of otherness, using what they could use efficiently; discarding what was inefficient or no longer relevant. Hip-hop, like, I would argue, film, are evolutions of the story-telling tradition, new methods of carrying on the tradition that has existed since time immemorial. The traditional methods are not by any means obsolete, or ineffective, these are just new tools to add to that cultural toolbox.
As well, I found that many Aboriginal youth were using it as a way to carve out an identity for themselves in the slightly scary area between the two worlds they were required to manage, one that acknowledged the popular culture of western society while also paying respect to their own histories, cultures and lived experience.
How much of an affect did this particular song have on me?
I started a film production company with my brother to develop a film about Native hip-hop. It hasn’t been made yet, but it is still in my head, bouncing around in there, emerging periodically to remind me that I have not fulfilled that particular objective (The film company went on to make a television show, Back in the Day, which took urban Aboriginal people out onto the land with an Elder to reconnect to the past and to start to learn about that aspect of their identity. As an FYI, Suzette was one of the participants).
My Masters degree in Education focussed on identity politics; the very first project and big paper was called “Stop Trying to be Black: native Identity & cultural appropriation- re-examining ourselves with Native hip-hop”. This was an examination of rap’s influence on Native youth. In this early phase, I made the argument that it wasn’t cultural appropriation but evolution as a means of sharing our pain with each other. The project is a 27 minute film I made by myself with a digital SLR camera, and used pictures I took off the web, song samples and quotations from news stories that, while referenced, never had permissions to use, which is why I have never tried to release it. It also contains my one and only embarrassingly bad attempt at a song, built on top of an instrumental from Native hip hoppers Mils & Eekwol. Again, something that would not be allowed to be released. I plan to redo the film someday (if not the song), either as a part of that bigger documentary or as its own stand-alone. The “five page supporting document” ended up being about 19 pages exploring the history of hip hop, Native hip hop, the acceptance of hip hop in white culture as passive empathy, and the refusal to acknowledge the Native as an authentic hip hopper because of the refusal to see the Native person as a victim of colonialism in the same way that the Black person had been victimized by slavery. Hence the title.
In retrospect, I would have added a question mark after the main title.
I found that hip hop was an area where I could bond with my students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Particularly the Aboriginal students, a few of which were putting together their own rap music, telling their stories, really were happy to have someone really interested in talking about the music with them, exploring the practices of what it means to them. I found hip hop was a way to get them succeeding in my English classes, but that is another story.
The final comprehensive exam, or thesis, or final project is called, “The boy growin’ up will be young and old: Emergent identity construction in Indigenous youth through hip hop.” A portion of it analysed the music of those same students. When I figure out how to put it on here I will share one of their songs. If you have been to any of my Working with Aboriginal Youth workshops, you will have likely heard the song, but I will try and get it on here (I do have their permission to share it).
Besides the idea of building a sense of community and a safe environment, I find that finding out the passions of our students will help us work with them. For many of our youth, that is hip hop right now. Many of our students are considered at risk, though it could be argued that they are surviving. If you approach them on their terms, through their interests, you might find that they are there, waiting for you to ask them to share.
It is sometimes surprising how one moment, or one song can change your whole understanding of your place in the world. How often is that moment ignored when it happens for our students? I know that there is a lot of time spent telling them that that is not really the Aboriginal culture and that they should be doing their own thing, when the reality is that they are doing their own thing. What they are not necessarily doing is your expectation of their “thing”, or the textbook definition of what the culture should look like. Other Aboriginal people are not innocent of this particular belief when it comes to looking for culture in their children. I think culture is very important in the lives of our youth, but we must remember that it isn’t static.
At any rate, here is a song that shares a truth. One that opened up a mind to new possibilities.
War Party - Feelin' Reserved by riem2k