The links between hip-hop and indigenous people aren’t obvious at first. What could pop-locking, graffiti-tagging sneaker heads possibly have in common with peoples whose cultures date back centuries in the Western hemisphere?
But as some of the artists performing at the Hip-Hop: First Peoples, New Voices event at Grand Performances explain it, the links and parallels are abundant in the music, the art, the narratives and the dances. Most important, hip-hop is a channel for these artists to reclaim their people's culture and heritage by building up their communities with their own voices.
The Saturday, July 1, event will feature performances by Jessa Calderon (Tongva/Chumash/Mexica), Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota), The Sampson Brothers (Mvskoke Creek/Seneca), Tanaya Winder (Southern Ute/Duckwater Shoshone/Pyramid Lake Paiute), MC RedCloud (Huichol) and Mare Advertencia Lirika (Zapoteca).
Hip-Hop: First Peoples, New Voices is part of the Grand Performance’s two-year initiative of Native American programming funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The initiative will feature other concerts as well as live theater and other events that tell the story of indigenous peoples both locally and abroad.
“The urban, native community is almost a silent, unknown community unless you are distinctly aware,” explains Leigh Ann Hahn, programming director at Grand Performances. “I think a lot of the community is overlooked or melded into what a lot of people think of as the monolithic Latino community. It’s an important voice that Grand Performances has not looked at [before] in any depth.”
Saturday’s event will be the first of many to showcase some of those voices that have used the arts to reclaim their heritage and culture, including via hip-hop. More and more indigenous artists have used hip-hop in recent years to share stories and traditions that were suppressed by the U.S. government for centuries, until just a few decades ago.
“Hip-hop is something that was derived out of oppression,” explains Lumhe Micco Sampson, one half of The Sampson Brothers. He and his brother Samsoche are dancers who perform during rapper-producer Waln’s sets. Their best-known dance is the hoop dance, in which they connect large hoops in elaborate ways that also tell a story.
“There’s many different dance forms that can be put into hip-hop, so it’s not a far-fetched idea for a Native American to incorporate what he knows into something that is modern,” says Lumhe Micco. “For us, it’s just a matter of getting that exposure and creating a story in that context as opposed to somebody else telling our story for us. You actually see us up there telling those stories. Literally up until the 1930s, Native Americans were prohibited by law, even prosecuted, for dancing, singing, any of those types of things that have to do with our ceremonies. For me, this is an ultimate act of rebellion, a declaration of my culture and my humanity.”
The storytelling aspect of hip-hop is what drew Waln to the music. He saw his own struggles as a poor kid on a Lakota reservation reflected in the struggles of rappers rhyming about their lives in ghettoes. He taught himself how to play the piano at age 7, was active in music programs in school and wrote poetry as well. The turning point in his life came when he first heard Nas’ “One Mic.” It was that song that convinced him to become a hip-hop artist to express what his generation of Lakota were living through.
“For me, it’s not an understatement to say that hip-hop changed and saved my life,” he explains. “I speak for myself and a lot of the people in the reservation where I’m from [when I say that] we grew up disconnected from our culture … because it was illegal and it had to go underground and we were deprived of that. For me, hip-hop gave me a place to reclaim my indigeneity and to re-examine it and learn it and perform through art what it means to be indigenous. Because at its core, at its root, hip-hop is drawing from indigenous African roots.”
Waln's journey is an interesting contrast to the path MC RedCloud has taken to reach the same stage. The rapper-producer was born Henry Andrade in Hawthorne. He joined a gang in the sixth grade and was rescued from that life two years later by a Christian rap group from a local church. Andrade devoted his life to Christian rap for close to a decade, until he gradually weaned himself away from a church he later realized had slid heavily into neoconservative territory.
“What’s really dope about L.A. is the Mexica movement is everywhere,” he says. “Brothers are always trying to educate each other in indigenous culture.”
In 1996, Luiseño Pechanga native friends from Temecula named him RedCloud, and he’s used it since in his process of decolonization and reclamation of his family’s Huichol roots.
“I’m not a Huichol rapper but my family is from Jalisco,” he explains. “I know that my bloodline is from Guadalajara, Jalisco, and also from Atotonilco, Jalisco. I won’t consider myself a Huichol rapper until I go there and rap in that language. Until then, I’m just an indigenous brother down for the indigenous cause.”
For poet, spoken-word artist and educator Tanaya Winder, hip-hop is not only important but perhaps even fundamental in healing the indigenous community from generations of trauma.
“Music is one of the only forms of expression that I know that can allow timelines to fold over,” she explains. “I think it can allow you to heal past versions of yourself or past wounds that need to be healed. Hip-hop feels like family and community coming together, and I think that’s what indigeneity is, too.”
Hip-Hop: First Peoples, New Voices takes place at Grand Performances in DTLA on Saturday, July 1, at 8 p.m. The event is free and all ages. More info.