Remixing Education: Tall Paul’s Contributions to Decolonizing the Classroom
by Jenell Navarro
For the past three years, I have taught a course in my department titled “Ethnic Studies 310: Hip-Hop, Politics and Poetics.” This class, a favorite of mine to teach, always generates interesting responses when we discuss Native hip-hop. Since the university I teach for is located in California, I have many students who were raised in the public education system of this state. This means that they have all conducted a “mission project” in the fourth grade during their elementary school education. This project does not implement a critical lens on the colonial and genocidal project of the mission system, nor does it offer these students accounts of Indigenous resistance to this violent and abusive system. Instead, the assignment romanticizes and celebrates these missions within California’s history to the point that, when these fourth graders become young adults and enter into their college curriculum, many of them have vested interests and ideas in neocolonialism and anti-Indigenous racism. In fact, when it became national news last year that on my campus a group of Greek organizations held a party themed “Colonial Bros and Nava-hoes,” many of the students who participated continue to assert that nothing was wrong with this party or this act of redface. Thus, when I discuss Native hip-hop in my course, I have many students who are often surprised to learn that not only do Native peoples exist but they can rap, break, scratch, and write graffiti.
Not only are Native artists producing hip hop culture but, utilizing Glen Coulthard’s idea of rejecting the “politics of recognition”, it is not enough to suggest to my students and recognize that Native rappers exist. As Coulthard points out, “the politics of recognition in its contemporary liberal form promises to reproduce the very configurations of colonialist, racist, patriarchal state power that Indigenous peoples’ demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend” (p. 3). So, how can I convey this idea in a General Education course on hip-hop where many of the students have little knowledge about Indigenous peoples?
One artist that I turn to is Ojibwe rapper Tall Paul and his track titled “Protect Ya Spirit.”
In this song, Tall Paul rhymes,
God forbid our kids go to school to learn from fools,
the melting pot’s already injecting ‘em with the rules,
daughters gotta be barbies to get in with the cool,
fellas wanna be like fathers that they never knew,
I’m not saying every teacher isn’t worth their pay,
I’m simply saying most of them don’t know of colored pain,
they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,
nor can a foreign mind teach our minds old shit…
This song forms a decolonial project by underscoring how the education system can be both a colonizing and corrective space to address the abuses of the settler state. The hook of the song repeats “it’s not about the image it’s about what they teach us” until the last verse when Tall Paul implicates his own responsibility to educate and there he raps “it’s not about my image it’s about what I teach ya.” In this way, he both denies the mainstream materialism found in much of hip-hop today and emphasizes the need to transform our education system in order to teach the past, present and future of Indigenous peoples.
Moreover, the song is as much an assault on the education system for misrepresenting blackness as it is for the misguided presentation of Indigenous peoples. Thus, I understand the undertone of this song to be one of sonic sovereignty that challenges us to simultaneously negotiate blackness and indigeneity while critiquing the settler state. For example, the song states, “I’m not saying every teacher isn’t worth their pay, I’m simply saying most of them don’t know of colored pain” which suggests a misrepresentation of multiple communities of color. Tall Paul disrupts the white saviour narrative, one that is often deployed in the classroom setting through the teaching of white perspectives of history and/or through the fact that many students of color are taught misleading curriculum by teachers who are not subject to racism and settler colonialism to the same degree as their students are subject to these abuses. When Tall Paul repeatedly raps, “it’s about what they teach us,” he places a profound emphasis on relearning and reimagining how to decolonize public school curriculum for Black and Indigenous students alike.
When I present the song to my students in this way, they begin to rethink their moment of surprise about simply recognizing a Native rapper. Instead, they realize that while hip-hop is certainly a Black cultural form, it is not exclusively such. Most importantly, they see the politics and policies of containment that are wielded against black and brown folks as also being applicable to Native communities both on and off the rez. As a result, “Protect Ya Spirit” aids in the intellectual project of decolonization, rather than recognition, because as Simpson and Smith assert, the work of decolonization necessitates coalition work rather than isolation (2014, p. 11).
“Protect Ya Spirit” also heeds the message that Indigenous intellect is limitless and continuously rising. In the forward to Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks, Taiaiake Alfred asserts there is a New Indigenous Intelligentsia “trying to get settlers to understand that colonialism must and will be confronted and destroyed” (2014, p. x). While Alfred is particularly talking about Indigenous scholars like Coulthard, I would extend this intellectual capacity to conscious Native rappers like Tall Paul. While the respective contributions of course cannot be conflated, there is an Indigenous epistemology present in this music.
When Tall Paul raps, “nor can a foreign mind teach our minds old shit” he’s referring to the education system that purports to understand Indigenous peoples better than we can understand ourselves. This is a colonial white supremacist logic that enacts its sense of superiority at the expense of Indigenous produced decolonizing knowledge. Namely, it is a form of continued colonization that, as Alyosha Goldstein asserts, can be described as, “settlers aspir[ing] to extinguish indigenous peoples…[while they] variously affirm and naturalize their own status as native to America” (p. 3). The violence of the education system is (in part) its strategic and gross misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples that simultaneously attempts to render Native peoples and history invisible and extinct, while also vigorously hoping to establish settlers as authentically aboriginal. The popular circulation of “Protect Ya Spirit” calls on us to refuse this kind educational oppression and become the decolonial teachers that are needed. Tall Paul is one example of how Native hip-hop is doing this and why it is a productive project to continuously introduce Native hip-hop to our students.
Jenell Navarro (Cherokee) is an Assistant Professor in Ethnic Studies at California Polytechnic State University. She teaches courses on Hip-Hop Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Latina/o Studies. Her publications focus on the development of land ethics in hip-hop and how hip-hop is being used as a revolutionary tool for language revitalization. Her current book manuscript, Battling Imperialism: Indigenous Hip-Hop in the Americas, is in progress.