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Indigenous Hip Hop and Performance as Resurgence

March 19, 2015

by Frank Waln

Something reflected the soft light from the setting sun right into my eye as I walked along the reservation gravel road with my mother one evening. Many evenings were spent this way, my mother and I, walking in our small rural community of He Dog on the Rosebud Reservation located in south central South Dakota. I didn’t realize then that one walk in particular would change my life forever.

I took home the scratched CD I found discarded in the ditch by the road and borrowed a CD player from one of my cousins. I never owned any music up until that point of my life. Accustomed to the country music our rez radio station played and the ceremony/pow wow songs I heard around our reservation, I didn’t realize I could seek out different types of music. I didn’t think the CD would even play it was so scratched up. Much to my surprise Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP played all the way through even with the scratches. My mind was blown. It was like someone, maybe the Creator, had planted an emotional and artistic box of dynamite on the side of that road for me to find. I felt like Eminem was telling my story and getting all his pain out through music. I wanted that for myself.

I was obsessed. I was in love with this music. The music of hip hop within me was already waiting to explode and make its way into the world.

People often ask me why I and countless other reservation/urban Indigenous youth connect and identify with Hip Hop. I’ve been asking myself this question for a few years now. When we look at the foundation and birth of Hip Hop culture, we see that this culture and the art forms that came with it are rooted in various African and Black cultures. Hip Hop was born in the 1970’s in the Bronx during a time when the officials of NYC decided it would be in the best interest of the city to build a new expressway right through the middle of the Bronx, displacing their community. Their homelands were being taken away in the name of “growth” and “expansion”. Their home was being colonized. Out of this time of peril, the roots of Hip Hop and its foundational elements, including dance, music and graffiti emerged alive in well in NYC. The movement’s artists were using the limited but powerful resources they had, such as music, dance, and graffiti, to tell their story and that of their communities. Drawing from African tribal and Black diasporic roots, Hip Hop was born.

As for the music, I believe many of my peers and I relate to Hip Hop because it is comprised of many elements seen in Indigenous cultures. When we look at Hip Hop/Rap music, we see that it was traditionally, and still is, about the drums, about voice and about storytelling. When we look at a lot of traditional Indigenous music we see a similar foundation. This tribally influenced form of expression seemed familiar to us when it reached reservations and Indigenous communities. These Hip Hop artists were making songs about the struggles and experiences of growing up in poor, marginalized communities. We could relate.

These Black and brown artists were using Hip Hop as a tool to build community and survive in a time of peril. The founders of Hip Hop were coming up out of slavery. We were coming up out of genocide. Disconnected from our language, ceremonies and culture through genocidal government policies, many of us were a generation searching for anything that would help us survive while we try to reclaim our culture and language. Hip Hop was one of our answers.

Hip Hop music spans the entire spectrum of concepts: from the misogynistic, materialistic rap we hear in a lot of mainstream music to the very holistic, socially conscious rap music that won’t get as much play on popular radio. There are many Indigenous Hip Hop artists making music that spans this whole spectrum. It’s a personal choice and up to the artist to decide, not only what style of music they will make, but also what messages they will convey in their music. I see socially conscious, political Indigenous Hip Hop artists using the music to not only heal but to also provide a framework for resurgence.

My Indigenous peers and I were born into a complicated socio-economic position. We are descendants of centuries of colonial violence and genocide. Whether we realize it or not, we are born with historical trauma, frustration and colonial rage hanging over our heads. This colonial rage manifests itself in many forms throughout our communities, including very negative ways such as in the lateral violence and abuse plaguing some of our communities. I had this same colonial rage bubbling up inside of me and fighting to get out from a very young age. I watched as some of my peers used substance abuse and violence as an outlet for this rage, but I also saw some of us, including myself, using Hip Hop music, performance and dance to express ourselves like we never have before. To deny us the right to fully feel, process and express our pain, frustration and rage would be to deny us our humanity. Hip Hop provided us a much needed, healthy outlet to channel this colonial rage out of our beings. Hip Hop can help heal us by allowing us to feel the full spectrum of emotions like all other human beings. I can think of no other emotion more powerful or revolutionary, than love.

In its truest form, hip hop also provides us with a framework for decolonial love. When Hip Hop was born in the ghettos of NYC, it provided communities a chance to gather, celebrate, dance and love one another. In sharing communal narratives through song and lyric a space was created with a dialogic potential so strong that it encouraged others to put their voices out into the world as well. Artists like KRS-One, Public Enemy and Dead Prez laid out decolonial frameworks for Black and brown communities to reimagine how they loved themselves and their communities.

This decolonial love is not devoid of rage. Joshua Bennett recently tweeted:

Love…rage…rage…love. They’re both a part of being in the world and how we choose to interact in it. For many of us, the rage is rooted in a history – as well as an ongoing reality – of oppression and coloniality, or as Bennett writes, “The rage that motivates my writing, my politics, is rooted in an ongoing refusal of a system that calls their [his nephew & younger brother] beauty terror.” This framework, as well as those provided by the Hip Hop artists I mentioned earlier, are decolonial in the way that they look at love and culture through a community lens. Hip Hop considers the question: what is at stake? Hip Hop is about family and community and one’s place and responsibility in that community.

Hip Hop presented Indigenous people with a familiar ideology – everything and everyone is connected.

Lakota people have a similar philosophy that is a foundation of our whole culture. We call it Mitakuye Oyasin, ‘We are all related.”. Seeing these similarities between the two cultures that I identify with the most, only further strengthens the messages both cultures teach.

Hip Hop is one of the many driving forces that are shaping Indigenous resurgence in our lifetime. If we allow it, Hip Hop provides us with a much needed outlet for colonial rage and a framework for decolonial love. It took me many years before I saw it and I’m still figuring it out. Hip Hop helped me realize my self-agency; without it, I know I wouldn’t be alive today because it allowed me to heal. Hip hop is helping a lot of us do the same. It has given me the courage to tell my story with all the good, the bumps, bruises, and scratches. It has given me an opportunity to spread my message to the whole world.

Thinking back on that prophetic day when I stumbled upon the scratched up Eminem CD on that hot reservation day, I realize Hip Hop found me when I needed most.


Frank Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe where he was born and raised. An award winning artist, he is also a Gates Millennium Alum and currently holds a position on the National Gates Millennium Alumni Council. Frank was one of the featured artists in MTV’s Rebel Music Native America episode which aired on MTV all over the world for Native American Heritage Month. He is a 2012-2013/2013-2014 First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership Grant Fellow; 2014 recipient of the Chicago Mayor’s Award for Civic Engagement; and a 2014 National center of American Indian Enterprise “Native American 40 Under 40” Award recipient. Frank currently lives in Chicago, IL where he works as the Youth Development Coordinator for the Chicago City-Wide American Indian Education Council.

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