Rhyming Out the Future: Reclaiming Identity Through Indigenous Hip Hop
by Lindsay Knight
Hip hop music has begun to transform the ways in which young Indigenous people perceive their environments and assert their identities. Examples of resistance in Indigenous music can easily be discovered through hip hop. Without easy access to land and rural communities, urban Indigenous people often have limited exposure to ceremonial ways of experiencing music. Many grow up without an awareness of the existence of Indigenous forms of song and dance beyond the limited versions taught in school. Instead, they are exposed to other forms of music, which they latch onto and reformat by incorporating Indigenous style and sound into the music. By focusing on positive and conscious artists who are situated in this growing movement, this essay describes how hip hop fills a cultural void within urban people’s identities, and assists in maintaining Indigenous worldview through resistance, revitalization and connection to the spirit world.
Hip hop culture stems from a place of struggle and poverty in inner-city Bronx, New York, in the late 1970s. African American, Latino and Native American youth combined creative forces to develop what they titled “hip hop,” which includes but is not limited to rapping, breakdancing, graffiti, and DJing. As a form of resistance to the ongoing effects of colonization, hip hop culture did not involve material wealth, and anyone who participated in any one of the elements was accepted and welcomed into the positive community that it created. Hip hop created family, something that many did not experience in their own home lives and/or something that they desired to recreate outside of the violence that often shapes heteronormative families within colonial, patriarchal societies. Most of these young people had little knowledge of their pre-colonial history and they were strongly affected by addictions, violence, abuse, neglect and an overall feeling of hopelessness. Wanting change, they began to energize and reclaim their identities through hip hop, which continues to evolve and change today.
In Canada, hip hop culture resonates in the urban centres and, more recently, in northern and remote rural regions. It draws in people who are struggling with identity and seeking knowledge of history beyond what is offered in the current mainstream. Hip hop culture expert and University of Toronto academic Maki Motapanyane states,
Hip hop in Canada is an artistic body of work, an ever shifting and dynamic urban culture that rhymes, narrates, paints, documents, dances and in so many other ways, expresses, critiques and theorizes the social realities of our time. It is important to emphasize that hip hop theorizes, that hip hop has the capacity to philosophize, that hip hop and its artists are legitimate intellectuals of our time and furthermore, that there is no intellectual space where hip hop, its artists and learners do not belong or in which their experiences are not intellectually appropriate for discussion.
By connecting with fellow hip hoppers across Turtle Island (Canada and the Americas), young Indigenous people find a deeper understanding of self through artistic expression and by addressing the immensity of the social issues that affect them and their communities. Many are drawn to the intellectual aspects of the culture that questions the current societal regime.
It is important to note that not all hip hop is positive and emancipatory. Similar to the exploitative interest in Native American art and culture, the imagery and unique styles that hip hop delivered created outside interest looking to capitalize on its uniqueness and its Blackness. It was not long before corporate industry exploitation developed a warped image of hip hop, which evolved into a negative and destructive form of music related to gangs, money, drugs and misogyny. Today, this type of hip hop is still dominant within the music industry. Mainstream music is most accessible, and so this is what filters down to young Indigenous people and their families. Unfortunately, for the oppressed, this form of hip hop encourages self-destructive patterns and actions that currently dominate Indigenous communities. However, hip hop is more than this and this research relates to those who practice hip hop from the grassroots, who practice it as a form of resistance through Indigenous awareness of culture and identity, colonization and revolution.
Young people develop a strong connection to the oral storytelling and drumbeat aspects of hip hop, as it is relatable to their Indigenous backgrounds and histories. It is essential to recognize the adaptability within all musical forms that are presented and practiced by contemporary Indigenous people. In hip hop, examining the purpose, intent and meaning behind the presentation of music is how one will effectively ascertain Indigenous worldview within the rhythm and lyrics. By moving away from narrow categories of music styles and rigid timelines, researchers can consider Indigenous music within a continuum and explore beyond these boundaries to capture the essence of the music itself.
As a hip hop artist, I have also been involved within the Indigenous hip hop community for many years under the moniker of “Eekwol.” My decision to bridge my creative and academic work is based on a need to understand the motivation behind the growing hip hop phenomenon within Indigenous communities, and to further investigate links to activism and decolonization. Scholar Charity Marsh challenges the idea of hip hop representing globalization and says that, in many cases, it is localized to suit cultural, social, economic, and political diversity: an excellent tool for decolonization. Marsh describes my thoughts on hip hop and decolonization,:
Hip hop is the genre that enables Eekwol to convey the contradictions and burdens of the current colonial situation in Saskatchewan. From within the hip hop culture she has also begun to think about decolonization and the possibilities of what this might look like: “I can only speak for myself, but I do try to use music as a tool to try to comprehend exactly what needs to happen to decolonize, to decolonize myself and try to talk about it … music itself is a good tool, but it is not enough. We still need the action because we speak it. I can speak it to death, and I will, but the action has to be there. We have to live it too.”
Historically, music has always been interrelated with all aspects of Indigenous society. As an Indigenous musician, I have experienced changes throughout my career that have reminded me of the importance of including music in the act(s) of decolonization and as a part of the grander scheme of preparing and taking action towards an inclusive approach to rebalancing our societies. This does not mean a few people dominating or dictating what Indigenous music sounds like or is meant to represent, but rather, all parts of the communal whole contributing to music in different aspects. Thereby, we create a new way of perceiving all types of Indigenous music that represents resistance and benefits a recovery of Indigenous worldview.
As a key component and element of resistance in Indigenous music, many hip hop artists refer to the rhythm of the drum beat as comparable to the historical version of the Indigenous drum in the way that it is respected and used. In her PhD dissertation, Karyn Recollet describes hip hop artists referring to the drum as symbol of resistance and resilience and very much a foundational aspect of the music. In many ways, one can scan through history and locate the drum as the heart of the nation in both Indigenous cultures and hip hop culture. In addition, hip hop is derived from African American roots where the drum is also a powerful element. This is one reason why young Indigenous people are attracted to hip hop: the roots are similar. The difference between the historical versions of Indigenous music and song and hip hop is the use of the drumbeat to recite rapping words in timed precision with the beat and rhythm instead of singing. However, in both, the words and the beat collectively identify a complex message of resistance. The drum is an integral aspect of hip hop music and acknowledgement of this connection can further research into harmonic similarities within older and newer forms of Indigenous music.
Hip hop lyrics can also be compared to historical versions of songs. Prior to colonial interference, Indigenous tribes had efficient means of communication. Among Plains Cree, oral tradition is the foremost means of sharing knowledge and teachings. The role of the crier in particular was essential to each community; the crier, with or without a drum, would spread news and keep record of the happenings in the community and beyond. His way of delivering the words was in a song-like fashion, to attract an audience. Late Elder Simon Kytwayhat recounted,
I remember a story from my grandparents and how it use to be a long time ago. It was in the day of the horses and tipis, before there were buildings or electricity. Out on the Great Plains, early in the morning there would be this man who was known as the Camp Crier. As daybreak showed itself and the sun began to light up the earth, with his drum he would sing for all the people to hear, “Awake up, daylight is coming the birds are already singing our country looks so beautiful.”
The crier played many roles, all of which entailed relaying messages through the use of the word and a drumbeat. In Africa, the Griot would have a similar role of sharing community news through song. This man would travel to different tribes to share and gather information in a performance-like presentation. For many hip hop emcees, this is a role that they have acquired, relaying thoughts, ideas and information to Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. Many Indigenous hip hoppers have taken on the position of a modern day crier, one who is more centered on resistance and awareness of culture and history. By comparing these historical roles, we observe a continued practice embedded in current Indigenous hip hop music. The use of song and language for the purpose and intent of resistance helps to further revitalize Indigenous worldview through newer forms of music.
In addition to this, some rappers have begun to take their lyrics further by using their original language as a way of acknowledging their own history and culture. By incorporating their Indigenous languages, they resist the colonial tongue (and the violences often inherent in their learning of it) and strive to relearn and revitalize the concepts that exist within the Indigenous words. Once again, language becomes a recognizable instrument in resistance music and hip hop. We can surmise that the original drum traditions and oral traditions are what attract people to the culture of hip hop as it has roots that reflect our own ways of knowing and communicating.
Elements of hip hop—the drum, the lyrics and the language—promote dialogue about, as well as some of the explanation of, the growing phenomenon of hip hop within Indigenous communities. From an artist’s perspective, one can mobilize and motivate others through knowledge of history and identity, and a desire to decolonize within. Academically, there is a great need for understanding the way Indigenous hip hop relates to worldview, resistance and decolonization. Recognition of intercultural adaptations of Indigenous music may be valued as integral to understanding Indigenous worldview.
Lindsay Knight aka Eekwol is an award-winning hip hop performing artist living in Saskatoon, originally from Muskoday First Nation, Saskatchewan. She has successfully completed her Masters Degree at University of Saskatchewan, which she has taken along with her many years of dedication to hip hop and created something unique and astounding to give back to the community.
Eekwol uses her music and words to spread messages of resistance, revolution and keeping the language, land and culture alive for the next generations. Through her original sound she displays her activist roots by living and creating as a supporter of both Hip Hop and Indigenous culture and rights. Along with music and academic work, Eekwol frequently works with young people across the country as a mentor and helper. She achieves this through performances, workshops, speaking events, conferences and programs.
 Jeff Chang and DJ Kool Herc, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (New York: MacMillan, 2005), xi–xii.
 J. Maki Motapanyane, “The Black Female Body and Artist in Canadian Hip Hop: The Question of Femini(st)ne Space,” New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies 1 (2006): 23
 Chang and DJ Kool Herc, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, 132.
 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 34.
 Charity Marsh. “Bits and Pieces of Truth: Storytelling, Identity and Hip Hop in Saskatchewan,” in Aboriginal Music in Contemporary Canada: Echoes and Exchanges, ed. Anna Hoefnagels and Beverley Diamond (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012), 355.
 Marsh, Bits and Pieces of Truth., 356.
 Karyn Recollet, Aural Traditions: Indigenous Youth and the Hip-hop Movement in Canada (PhD dissertation, Trent University, 2010), 110.
 David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study (Regina: Canadians Plains Studies, 1979), 211–212. 109.
 Linda Young, First Nations Education (Saskatoon: Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre, 2003), 7.
Geneva Smitherman. “‘The Chain Remain the Same’: Communicative Practices in the Hip Hop Nation,” Journal of Black Studies 28 (September 1997), 4.