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Right Level, Next Level: Indigenizing Hip Hop

April 1, 2015

by Mahlikah Awe:ri

It’s 9 am on a Saturday morning and I am standing in front of 150 Indigenous young leaders from across the province who have gathered for the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centre’s Youth Forum. Red SlamMA1 Collective affiliate, Joseph J-Rebel Hersco (Supernaturalz Crew), and myself have been commandeered to motivate our 7Gen leaders with an hour presentation entitled, “HipHop a True Story.” We begin the session with an ice-breaker, called “Where Do You Stand?” We have large chart paper on either side of the room; one sheet is labelled “NO” and one labelled “YES”. And in the centre of the room, we have a sheet labelled, “MAYBE”.

We then asked the participants a series of critical questions and they must move to one of the three areas in the room based on their response to the question. A few examples:

  1. “Is Hip Hop for those who self-identify as male?”
  2. “Is Hip Hop materialistic?”
  3. “Is Hip Hop indigenous?”

Question number one, 100% of participants move to YES; question number two is split, with about 70% moving to MAYBE, 10% NO, and 20% YES. For question number three looks of confusion and uncertainty washes over the crowd, and then someone bravely asks, “What do you mean by indigenous?”

Now we’re talking.

It’s questions like this one which have pulled me into this cipher of Hip Hop Education with an unapologetic mission to decolonize and indigenize through the elements of Hip Hop in an inclusive way, while reclaiming and sustaining our traditional teachings and artistic expression.

Our typical brand of Hip Hop is fusion. We incorporate live soulful instrumentation with 90’s Hip Hop style beats,

Photo Credit: Javier Navarrate Bravo

Photo Credit: Javier Navarrate Bravo

live MC’s, Bboys/Bgirls and, on occasion, a live DJ and Beat Boxer. Being a founding member of Red Slam Collective, an indigenous HipHop Movement based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has provided me with a unique opportunity to explore this mission through performance, creative writing and recordings, workshops, panels, motivational speaking engagements, mentorships, and collaborative partnerships with arts councils, library associations, school boards, art galleries, universities and colleges, and not-for-profit organizations.

The event that really put me on this path was an invitation Red Slam received from the Organizers of the Annual Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations Three Fires Home Coming Pow Wow in 2010. It was the first time organizers had included a contemporary indigenous act in their performance line-up. Apparently these elders had found us on YouTube and thought we would help attract more youth to the event. It was the first time I had played Hip Hop with a hand drum at a Pow Wow. After the set we received a lot of positive feedback from both youth and elders alike. We also received questions around whether you should be hand drumming over hip hop beats, or if we should be integrating grass dancing with break-dancing, or spitting lyrics about the 8th Fire Prophecy.

These questions directed me to cultural teachers both within my indigenous culture and within Hip Hop culture; I was determined to make connections that would allow me to consolidate these two worlds which I felt equally rooted in. All of this while synthesizing concepts which could enlighten the education system, while empowering the next generation of indigenous youth who are drawn to the creative freedom of Hip Hop.

Since 2012, through my work and music I have been developing the 4 Directions of Indigenization of Hip Hop.

  1. MA3Integration of indigenous teachings and the principals of Hip Hop as best illustrated through the **Medicine Wheel.

An example of this would be exploring a particular Hip Hop element, like the MC, and connecting the skills, knowledge and attributes needed to be an MC with the Western Direction Teachings, since the MC sits in the Western part of the Wheel. Housed in the Western Direction Teachings, we have the stage of life (Adulthood), and the area of mental wellness or mindfulness. As an MC one must develop capacity for critical thinking, imaginative thought, and quick wittedness; and like an adult they must demonstrate a level of maturity, since they are often emulated and therefore influential in shaping the minds of the next generation through their words. So mindfulness of thought and speaking are so important. The Western Direction also contains the elemental teachings of Water and the season of autumn. An MC must be fluid, adaptable to change, know when to chill and when to come with a directed force… these energies are reflected in an MC’s lyrical flow and performance persona.

  1. Identity and the 5th Element of Hip Hop…Knowledge of Self.

While the 4 elements of Hip Hop are essential to the culture, there is also a 5th Element: Knowledge of Self. Through the art forms of Hip Hop, one is seeking a higher elevation of self-awareness and self-actualiztion. If the MA4centre of Hip Hop is Knowledge of Self (“Keepin’ it real”; “Representin’ to the fullest”), it is also at the Centre of the Medicine Wheel where the elders say “self” resides. Often characterized as a rose, “self” is a journey. We begin at our roots…we must know where we come from to have the motivation to explore where we are meant to go. Our stem is the path we follow; leaves of support from various sources keep us on the path; thorny challenges and or obstacles we encounter along the way are meant to make us stronger, and more determined to bloom, to blossom into our goal, our gift. During that journey we have defining moments that help us manifest our true selves both in indigenous culture and Hip Hop culture, like knowing your clan and rolling with a crew. Receiving your spirit name and receiving your Hip Hop name, as a part of one or more of the 4 elements. Overstanding the 7 Grandfather Teachings and living those teachings, and overstanding the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace and living those principles.

  1. Interconnectedness of the Indigenous Sharing Circle and the Hip Hop Cipher

MA5Not just anyone can roll into a Hip Hop cipher. You need to bring a certain level of skill, knowledge and the intent of sharing your gift, not “biting” others. Indigenous community circles were severely impacted by 3 historical waves of colonization: 1. Disease 2. War 3. Institutionalized legal practices of assimilation and cultural appropriation ie. Residential School’s, Indian Act, Land Claims and Treaties, and the 60’s Scoop Adoptions. These waves resulted MA6in the loss of life, language, ceremonial practices, land and resources, cultural songs, dances, our drums, teachings, artifacts and our sense of dignity as a people. As our people continue to awaken to the urgency of reclamation and preservation, we must protect our communities from the 4th wave of colonization, which is also threatening Hip Hop culture; the colonization of our mind, our truth, our personal narratives by corporations and the prison industrial complex.

  1. Invoking Idle No More, 7Gen Leadership and Artivism for Social Justice and Social Change

MA7Whether it’s a Flash Mob gathering to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline or the Anti-Terror Bill C-51, a vigil for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women across Turtle Island, or a social media campaign around the cultural appropriation and racist imaging of our people by national sports teams, fashion runways, you will find indigenous youth and the elements of hip hop leading the charge. Hip Hop, as a culture, was birthed from the struggles for reclamation of space and voice by marginalized-oppressed youth, many who were decedents of Africans stolen to the Americas and enslaved on the stolen land of the First Peoples. Hip Hop speaks to the warrior inside us; no matter the element, it’s time to raise our spiritual energy in order to turn the tide of corruption and greed.

Take it to the right level.

After almost 6 years of live performances from coast to coast and over 100 workshops, Red Slam is finally ready to release a full length studio album. The first single off the highly anticipated studio album, “Right Level” – released last year – has been getting international play from indigenous radio stations in Florida, Mexico and Australia. The fusion of lyrical content relevant to the indigenous struggles of today and the Hip Hop-Fusion musical style has a global appeal. It is our hope the music video will have the same reach. The video’s narrative follows an indigenous youth in a local Tdot neighbourhood, where she observes subtle forms of cultural appropriation, while contemplating her own identity as a concrete warrior. These scenes are interspersed with MC’s challenging
neo-colonial acts of oppression by focusing on the pro-active; socially grounded, self-aware indigenous uprising. I am able to connect and build with 7Gens of diverse backgrounds around decolonizing & indigenizing Hip Hop because I am walking that path in my music and poetry all day, every day. That is the gift I bring to the cipher.

“Kicks hit the pavement like a ceremonial drum. Youth tribal chanting when’s freedom gonna come!!”

MC AngelHeart’s Lyrics from Red Slam’s Right Level.

Right Level Music Video Produced by :

MaizeMedia.ft. Myranda Spence; Red Slam MC’s Miles Turner; MC 7th Son, John Hupfield and MC AngelHeart, Mahlikah Awe:ri.

Red Slam Musicians: William Charbonneau, Melody McKiver, Fumu Jahmez and Paul Castrodale.


Photo Credit: Sandrita Zenitram

Photo Credit: Sandrita Zenitram

Mahlikah Awe:ri  Enml’ga’t Saqama’sgw (Walking Woman) is a First Nations, Haudenosaunee Kanien’kéha and Mi’kmaw, poet, musician, hip-hop MC, arts educator, radio host, and curator, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She is a founding member of Red Slam Collective, an Indigenous hip hop movement nominated for both the TD Diversity Award and the KM Hunter OAC Literary Arts Award.  Current projects include The Web of Life Arts Education Project with the Ontario Arts Council; Poetry Saved Our Lives PAN-AM Poetry Slam for Youth, with Toronto Public Library; and Expressing Native Culture Through the Arts, with the Toronto District School Board Aboriginal Education Centre and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and recently named a 2015 TAC Cultural Leaders Lab Fellow.

Social Media Links: FB Fan Page: Red Slam; Twitter: @redslam; Instagram: mahlikah_aweri; YouTube: Red Slam Collective email:

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