Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada, beyond Toronto. This month, we talk to Vancouver-based artist Mamarudegyal MTHC who moved to the city in 2014 and is helping re-energize the community.
Written by Savannah Minoose
In 2014, independent hip-hop artist and MC Mamarudegyal MTHC, also known as Diana Hellson, arrived in Vancouver from Calgary and immediately began carving out a space for herself and her peers. It's a work in progress as a community, but Hellson says the city's hip-hop scene is changing for the better.
"There is a bit of awakening," Hellson says. "There is a reorganization of the scene right now. Things are changing. I have not been quiet."
In our zoom interview, Hellson radiates confidence, power and passion as she speaks about the changes she has witnessed and hopes will continue for Vancouver artists. Her care for her community is evident as she speaks about how Vancouver's hip hop has shifted to include equitable, inclusive shows that highlight diverse local talent. Hellson remembers how many shows and events previously showcased only male talent, which left a lot of room for growth.
"There would be no women booked on any shows, and then an all-women showcase once a year," Hellson says.
I have not been quiet about tokenization and sexism and gate-keeping and all this white mediocrity.- Diana Hellson, a.k.a. Mamarudegyal MTHC
The shift to equity and accountability happened over time, Hellson says, and it required herself and other artists putting pressure on producers to focus on talent and the art of hip hop over profit.
"I have not been quiet about tokenization and sexism and gate-keeping and all this white mediocrity," Hellson says. "I'm sorry to have to say it like that, but that's what it is!"
Hellson also points out that artists often also had to deal with unfair labour practices and expectations related to profitability. Producers and show runners expected artists to follow rules like selling a certain amount of tickets before being added to a show.
"At this point they're realizing that there is no excuse [for that], so they're really making sure to be equitable and that's something that I'm happy to see."
Hellson's journey to this moment began when she was given the name Mamarudegyal MTHC in 2012 during her time as a member of the Calgary krump dance group, Empirical Freedom. That same year, Hellson began writing her own music after recognizing it was a new way to connect with her communities.
"I just started writing one night," Hellson says. "My motivations around that time were around community and how we can uplift and re-educate or inspire different types of actions in our youth." Hellson saw the way that hip hop reached and influenced young people and hoped to positively promote education, sobriety and other positive messages without being cheesy.
"I realized that hip hop has this thing where if the beat is good and your flow is good, they're not actually listening to your words the first 10 times that they listen to the song and by then they've already absorbed all things that you said."
Hellson grew up in Calgary, and is a member of the Treaty 7 Siksika Nation Blackfoot reserve. She is also West Indian and Celtic. Hellson initially laughs when I ask if her hometown has influenced her music or lyrics: "I'm not sure that my music is necessarily influenced by Calgary, Alberta, like as a city, more so the influences that I was listening to when I was living there."
"Growing up my grandmother was listening to reggae," Hellson continues. "My older sister would listen to Marilyn Manson and then Slum Village. She went through these really severe phases that came with their own musical collection. She was my older sister so I had to listen to all of it because she had musical control. I didn't have musical control."
As Mamarudegyal MTHC, or MRG, Hellson's music lives between the 1997-2005 era of hip hop, R&B and soul intertwined with a distinct West Coast vibe. She says the era is her favourite to capture. Her SoundCloud catalogue showcases her versatility, vulnerability and the energy she has invested into her music career of nearly a decade.
One of her first singles, "I'd Rather be Dreaming," was released in 2013. Hellson wrote the lyrics during the height of the Idle No More movement of 2012, which has since grown to encompass Indigenous rights and sovereignty after being sparked by the rejection of Bill C-45.
In 2014, Hellson released "Dark Secrets" featuring Dee. The lyrics explore the Indian residential school system and the impact on Indigenous communities, and reflect Hellson's desire to connect with her community positively. And in 2016, Hellson dropped her self-titled debut EP, which earned her a 2017 Fraser Valley Music Award for queer excellence and best hip hop (female).
Hellson's personal struggles and triumphs over the last several years have impacted her mental health, which in turn has influenced the way she approaches writing. Her new album, due later this year, will explore her journey of "suffering and how difficult it's been to navigate."
In addition to her music, Hellson is a multidisciplinary artist who works within many creative industries including Rudegang Entertainment, an Afro-Indigenous hip-hop and multimedia group she co-founded alongside Indigenous hip-hop artists Doobie, Onata and Hope. Rudegang Entertainment focuses on music production, documentary production and direction.
"I created Rudegang Entertainment as a means of levelling the playing field in the industry here," Hellson says. "We exist as a resource for our peers."
Rudegang Entertainment gives Hellson the opportunity to help reshape the Vancouver hip-hop scene from within.
"It allows me to get different types of funding that I can use to do different types of events that can help in the empowerment process of teaching these artists how they deserve to be treated," Hellson explains.
Hellson also directed The Foundation: Indigenous Hip Hop in Canada, a documentary that has won awards in 2019 and 2020 during its festival circuit. The Foundation uplifts the underrepresented voice of Afro-Indigenous people in media. Hellson was also featured in the 2021 Indigenous Music Summit, and spoke about her diaspora of connection as she builds community in Vancouver.
In the last year, Hellson says her work has pivoted online with a community focus. She started leading grant-writing workshops and other online events meant to empower and uplift her peers. She is determined to ensure that her communities have access to the same opportunities as others and it is clear that while Hellson's career blossoms, her community and network will, too.
"That is why I do what I do."