'Like I'm living in a dream': Sask. Indigenous hip-hop artist stays true to roots as he works with top talent

Music has always been a passion for Saskatoon-born Jeremiah Manitopyes. He talks to CBC about his journey from listening to rap music to finding his culture.

Jeremiah Manitopyes, a.k.a. Drezus, became the 1st Indigenous Canadian to ever win an MTV Video Music Award

Saskatchewan-born artist Jeremiah Manitopyes, a.k.a. Drezus, is making waves internationally. He's getting ready to release a new album, Public Enemy, collaborating with several American hip-hop artists. (Anderson Gould Jr.)

Jeremiah Manitopyes, better known by his stage name Drezus, is making an international name for himself as a hip-hop artist with his traditional-based beats and his ear-catching lyrics.

Last year, those skills helped him become the first Plains Cree from Saskatchewan to ever win a MTV Video Music Award.

A member of the Muskowekwan First Nation, located about 100 kilometres northeast of Regina in central Saskatchewan, Manitopyes has always had a love for music.

"I knew I just liked music a lot. I liked hip hop, we liked to freestyle. It seemed like — well, we didn't know it then, but it was a release for us."

He was born in Saskatoon, and grew up between Saskatoon and Calgary with his mother.

Drezus admits as a youth he never really knew what direction his life was taking. He dropped out of high school and had a child as a teen, becoming a single father.

Manitopyes was part of the Magnificent 7 group, seen here at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, Calif., where they won in the 'Best Fight Against the System' category. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

His passion for music was always a constant his life, though. He enjoyed listening to rappers like Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur,and NWA.

I wanted something different in my life, as opposed to that dark world that I was in.- Jeremiah Manitopyes, a.k.a.  Drezus

Drezus was referred to as "Biggie" within some circles, because of his large stature and ability to freestyle.

He joined a local Calgary group called Team Rezofficial. Some of their music got air-time on MuchMusic and was recognized by the Indigenous Music Awards here in Canada.

Earlier in his career, though, Manitopyes also found himself deep in the party scene of being a rapper, getting involved in the excess of alcohol and drugs. The addiction lead to him spending time in jail.

It's a point in his life Manitopyes admits he is not proud of, but it changed his perspective. It was after that stay in a Winnipeg jail that he decided to change his life around.

"I wanted something different in my life, as opposed to that dark world that I was in," he said.

Looking for answers 

He began to explore his culture.

In 2012, with the Idle No More movement unfolding, Manitopyes began reconnecting with his traditional Cree roots. He started to reach out to elders and healers, looking for answers to the questions he had about who he was.

"I felt like I was beginning to unwrap all these layers of myself — layers that were keeping me from being free, like all these false ideas about about being a man, or false ideas about being a rapper."

It felt really empowering and different to be proud of who I was.- Jeremiah Manitopyes

During that time he released a video for his single Red Winter, which took the audience across Canada showing the Idle No More protests. His mix of imagery and his hard-hitting lyrics empowered him to stay connected to his people.

It was that connection that lead him in 2016 to the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

During his time at the Standing Rock camp, Manitopyes kept his fans and followers on social media aware of the events happening at the protest.

In January of 2017 he was contacted by Taboo, a member of the Grammy Award-winning group Black Eyed Peas. The musician/activist was producing a song about Standing Rock and wanted Drezus to be involved.

Taboo had asked him to contribute a verse to a new project called Stand up/Stand N Rock.

The collaboration involved several Indigenous artist from all over the United States such as Marcus "Emcee One" Guinn, PJ Vegas, Spencer Battiest and his brother Doc Battiest, MC MyVerse, and Supaman.

Manitopyes was the only Canadian artist within the group, which became known as the Magnificent Seven.

Music scene

The song not only got Manitopyes into the U.S. music scene, but the video for it also earned the Magnificent Seven an MTV Music Award in 2017, in the then new "Best Fight Against the System" category.

Not only did the video illustrate what the Standing Rock protest was standing for, it was also the only video in the category to be chosen from YouTube.

"It's pretty mind blowing. I always had confidence issues as a kid," said Manitopyes.

"I never believed a Native kid could be on those awards. I never saw it, I never thought it was possible. To actually be there was really emotional.… It was like I just knocked down a door that seemed unreachable or untouchable, you know. I knocked it down."

Taboo, left, reached out to Manitopyes to collaborate on some music after being inspired by the protests in Standing Rock, N.D. (Submitted)

He is now working on his third solo album, called Public Enemy, as well as collaborating with Taboo and other members of the Magnificent 7 team, and living the life many young aspiring hip-hop artists only dream of — working with Grammy Award-winning artists, and travelling to Los Angeles and Miami for video shoots.

Finding roots 

"It felt really empowering and different to be proud of who I was — proud of who I really was, not  just the exterior. Not the tough guy. It was really being proud of who I am and where I come from."

Manitopyes now lives in Calgary and travels between there and California when he is making music.

The father of three boys, he takes pride in knowing his sons will see how far he came as a musician, artist and as an Indigenous person.

"It's almost unbelievable. It's like I'm living in a dream. And when I really think about it, it is really humbling. It's like anyone can do it with the right mind frame."

Staying true to your roots is important, says Manitopyes. (Justin Louis)

​He still thinks about his beginnings, and Manitopyes — who says he smudges every day — has advice for other aspiring artists about what it takes to make it in the music business.

"Having good work ethics and believing in yourself — and also your roots. That's very important, especially to me."