Saskatoon

Kokums embrace hip hop by creating their own Cree rap video

Four kokums created a rap song and music video with Metis/Dene artist Zoey Roy during Roy's artist-in-residency at the University of Saskatchewan Galleries. The kokums wrote their own lyrics and sang the chorus in Cree.

Spoken word poet Zoey Roy taught kokums how to rap

In just two weeks, Kokum Rap has been viewed almost 8,000 times on YouTube. (Kokum Rap/Youtube )

Rapping on camera to a hip hop beat is not for the faint of heart, but four kokums from Saskatchewan did exactly that this year.

And they did it in Cree.

They smile, smirk and look directly into the camera during the video, which is available on YouTube. They dance and show off their indigenous jewlery, hats, street wear and beaded earrings. 

"I was never a country music person actually," said Maria Campbell, who is one of the rapping kokums. 

"That didn't express how I was feeling. And even at my age, rap - you know the sound of rap - it makes me feel alive and creative and it reminds me of the landscape and the storms that we have to go through." 

Campbell said language was important to her family as she was growing up. Her first language was Cree. She also speaks Michif and Saulteaux. She did not speak English until she went to school. From there, she said she struggled. Campbell speaks about her life in her famed book Halfbreed

The Cree lyrics throughout the video were translated by La Ronge Cree teacher Christine McKenzie, along with Arok Wolvengrey and Jean Okimâsis.

"môy niyanân nisêkisinân (we are not scared) 

We can swing our hips and roll our joints
We can grease our knees and flip our hair
We can pucker our lips and make you kîskwêw (crazy)
Kokums aren't afraid of being the big iskwêw (woman)

môy niyanân nikostênân (we are not afraid)"

Learning experience for music video director 

The project was directed by poet and spoken word artist Zoey Roy, who is from the Peter Ballantyne First Nation. Roy is Métis, Cree and Dene​​​​​​. The music video was part of the Indigenous Artist in Residence Program she completed at the University of Saskatchewan. Roy stressed that the video was a team effort. It was filmed and edited by Geordie Trifa and the audio was done by Muskwa Lerat. 

The music video also features elders Louise Halfe, Rita Bouvier and Roy's mother Maxine Roy. 

"Working with these women - it was a test of courage, of truth, of faith, of humility," Roy said. 

"To have been given the opportunity to sit around the kitchen table with these women and tell the stories that are important to them and say it in a way that's filled with rhythm and rhyme." 

Zoey Roy says that being part of this project 'taught me a lot about how I am as a teacher, how I am as a director, and making space for people who are professionals.' (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC )

Roy said there was pressure being in a room filled with local kokums who are passionate and have voices that are revered in the community.

"It was scary because they're all the boss," Roy said.

"I have to make sure that I'm not wasting anyone's time. At one point, Maria said that I moved too fast — and that nugget of information has been really important to how I process my work." 

Roy said the kokums gave her positive feedback, despite the pressure. Campbell said Roy held her own. 

"She's not scared to take chances you know? Even with elders, she's not afraid to say what she believes. I really admire that," said Campbell. 

'Rapping doesn't make you less indigenous'

Zoey Roy, Maria Campbell, and Maxine Roy watch Kokum Rap. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

Laughter filled the dining room as Roy, her mother Maxine and Campbell watched the music video they created over and over again.

Maxine explained what the Cree words in the song mean. 

"We're kind of just saying 'We can relate to you even though we're older.' We can relate to young kids, we can relate to middle aged people… We understand that it's a way to communicate and rap music is a form of communication," Maxine said.

"I think it's important to tell our stories, no matter how we tell it." 

Zoey agreed. 

"That's sharing their wisdom and knowledge so that young people know that their songs are important and just because you're rapping doesn't make you less Indigenous," Zoey said. "Our stories, our culture, languages are alive and well." 

'Music was a way of expression and we can identify with that. No matter if it's rap, if it's rock and roll or if it's country,' says Maxine Roy (on-screen), pictured here with her daughter Zoey and Maria Campbell. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

Campbell said the song is about being strong, no matter where you are in life. 

"If you're going to be a strong artist, if you're going to be a scholar, if you're going to be a carpenter, even if you're going to be a street person, you've got to be strong if you're going to survive in any of those things," she said. 

"As colonized people we've been suppressed, repressed. We've been told that native people are passive. They don't talk. We're quiet and we're stoic and all those kinds of things. That's not true. We're alive and we're strong."

Moving forward 

Campbell said that she has witnessed older people shaming the younger generation for not knowing their language.

"I don't want to lay trips on them about 'You have to learn your language.' Or embarrass them if they're not able to," she said. "Just use it. Use the word in your music."

Zoey Roy directed both Maria Campbell and Maxine Roy in the Kokum Rap music video. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

She said she disagrees with a negative approach to teaching. Instead, she recommended incorporating two or three words or phrases a day into your vocabulary. 

"'You're beautiful,' just saying things like that [in Cree] so that our kids can relax with it, make it a part of their rap, or their work, their art, part of whatever it is that they choose to do," she said. 

About the Author

Ntawnis Piapot is Nehiyaw Iskwew from Piapot Cree Nation. She has a journalism degree from the University of Regina, and is a graduate from the INCA Media and Intercultural Leadership Program from the First Nations University. Ntawnis has been a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, APTN National News, CTV Regina, VICE News, J-Source and Eagle Feather News. Email: ntawnis.piapot@cbc.ca