Cree rapper Hellnback opens up about kidney disease diagnosis

Karmen Omeasoo, a Cree rapper who has blazed a trail for many Indigenous artists, was recently diagnosed with kidney disease after years of living with Type 2 diabetes.

At 19, he was told he had Type 2 diabetes but 'As a teenager you... just kind of brush it off'

Karmen Omeasoo also known as rapper HellnBack is hoping to encourage Indigenous youth to take better care of their health. (Warren Kay/CBC)

As one of the first Indigenous rappers to get on MuchMusic, Karmen Omeasoo aka Hellnback has blazed a trail in the music industry by rapping about the realities of life on the rez.

These days, he is in for the biggest fight of his life battling a chronic kidney disease.

"My kidney function right now is at seven per cent. Seven per cent out of 100," said Omeasoo, who is from Samson Cree Nation and lives in Winnipeg.

Omeasoo's career took off nearly 20 years ago, when the First Nations rap group War Party burst onto the national scene in 2001 with a single called Feelin' Reserved

Right when his music career was starting to gain traction, he went to a job fair that was happening in his community and at one of the show booths, they were testing people's blood sugar levels.

"My blood sugar was ridiculous," said Omeasoo.

"The doctor and nurses that were there, they were looking at me like 'You should be in a coma.'"

At 19, Omeasoo found out that he had Type 2 diabetes.

"As a teenager you... just kind of brush it off," he said.

"I didn't think anything of it; I was always on the road. I was always touring and stuff like that."

Now approaching 40, he regrets not paying more attention to his physical health during his youth.

Dealing with diabetes, kidney disease

Earlier this summer, Omeasoo travelled to The Pas, Man., with his wife Lisa Muswagon for a music performance. 

He started to notice that he was getting sick in the mornings and initially tried to hide it from his family. The sick feeling started happening during the day, and he found he didn't have the same energy levels that he was used to.

"I just wasn't myself," said Omeasoo.

After the performances in The Pas, the husband and wife travelled to Muswagon's home community in Cross Lake, Man. 

It was there that his health started getting worse. 

"My chest, the back of my legs constantly started cramping up and I couldn't lay down for more than six hours... and more things kept being weird," said Omeasoo.

Muswagon kept urging him to go to the doctor for a check up. Finally one night, he had a hard time catching his breath.

"I couldn't catch my breath for the death of me," said Omeasoo.

"I couldn't do that for 45 minutes straight. It was just straight panting and I got worried."

They went to the nursing station in Cross Lake that night, and staff there ran some blood tests and did X-rays.

The next day, staff at the nursing station called him back and told him he needed to see the doctor urgently.

Omeasoo credits his wife, Lisa Muswagon for being his main support. (Submitted by Lisa Muswagon.)

"What the blood tests revealed was that my glucose and my phosphorous, all my levels were… nuts."

Omeasoo discovered that he had stage five kidney failure.

"As we speak right now, my kidneys are failing more and more every day. And that's what's killing me about it, is that I can't get the proper treatment until my kidneys fully fail," said Omeasoo.

Omeasoo will need to start dialysis treatments at some point. In the meantime, he will start the process of looking for a kidney donor for a transplant.

Diabetes and kidney problems

According to Diabetes Canada, rates of diabetes among Indigenous people living in Canada are three to five times higher than those for the non-Indigenous population, though there is considerable difference in rates between Indigenous groups.

According to a 2011 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the age-standardized prevalence of diabetes was 17.2 per cent among First Nations individuals living on-reserve, 10.3 per cent among First Nations individuals living off-reserve and 7.3 per cent among Métis, compared to five per cent among the non-Indigenous population. The prevalence of diabetes among Inuit was comparable to the general Canadian population but there is concern rates will rise.

The factors that contribute to these health outcomes include a lack of access to healthy affordable food and health services, genetic susceptibility and historic-political factors.

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease in Canada.

Dr. Barry Lavallee with the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba said Indigenous men need to be encouraged to look after their health and establish support systems, people who will help them through their health journey.

"My message to the men out there who are First Nations and Métis is to listen to the females in your family because they're going to tell you when it's time to take care of yourself."

Dr. Barry Lavallee is with the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Family over everything

Being an Indigenous veteran in the music industry, Omeasoo has many awards and accomplishments to be proud of. 

He's performed across North America, has collaborated with groups like Rezofficial and A Tribe Called Red and has blazed a trail for a lot of Indigenous rappers.

The rapper said it has been difficult to go from being a mobile, active dad, to feeling like he needs support from his family. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

"We wanted to get out there and show people that it can be possible to come from a reservation… and be recognized in the field that you want to be recognized," said Omeasoo.

But when asked what his proudest accomplishment is, without hesitation he says it was meeting his wife.

"Music introduced me to my wife and my wife introduced me to a life of understanding family," he said.

Omeasoo has five children and the family recently shared the stage at a fundraising concert in Winnipeg's North End.

"If it wasn't for my wife, I honestly don't know where I'd be," said Omeasoo.

"We're just trying to maintain and raise our family right." 


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.