How hip hop artists are defining a 'modern Indigenous identity'

For many who grew up in a variety of Indigenous cultures, whether urban or whether on the reserve, hip hop has been a part of those journeys, says Kyle T. Mays, an assistant professor at UCLA.
Kyle T. Mays is a professor at UCLA and author of Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes. (SUNY Press/submitted by Kyle T. Mays )

Kyle T. Mays remembers the first time he heard My Stone by Indigenous hip hop artist Frank Waln.

The heartfelt track, dedicated to Waln's mother, reflects on the sacrifices she made as a single parent raising her son on a South Dakota reserve.

You took me everywhere / My cap and my backpack / Twenty years later now / I'm rapping in snapbacks / Rocking the long braid / We came a long way / You kept me on the Red Road / Away from the wrong way.

Mays, an assistant professor at UCLA who focuses on the relationship between hip hop culture and Indigenous identity, says artists like Waln are using hip hop culture to construct what he calls a "modern Indigenous identity."

They actively try to understand their own masculinity and dismantle patriarchy in their own everyday lives.- Kyle T. Mays

"For many of us who grew up in a variety of Indigenous cultures, whether urban or whether on the reserve, etc., hip hop has been a part of those journeys, especially for Indigenous millennials," said Mays, who is Black and Saginaw Anishinaabe.

Mays explores the concept in his book, Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America.

He spoke to Unreserved guest host Waubgeshig Rice about how some artists are presenting a more progressive understanding of Indigenous masculinity. Here is a part of their conversation.

In your book, you also mentioned that feminism can help in defining Indigenous masculinity. What do you mean by that?

So I think reading about black, Indigenous feminisms is essential to one's own development. [So is] being very keen to the people around you, and people and women you don't know — Indigenous black and Indigenous feminists — one doesn't know. And just sort of learning and developing how to relate better to people around you.

It is everyday stories, whether it's our grandmothers, our aunties, our mothers, our sisters, our cousins — just learning and not always having a response, even if you're called out for certain behaviour, etc., but just sitting and learning from their everyday experiences in the world.

And what Indigenous hip hop artists do you think present a progressive understanding of Indigenous masculinity?

I think the Lakota hip hop artist Frank Waln is especially one who does this very well, and I would also say Sacramento Knoxx and SouFy. These two artists who make sure to present alternative ideas of what it means to be a man.

It's not always a comment on masculinity, per se. I think it shows a certain sensitivity where you're not glorifying materialism. So [they] talk about issues like water, and they actively try to understand their own masculinity and dismantle patriarchy in their own everyday lives, but also in their music, by talking about issues that impact all of us. And I think, to me, that's very, very important.

In one chapter, you mentioned specifically the song My Stone by Frank Waln. Why particularly does that tune resonate with you?

Having a single mother, growing up, learning as much, as best as one can about what it means to be a man in this sort of oppressive society, in dealing with drugs and gangs and that sort of thing, and just trying to become a better person.

So for me, that was a really touching song, and I would even go so far as to say [it was] a way to help me heal in certain, particular ways. And it also reminded me of Tupac's track Dear Mama — just like, I love my mother and this is a way for us to heal together.

Are you hopeful that more Indigenous hip hop artists will challenge problematic stereotypes of what it means to be an Indigenous man?

Yeah, I am hopeful. I think idealism and hope are essential if we are going to keep progressing and moving forward, especially during this particular time, so I'm hopeful.

But it's hard when certain companies, especially old white men, run how things are performed. It's hard to make money and be independent as artists. And so how do you make that balance?

I'm hopeful that people will continue to sort of push against that, but consumers do play a role in that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Written by Althea Manasan. Produced by Stephanie Cram.