In today’s society, people use different media to effectively address social concerns and other broader societal issues. Ranging from music to performance art, different platforms are exploited in that regard. In so doing, they communicate with their audience, passing on their message as well as entertaining them. The research seeks to examine the role and relevance of Native American Rap Music in addressing stereotypes and other issues in a contemporary American society. In order to better understand its significance, its various aspects are explored. Pieces of works of some artists in the field are also illustrated to give a better comprehension of the research topic. More information has also been obtained by way of a personal interview. It has been sought to establish how successful the stated genre of music has been in addressing stereotypes traditionally deeply rooted, or developed over time among Native Americans. Its role in dealing with common social-political issues is also investigated. It is true artists in this category have a huge following, a good percentage of which is made up of the youth. Even amongst other age-groups, they still remain relevant since they address societal issues like political corruptions, social injustice, and racism just to mention but a few. Indeed, they make quite a great deal of political-social commentary on such issues. Sten Joddi,Frank Waln, Red Cloud, J-Rez, Halfsmoked, Angel Haze, Supaman, Tall Paul, Miss Christie Lee, and Quise IMC are some of the rappers in this category whose impact cannot be ignored. Some of the above-mentioned artists have incorporated their indigenous languages in their music, an effort that makes their works more appealing since people of a similar background find a more personal connection. Tall Paul is an excellent example whose music is characterized by this feature.
It cannot be disputed that Native American Rap Music plays an integral role in education and history. Its role in the former is both formal and informal. Through it, ceremonies and stories defining ancestral customs are passed from one generation to another. A ceremonial point of view of the music informs that it traditionally originated from spirits or deities, or from highly respected individuals. For this reason, many people tend to regard it highly, quite naturally. This makes it very effective as a medium of communication. Rituals amongst Native Americans are defined by every aspect of dance, costuming and song as far this class of music is concerned. As such, each aspect gives insight about the wearers, makers and symbols important to the American nation. Much is implied about the individual and their family, clan, or tribe. By performing stories though music, dance, and song, artists in this particular category propagate historical facts that are part and parcel of most Native American beliefs. Many tribal music traditions are centered on stories of cultural heroes and epic legends. These are part of the local people’s culture. However, these may change from time to time, depending on the variations introduced by the leaders in the discipline.
Indeed, it stands out as one of the most popular avenues for addressing issues affecting most people in the society. It is effective in that regard largely due to its popularity, owed to its unique characteristics. Percussion and singing are its most important aspects. Making the genre widely-liked by many is its vocalization that takes various forms. These include responsorial singing, unison, multipart, solo, and choral song. Percussion mainly rattles and drums are preferred accompaniments that steady the rhythm for singers who mostly use their native languages and occasional non-lexical syllables. Traditionally, the music starts with slow but steady beats that slowly grow faster, quite emphatically. Variety is achieved through accented patterns and shouts as the singers and dancers perform.
In examining America’s musical heritage, Richard Crawford in his America’s Musical life: a history (2001), gives a detailed account of the history of American musical heritage. He gives a detailed illustration of the same, ranging from the earliest known American traditional songs to the current innovative sound of jazz and rock. His piece of work is helpful in understanding the history of the genre of interest; Native American Rap music.
Bruno Nettl’s Music in Primitive Culture (1956), samples the different classes of music that were popular in ancient times and still continue to dominate the charts to this day. He too gives a detailed history of each, and explains the extent to which each tribe identifies uniquely with a given class of music. He illustrates how each group of people draws relevance to a given genre of music.
Even more helpful is J Bryan Burton. The Professor of Music Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania gives much insight in his article Non-traditional Elements and Traditional Cultural Identity in Native American Popular Musics: Evolution or Destruction of Style?(2003). He explores deeper the new modern sounds that have been invented and become part of traditional music of the Native People of North America. The said sounds are drawn from contemporary styles of music, folk, country-western, and even classical music. Some ethnomusicologists and musicians consider this as a breakdown of traditional cultural and musical values. However, Burton believes such inevitable changes represent a change as far as media and forms of expression are concerned. These are merely employed in transmitting socio-cultural information to varying audiences. In the article, he explores the developing practices in traditional Native American music and their impact upon dilution, preservation or expansion of age-old musical traditions.
In Singing in the Spirit (2008), Norton Nadjwa explains how music is used to communicate one’s inner emotions that are defined by their reaction to a certain societal issue. One’s response to a given matter may as well be wht defines that which they will sing about. All these materials find relevance in this research paper.
Native American Rap music remains relevant as ever perhaps due to the way it connects people and their history. Thus, it becomes a genre with a great following, making it effective as a medium of addressing the many societal challenges being faced. Indeed, history and music are inseparable in contemporary Native American life. Music is a medium through which a tribe’s history is retold, over and over again. This ensures that an oral narrative of a given group’s history is kept alive, getting passed down from generation to generation. Such historical narratives may vary from tribe to tribe but they form a central part of the identity of each tribe. However, historical originality may not be easily verified (Crawford 100). This is not to say archaeological evidence and wide suppositions pointing to a given origin are wrong. Such have provided some of the earliest known documentation of this type of music and connected it to the arrival of early European explorers. Dating of pictographs and musical instruments has been done to as early as the 6th century (Nettl 117).
The style of the Great Basin is referred to as the oldest and most common by Bruno. He states that it was in existence before Mesoamerica and continued to spread in the lullaby, tale, and gambling genres in the continent. The relaxed vocal technique that characterizes rap is said to have originated from Mesoamerican Mexico, spreading northward into the Eastern music areas and parts of California-Yuman (Nettl 118).
Perhaps the aspect of relevance as regards history that draws interest in this context is its role in the moral arena. Most societies lay emphasis on moral uprightness and general social responsibility built on simple virtues. The society expects people to behave in a certain way. Those exhibiting certain traits are rebuked and even punished. However, pointing out such traits and creating awareness about the disadvantages of the common vices is the far music can go. Through it, people are constantly reminded of their moral obligations, as dictated by the history of each ethnic group. For instance, it is common knowledge that a vice like racism impacts negatively on the society. A Native American rap artist may choose to sing about it, addressing the many aspects of it in the body of their lyrics (Nadjwa 36). Such a move may be motivated by real life events that affect individuals or whole communities. By pointing out such, they inform and enlighten the public, even would-be perpetrators are kept at bay. The point here is that the music ensures the traditionally accepted code of conduct is maintained. This way, the moral fabric of a society is preserved, retaining age-old traditions and virtues without which there would be irreparable moral decay.
This class of music has seen the stars of many musicians shine. In addition to their talent, their success is mostly attributed to the issues they have addressed in their music since most people are able to connect with them. They tackle real life situations head-on, a fact that wins them many admirers and, therefore, fans.
An excellent example is Angel Haze, a 22-year old MC thought by many to be one of the most influential rappers of today. Speaking Tsalagi, a dialect of Chirokee, she stands out excellently in her group, First Nations. It is an underground group of singers in which men and women use rhymes to tell the stories of their lives, most aspects of which are unseen and unheard of.
The multi-race indigenous rapper is insanely smooth with her lyrics. By examining her life, it can be agreed that Native rap remains relevant as one of the best vehicles for people of different races to share their personal experiences and initiate change through the process. The society is incited and challenged to effect necessary changes. Where negative stereotypes have been harbored, for instance, need is felt for a shift of beliefs that bring about marginalization and discrimination. True in this regard, Native rap is characterized by a strand of social and political commentary that many people find so easy to relate with as far as their personal lives are concerned (Nadjwa 56). This may be explained by the fact that most communities are now hyper-aware of their relations with the government. Also mentioned in the same breath are issues of legitimacy; like who receives official recognition or who is ‘really native’. Many people are truly grappling with matters of cultural survival since most native languages and traditions are gradually dying out. Critics have related the popularity of this form of music to an expanded space for people to express their controversial opinions through sounds, therefore, music.
Sometime back, there was a cloud of uncertainty and controversy when it became only too vivid that the TransCanada oil pipeline was going to run under land considered Native(United States 5). What was witnessed was a political battle whose magnitude can only be compared to some of the biggest in American history. The heat generated did not escape the attention of rap artists, some of whom clearly voiced their concerns on the issue. They took a clear stand on the matter. It is in light of this that Frank Waln, a member of the rap group Nake Nula Waun, is mentioned. It cannot be disputed that he is one of the most popular and outspoken rappers of his generation in the Native music scene presently. In his song ‘Oil 4 Blood’, he took a clear political stance regarding the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. Rapping over a clear trippy beat, Waln tells of how his ancestors studied astrology and numbers. He calls it Lakota Philosophy. He goes on to rap that Keystone XL smells like an atrocity, that he is loyal to his home and ancestors. He finishes the stanza off by stating if the pipeline is built as planned, he will burn down their oil. Indeed, this is one of the most direct and artistic ways of expressing oneself. In such a manner, Waln succeeds in representing whole communities since Plains Indian Tribes continue to be upset to this day by the Keystone XL pipeline. Truly, Native American Rap music cannot be more relevant than this.
Broadly, Native rap has been central in voicing views on poverty, crime, alcohol, drug abuse, ghetto life, teen pregnancy and other occurrences of informal settlements. Supaman, also called Christian Takes the Gun Parrish, in an interview stamped the role of rap music in the society. He said its stories are not far off from real life on the reservation. He said,” We can all relate to those crazy things that happen in the ghetto. From drugs, crime, alcohol, teen pregnancy, and poverty, we realize that everything in it is like life on the reservation.” Everything is relevant ( Supaman n.p)
True to his word and take on Native rap, Supaman has continually made music that focuses on indigenous experience. His pieces are especially socially-conscious as he has explored and mixed flute music, regalia, beat boxing and traditional rap.
Perhaps a rapper in this category who has a greater global following and influence is Ojibwe rapper, Tall Paul. He has continually cranked out lyrics and beats that directly speak to indigenous groups around the world. He addresses issues to do with assimilation, cultural erosion and extinction of traditional languages. He does this best in his song ‘Prayers in a song’. He finds a greater connection with the masses who appreciate that he has indeed learnt to recognize and appreciate his roots. More importantly, his call for education in historical and traditional ways is considered a political act by many. Therefore, many consider him relevant and are able to connect with him since a lot of people around the world have been unfairly targeted by political oppressors who end up marginalizing and silencing them. Paul in ‘Prayers in a song’ calls on people to take responsibility for being educated and not to forget where they have originated from. He places emphasis on the need to keep up with the old ways, even preserving the Native languages.
It goes without saying that the diverse composition of the American society in terms of Native communities assigns gender a central role in music. Sex-specific roles are played by men and women in most musical activities (Beverley 50). A wide range of musical settings are dictated by sex. Even dances, songs and musical instruments are more often than not peculiar to one sex or the other. For instance, a specific role assigned to women in modern powwows is being backup dancers and singers.
Perhaps an examination of the Cherokee people can give a better understanding of the role of gender in Native American music. This particular community occasionally holds dances that usually feature before the beginning of stickball games. In these events taking place before the said games, it is observed men and women each perform distinct dances (Burton 101). In addition, they adhere to different rules and regulations. Even the procedures in the songs are different from each other. Usually, men dance around a fire in a circle, whereas women just dance at one place without having to necessarily move around. Unlike women who have an elder singing them their songs, men are required by tradition to sing their songs by themselves. Even more symbolically, men songs imply and invoke power as opposed to those of women that seek to draw power from the rival stickball team. The role of gender is so clearly defined in some communities that certain ceremonial drums are usually played by men only. In the same breath, Southern Plains Indians hold a belief that the Great Spirit gave the first drum to a woman, instructing her to go and share it with all other Native women, even with those from far and wide (Beverley 70).
Most tribal music cultures depict a degree of paucity of traditional dances and songs for women, more so in Southeast and Northeast regions. However, it is noted that the Southeast is home to popular women musical tradition that employs leg rattles in friendship dances and ceremonial stomps. It is common for women to sing during Ball Game and Horse contests (Beverly 203). Prominence in women music, love songs to be specific, is a feature of North American West Coastal tribes. Hand game songs, besides medicine songs, are also common. Women musical offerings diversity is a characteristic of the Southwest where they are assigned special instrumental, social and ceremonial roles in dances (Burton 70).
A lot may be said regarding music in general and Native American Rap Music in particular, but one thing must be clear, that it is, in all its forms, relevant today the same way it was in yester-years. It cannot be disputed that it is one of the most effective avenues of addressing societal issues. This is especially the case given its popularity amongst a good percentage of the population. It may vary from one region to another, but it achieves the same goals in society. Vices that usually have far-reaching implications are witnessed in the society today. Native rap music finds relevance in addressing such. Creating awareness on a number of issues is something artists in this genre do with ease. Even addressing societal stereotypes is effectively done by employing this type of music. Like performance art, musicians have found a new way of expressing themselves in a more direct and effective manner.
Native American Rap music may be experiencing some changes or is simply ‘evolving’ but this is happening to every other type of music. Even so, this is happening for greater societal good since more and more people can identify with it. Indeed, it is as relevant as ever.
Burton, J.Bryan. 2003. “Non-traditional Elements and Traditional Cultural Identity in Native American Popular Musics: Evolution or Destruction of Style?”
Crawford, Richard. 2001. America’s musical life: a history. New York: Norton.
Diamond, Beverley. 2008. Native American music in eastern North America: experiencing music, expressing culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nettl, Bruno. 1956. Music in primitive culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Norton, Nadjwa E. L. 2008. “Singing in the Spirit”. Education and Urban Society. 40 (3): 342-360.
Supaman, 2014. Personal Interview with the artist, March 10
United States. 2013. Keystone XL Pipeline evaluation process factsheet 2013.