Rap, Rage, REDvolution

As hip-hop emerges as an empowering voice for indigenous youth, mainstream rappers still objectify Indian country

Conjuring up the charge of cavalries and natives on some futuristic-western warpath, OutKast stormed the 2004 Grammys in February with the brazenness of the former, while bedecked as the latter. Resplendent in neon green Halloween-Hiawatha approximations of Native American regalia—fringe, headbands, and feathers—Andre and Big Boi rose before smoking teepees, prancing proudly through their chart-slaying "Hey Ya!," the chorus of which is itself evocative of powwow singing. Was it some kind of tribute, or did the winners of the Album of the Year Grammy unwittingly channel Al Jolson's "Mammy"?

It's a question many Native Americans have considered, responding promptly to launch boycotts and Web petitions voicing their collective displeasure. CBS's brief, lukewarm apology—"if anyone was offended"—brought zero resolution, particularly since OutKast themselves refused even to comment. Two months later, people are still waiting; during an April 1 protest outside the network's Minneapolis affiliate, one person was arrested.

"Janet Jackson's right breast was exposed for three-quarters of a second and both the House and Senate convened hearings immediately, [yet] vulgarisms about Native Americans are prime-time fare . . . and no one does anything," notes Suzan Shown Harjo (Hodulgee Muscogee/ Cheyenne), executive director of the Morningstar Institute, in her "Open Letter to Michael Powell, Andre 3000 and Big Boi," first published in Indian Country Today.

Hip-hop, meanwhile, is speaking to the issue as well. "[It's] currently the most popular music on the reservations," explains Don Kelly, executive director of the Native American Music Awards. Litefoot (Cherokee), NAMA's Male Artist of the Year for 2003, takes up the fight with his new single "What's It Gonna Take": "We only good with feathers on/Don't exist when they're off/I punch the remote/feeling like my whole race is a joke."

Among the masses descending this week upon Albuquerque, New Mexico for the Woodstock-sized Gathering of Nations powwow will be scores of young folks representing the burgeoning Native hip-hop scene on reservations and in urban Indian communities across the continent. They're there not just for fancydancing and fry bread but to catch live sets by headliner Litefoot and other key Native rap artists like Shadowyze (Muscogee Creek/Cherokee) and Tac Tile (San Juan Pueblo/Rosebud Sioux) at the Gathering's Reach the Rez concert, presented by Native Style Entertainment and the nonprofit Association for American Indian Development.

Beyond this forum, from the mouths and mics of other indigenous MCs like Tribal Live and Natay (Navajo), B'Taka & Rollin' Fox (Chiricahua Apache), and New York's own Warriors Blood (from the upstate Akwesasne Mohawk territory) flow universes of verses about life on the rez and on streets from Albuquerque to Tulsa, Minneapolis (home base of the American Indian Movement), even Newark. But rapping about and sampling from their own culture—rather than, say, African Americans'—has hardly earned them props from the mainstream rap world.

Among the handful of American hip-hop performers self-identifying as indigenous who have achieved mainstream recognition, none has been a direct crossover from the Native scene. Two—Taboo of Black Eyed Peas (Shoshone) and Tomahawk Funk (Oglala Lakota) of Funkdoobiest—have been members of non-Indian-specific groups. Still others have come up through largely Latino contexts. Kid Frost's "La Raza" proclaimed, in 1992, "It's in my blood to be an Aztec Warrior/Chicano, and I'm brown and I'm proud." Myriad West Coast Chicano crews like Aztlán Nation, as well as some East Coast notables—think Tony Touch (Puerto Rican Taino) and battle-rap champ Immortal Technique (of mixed Afro/Indian Peruvian extraction)—have also promoted indigenismo.

"There is an unwillingness to give Native American artists credit for expressing, really, what hip-hop is supposed to be about: the music and the heritage of the people who present it," says Davey D. Cook, host of Pacifica Radio's Hard Knock program and the authoritative hip-hop site DaveyD.com. "If an artist like Litefoot doesn't come out with a song that has a James Brown sample or an 'Apache' bassline, people aren't trying to hear it," he says, appreciating the ironic name of the Incredible Bongo Band's classic breakbeat. Regardless, he's started spinning REDvolution, Litefoot's forthcoming, 11th album.

"The way (OutKast) were putting their hands over their mouths with that 'woo woo woo woo' stuff," recalls Lance Gumbs, elected representative of Long Island's Shinnecock Nation. "I couldn't even see them anymore. I just saw white America, that same tired history." The former DJ, who would trek from the rez regularly to attend Grandmaster Flash jams in the Bronx and Harlem during the early '80s, emphasizes, "That these guys are African American made it even more disturbing."

"I can relate to OutKast's irreverent approach in their stage performances because I also use a lot of humor in my own art," says Bently Spang (Northern Cheyenne), whose current Tekcno Pow Wow project melds aspects of hip-hop, techno, and more traditional Native performance. "But in this case, they perpetuated the same stereotypes we're fighting against," he explains, "like the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves' tomahawk chop, the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek character."

OutKast's unauthorized inclusion of a sacred traditional Navajo "Beauty Way" song in their performance was, itself, taken as serious offense. "I don't know if Buddhists and Christians find those little Buddha statues and Jesus night-lights I see everywhere offensive," says Raquel Chapa (Ledan Apache/Cherokee/Yaqui), a photographer and collections technician at the National Museum of the American Indian. "[But] Native Americans, for the most part, are more sensitive in terms of our spirituality."

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