Rap, Rage, REDvolution

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

Anthony Lee Sr., president of the Navajo Medicine Man Association, made clear to the Navajo Times that "it's not for the purpose in promotion of entertainment. . . . [The song] must be kept in the proper respects, not to be taken out of context—especially without consulting the Blessing Way chapters."

"Sinéad O'Connor ripped up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live and there was an uproar, worldwide," notes Litefoot. "What Andre and company did was the exact equivalent: outrageous, despicable," he says. "We as Native Americans don't have the kind of political power and access that the Catholic Church has, though." For more than 100 years, in fact, Christian churches partnered with the U.S. government to forcibly remove Indian children from their communities for spiritual, cultural, and linguistic "re-education" at boarding-school gulags.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (April 26, in fact, has been declared World Intellectual Property Day) and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recognize a collective, perpetual copyright to distinct indigenous cultural practices—sharply contrasting with U.S. copyright law's temporally limited, individual-rights approach. Atencio López, a legal expert from Panama's Kuna people, defines WIPO's dilemma as "wholesale plundering or pirating of indigenous knowledge and products without any related benefits [or] concern for the copyright of the peoples affected." Does irreverent, artistic appropriation by pop stars fall into the same, er, canoe?

Black performers who have repped names, accoutrements, and "chants" attributable to indigenous peoples of the Americas include Tupac Amaru Shakur, his name thoughtfully bestowed by his then Black Panther mom out of respect for the 16th-century Inca who battled the Spanish conquistadors in what is now Peru. Far less reverent have been the feathered headdresses sported by artists from MC Pow Wow of Afrika Bambaataa's Soulsonic Force to hip-hop's quintessential court jesters, Flavor Flav of Public Enemy and Biz Markie, to the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes—while in a suede string bikini!—on a 1999 cover of Honey. Recently, Vibe featured a headdress-donning fashion model of its own.

Some song lyrics have been equally questionable. Here's the Sugar Hill Gang, in 1982's "Apache," after shoutouts to General Custer the Indian-killer: "I sting squaws, then I run away/Hi Ho Silver, is what I say." Jay-Z, in "Girls, Girls, Girls," states, "I got this Indian squaw and on the day that I met her/Asked her what tribe she with, red dot or feather." Squaw, perhaps unbeknownst to these and such other "s-word"-dropping rappers as Common, Foxy Brown, and Chubb Rock, derives from an Algonquin term for female genitalia, but was adopted by European fur traders to refer to Native women overall.

Biggie's "Navajos creep me/in they teepee" is also, at best, misinformed: Traditional Navajo homes are hogans, not teepees. Boot Camp Click's Buckshot, meanwhile, defines his "BDI Thug" alter-ego as derived from "Thugla, who were wiped out with the Native Americans," oblivious to the word's origin not in the history of American Indians but in that of the Indian subcontinent—an ancient cult that engaged in murderous ritual rampages to honor Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction.

"American society . . . should understand that all of those images—from the Noble Savage to the Bloodthirsty Indian—are based on not on our identification but someone else's definition," cautions Spang, whose work was recently featured in Only Skin Deep, the International Center of Photography's exhibition challenging American notions of race and identity.

This country's "Black Indians"—descendants of Africans who were freed or self-liberated during slavery and adopted into tribes like the Seminoles—contributed to the debate last month when Hard Knock Radio brought together two such figures: noted Bay Area activist Marcel Diallo and Shaka Zulu of New Orleans, who dons full-feathered "Indian" regalia during annual Mardi Gras festivities. They joined phone-in guests Litefoot and Ernie Paniccioli (Cree), a legendary hip-hop photographer whose recent books include Who Shot Ya? and There's a God on the Mic, for a two-part dialogue. "[Diallo and Zulu] thought the OutKast performance was pretty cool," reports Davey D.

This echoes his experience at P. Diddy's L.A. Grammy Party, in fact. The hosts "stopped the music there just so people could watch OutKast's performance," Davey D recalls. "Everybody clapped and cheered, saying 'Man, that was incredible!' "

Nowhere has the chasm between Native America and black America been expressed more divisively in a hip-hop context than during the "Big Ballers" concert last May at Nassau Coliseum, featuring Ludacris, Busta, and other big names. Lance Gumbs, the show promoter, was excited to include Litefoot on such a bill. The predominantly black crowd, however, voiced its extreme antagonism toward Litefoot—and perhaps all Native Americans—from the start. "As soon as we came out onto that stage," he says, "people began to spit at me, throwing up their middle fingers and screaming racial obscenities."

"Fuck you, prairie n_____s!" "Go back to your teepee, red motherfucker!" an angry chorus of woo-woo-wooed boos—all of these were spewed before Litefoot said even one word on the mic. Backed by a flawlessly choreographed stage show comprising Ho-Chunk and Aztec traditional dancers and B-boy legends from the Rock Steady Crew, Litefoot and company walked off the stage in disgust when the third song had hardly begun. The 60,000-strong crowd of tittie-baring, wannabe-blinging, "I'm a ho"-chanting Ludacris fans never even gave this Indian a chance.

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