Rap, Rage, REDvolution
As hip-hop emerges as an empowering voice for indigenous youth, mainstream rappers still objectify Indian country
by Cristina Verán
April 20th, 2004
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."
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."
"#### you, prairie n_____s!" "Go back to your teepee, red ####!" 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.
"I have never bought into that facile, disingenuous fable that oppressed people cannot be racist," says Paniccioli, who was present at the Coliseum and who has otherwise been warmly embraced by hip-hop's biggest stars and among many sectors of the Black community.
"I've extended a sincere invitation to OutKast to join us at the Gathering of Nations," says Litefoot, "and on next year's tour to over 150 reservations." He makes clear that, in any case, an apology is still both desired and expected by Indian country. "This would give Andre 3000 the perfect platform to say what he has to say—to the largest predominantly Native American crowd he would ever be able to gather in person."
Hey ya, OutKast.
Are you listening?