Sure, much of it is consumed by boasting, vulgarity and thuggery—for many rappers, that’s the whole mission, a mission they accomplish quite well.
But hip hop also has the potential to be inspiring, even transcendent. The stories of personal struggle or social issues, delivered in plainly-stated poetry, can be quite touching and relatable; then the catchy, often soaring, chorus comes in, and the effect is unique in popular music.
Writing about music is, they say, like dancing about architecture—and why would you, the reader, want to read a bunch of words about the music when you can just listen to the damn music? Here are 12 tracks of hip hop by Native artists—more like 10 tracks of hip hop and two spoken-word pieces set to music, if you want to be a stickler—that might just raise your spirits.
“I Believe,” Cree Nation Artists
A unique musical project, the N’we Jinan Eeyou Istchee Tour brought Montreal rapper David Hodges together with young people from Cree communities within the province of Quebec; what started as music workshops resulted in an album. There’s much, much more to this story, and you can learn about it at the official N’we Jinan site as well as at the Cree Nation Youth Council site. The album is available on iTunes.
“I’m never gonna let it get the best of me
Stay true, stay real, that’s the recipe
Even when you’re down and out, got no energy
Just look to the sky, let yourself fly free”
Quese IMC, “Life So Great”
Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re Quese IMC.
“Life so great, music so great, ladies so great, man, we so great
Feels so great to be so great, so please don’t hate ’cause our cause be great”
Frank Waln, “My Stone”
Waln has called this song a “birthday gift” to his mother.
“I know I ain’t home and your boy has grown
I need you to know that you’re not alone
I can let it rock, you will be my stone
Forever in my heart you will be my stone”
Rellik, “Thank You”
Are rappers a bunch of egomaniacal jerks who think they’re better than their fans? Sure, some of them are. It’s safe to say a lot of them are. But here’s something refreshing, and even touching: A hip hop artist doing an entire track that simply thanks people for coming to his shows. It’s catchy and it’s, well—it’s just plain nice. Good on ya, Rellik.
“Thank you for comin’ out and showin’ support
I feel appreciated in my city or on the road
Thank you for everything you went and you done
Because of you look at us and how far that we’ve come”
Red Eagle, “Pull Through”
Up-and-coming Native rapper Red Eagle (a.k.a. Jesse Robbins) dedicated this song to “families suffering the aftermath of police brutality and murder.”
“You gotta pull through, gotta pull through
Don’t let the bastards get you down or the haters change your mood
You gotta pull through, gotta pull through
For your family and the ancient ones that fought for you”
StyleHorse Collective, “We Shall Remain” (Poem)
As we said, a couple of the clips here are more accurately described as poems set to music—it’s not all that meaningful a distinction. The lyrics here could have been rapped in rhythm with the beat, but they aren’t—it’s still a great, incredibly re-watchable video.
“We will rise above the darkness
We will overcome the pain
Warrior spirits live within us
We shall remain”
Winnipeg Boyz, “Better Place”
Of all the artists featured here, the Winnipeg Boyz are the hardest-edged. They’ve had their issues with the law, and in their music—and that of precursor group Winnipeg’s Most—there’s plenty of rap braggadocio. But even bad boys (or “boyz”) have their moments.
“Hey, I made a lot of mistakes
But I’m staying dedicated I’ma do what it takes
Improve my situation to make it a better place
So I can see them brighter days, a smile on my face”
Emcee One, “Long Live Love”
We’ll just say it: Emcee One identifies himself as an “inspirational / Christian” rapper, a slant that may turn some Native listeners off. This tune contains a couple of mild references to his faith, but it’s not preachy or churchy—its overall message is just what it says: Love.
“It’s difficult to love when you’re hated
Disrespected, rejected, unappreciated—but I made it
Maybe not the way I calculated
I found I was actually loved, instead of hated”
JB the First Lady, “Get Ready Get Steady”
There’s nothing quite like a strong Indigenous woman spouting positivity—that’s the first thing we think every time we hear this track. The second thought is: Why hasn’t Indian country produced more female MCs? We hope that changes.
“Stand on your two feet, look up in the sky
And take it far
Grandmother Moon and Sister Stars
Will take care of you no matter where you are
Creator is there, Creator is aware”
Doc Battiest featuring Spencer Battiest, “The Storm”
It’s a heavy, even angry meditation on history, yes, but Spencer Battiest’s soaring vocals come to the rescue again and again, reminding us that out of pain grows strength.
“Weather the storm, and through the rain
A stab of the knife meant we were here to stay
No fear of the fight that will be headed our way
Always remember what our people gave”
Mic Jordan, “It Feels Good”
Mic Jordan is, quite deservedly, getting a lot of attention for his excellent album Sometime After 83. This track isn’t quite as deep as “Music Saved Me” or “Modern Day Warrior,” but what it lacks in drama it makes up for with joy. It’s that feeling you get when one or two things break your way, the sun is shining, you’ve got places to go, and you can’t help but think that (to paraphrase Bob) every little thing just might be alright.
“Say yeah, it feels good, don’t it?
Damn it feels good to have people up on it”
Reyes & Knoxx, “Smiling Flowers” (Poem)
You wouldn’t confuse this with a hip hop jam—but the beats, hand claps and synthesizer that meander in and out beneath the words make it more than poetry-slam pyrotechnics. It’s rapping, in an older sense of the word, even if it’s not quite rap. Like the occasion that it describes, the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) this poem ponders death, often in great, grim detail, but does so in fond remembrance and celebration of life. And its ultimate message is one of hope: That death is not the end.
You’re still not buying this one as “uplifting,” are you? Fair enough.
“Place upon my altar all those things that had meaning in my life
But do not cry tears of sorrow
For I am watching
we are watching