In “Prayers in a Song,” rapper Tall Paul starts out singing in English, then shifts to the language of his Leech Lake Ojibwe ancestors, Anishinaabe. He evokes the relevance of his heritage in the distinctive syllable patterns and resonances of a language he began studying a few years ago while a student at the University of Minnesota, in his hometown of Minneapolis. The song can be heard on the Minnesota Twin Cities Public Television website, which also has statements by noted Ojibwe novelist, Louise Erdrich, elders and scholars about the importance of maintaining the language and the distinctive worldview it supports.
Now a math and language tutor at a Minneapolis K-8 magnet school for Ojibwe, Lakota and Dakota children, Tall Paul—a.k.a., Paul Wenell—says he wanted to make a contribution to his heritage through the song. “I felt using the language was a way to help maintain it. I also thought doing this might draw mainstream attention to Anishinaabe and attract kids as well.” He knows whereof he speaks. After his rap performances at pow wows and showcases on reservations and in clubs around Minnesota, young fans pursue him and his partner G. Malicious, who’s from Bad River, asking for autographs.
The song lyrics also have a personal message, Tall Paul says. “I grew up in the city, away from cultural things. I felt I wasn’t a quote-unquote real Indian. I not only struggled to learn the language, I struggled to have a desire to do it. Writing ‘Prayers in a Song’ was a way to help myself resolve all that.”
In the song, he talks about disliking “deciphering conjugations,” but revels in the satisfaction of finding he could make the language relevant to his life. “I take responsibility for being educated by my people,” he raps.
That relevance even brought a little bit of a backlash, he says, “A few have said I shouldn’t rap in Anishinaabe, that putting it to a beat squeezes it into the rhythm. Generally though, listeners have been really positive.”