‘No one can gaslight us’: the rappers confronting Canada’s colonial horrors
After the current discovery of a whole bunch of Indigenous kids’s unmarked graves at former Canadian residential faculties, Drezus – an rapper of Cree and Ojibwe heritage from the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan province – grew uncertain about his longstanding plans to launch a brand new music video, Bless. He begins the music by calling the atrocities his folks have confronted “an act of battle”, then follows that with bar after bar of Indigenous empowerment. Uncertain if that may be acceptable whereas his folks grieved, he turned to his mom, who had attended a type of faculties. Her recommendation? “Launch it, son. We’d like it now.”
This government-funded, Christian church-administered boarding college system was established in Canada within the late 1800s. Its founders’ intent: to forcibly take away Indigenous kids from their “savage” mother and father and impose English and Christianity. Some 150,000 Indigenous kids attended these faculties earlier than the final one closed in 1997. In 2015, the Fact and Reconciliation Fee (TRC) report detailed almost 38,000 sexual and bodily abuse claims from former residential college college students, together with 3,200 documented deaths. The mortality fee for these kids was estimated to be as much as 5 occasions larger than their white counterparts, as a consequence of components together with suicide, neglect and illness.
A larger reckoning didn’t happen till this summer season, nonetheless, when radar was used to find over 1,000 kids’s unmarked graves at former residential college websites within the provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Seeing such information has typically brought on Drezus to “break down previously few weeks, after I look over at my household and take into consideration what these kids and their mother and father went by way of”. It additionally prompted him to tweet: “To develop up Native is to develop up grieving. Even once you don’t know you’re.”
Born Jeremiah Manitopyes, the 38-year-old rapper additionally went to a residential college within the village of Lebret from 1996-97, a yr earlier than it closed. By then, it was operated not by the church however native Indigenous counsellors, who, he says “weren’t abusive. They had been like our uncles, or huge bros.”
And but Drezus nonetheless suffered trauma there throughout a hazing ritual, when he was amongst youthful boys pressured to put on shirts emblazoned with targets earlier than they had been chased by the older college students. As soon as caught, they’d be stripped and shoved right into a lineup in entrance of the woman’s dormitory. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers and paramedics had been on the door, as if “they had been standing by, simply in case”, he recollects. He provides: “I keep in mind the smile on the RCMP’s face, nearly high-fiving me, like, ‘Enjoyable evening, huh?’ Everybody acted prefer it was in good enjoyable. However pondering again now on how tousled it was, I can’t assist however surprise: did this custom come from one thing evil?”
Drezus says his grandmother’s era contended with worse. She needed to prepare dinner elaborate meals for workers, whereas she and her fellow Indigenous college students had been fed solely porridge soup slop. His mom and uncle, in the meantime, weren’t permitted to take a seat subsequent to one another at lunch or play collectively. “She mentioned it was lifeless quiet in school on a regular basis, as a result of if a child spoke, they acquired a whooping. And talking their very own language was after all taboo.” Drezus sees direct parallels between these circumstances and the psychological well being and dependancy points afflicting younger Indigenous folks he has labored with throughout Canada in his hip-hop workshops. “I’ll see these children flip from a closed-off particular person to rapping, singing and laughing. A number of children are fully shut down with regards to social expression and being in contact with themselves. As a result of we misplaced numerous that celebration of ourselves in these faculties.”
Different Indigenous rappers additionally spoke out on social media instantly after the invention of the graves. For years, these artists have addressed myriad points gripping their communities – from rising suicide and imprisonment charges, to the shortage of fresh ingesting water on Indigenous reserves, together with a disaster of lacking and murdered Indigenous ladies, to not point out waves of Indigenous anti-pipeline protests.
One of many scene’s forebears is Karmen Omeasoo, who has rapped as HellnBack for 20 years. The Cree Nation-born, Manitoba-based MC’s newest single Kidney Warrior particulars his struggles with kidney failure. He goals to lift consciousness in regards to the affliction disproportionately affecting Indigenous folks in Canada, as a consequence of a dearth of reasonably priced wholesome meals of their communities, amongst different components. He and his hand-drummer spouse Lisa Muswagon will even handle the residential college graves on a forthcoming album. A transcriber for the TRC report, Muswagon heard numerous accounts of residential college circumstances, whereas HellnBack noticed the consequences of residential education on his grandmother who, as an aged girl, was so triggered throughout visits from door-to-door evangelical Christians that she pretended to not converse English. “She wasn’t a hateful particular person, however she didn’t need to put up with it any extra,” he says.
So, in contrast to a lot of non-Indigenous Canada and the remainder of the world, the couple was not caught off guard by this summer season’s information. “This may solely worsen as they search extra college websites. All we will do is pray and smudge,” HellnBack says, referring to the ceremony for which Indigenous peoples burn purifying sacred herbs. If these prayers are answered, then “households that had been affected will lastly know, reasonably than having to guess what occurred.”
He additionally takes care to rap about earlier atrocities – the title observe from his 2018 LP, #Fourteen91, describes colonisers bearing smallpox-infested blankets – and these deep dives are additionally a spotlight of Eekwol’s discography. One of many first feminine rappers in Saskatchewan’s small music scene, the MC born Lindsay Knight (of that province’s Muskoday First Nation) has penned songs together with 2004’s Too Sick, which nimbly connects present home violence in Indigenous communities to early colonialism. That music helped her think about “intergenerational trauma” so she may clearly see “that’s why this relative drinks, or this neighbour was abused. As a result of trauma comes out as despair,” she says.
And but she insists these tragedies shouldn’t stifle tales of Indigenous perseverance. As a substitute, Eekwol would reasonably name consideration to a mess of feminine and LGBTQ Indigenous artists’ “highly effective social commentary. It’s not a constructive message, as a result of the detrimental tales are true. However as a substitute of dwelling on that, we’re taking what we will and constructing it right into a type of energy.”
That notion is seconded by T-Rhyme (Tara Campbell), a rapper with Denesuline and Northern Cree roots whom Eekwol has likened to a sister since they banded collectively for tasks equivalent to their 2019 album FWBW. “The main focus doesn’t at all times must be on our trauma, regardless that we’re consistently triggered by the information these days,” T-Rhyme says. “However no person can gaslight us any extra – that is proof that we had been [deliberately] forgotten.” At any time when her mom recounted being taken to a residential college as a baby, and solely being permitted to return for 2 annual holidays, T-Rhyme couldn’t “fathom someone knocking on my door to take my six-year-old son till Christmas, and belief that they’d maintain him. It wasn’t till my children reached that age that I processed what my mother and grandparents went by way of.” She additionally has bother fathoming the current headlines as a result of “these infants ought to have grandchildren of their very own now. However we Indigenous folks which are nonetheless right here elevating our youngsters should maintain combating the nice battle, and never solely course of grief however rejoice resilience.”
FWBW options the uplifting tracks For Girls by Girls, and Revitalize, whose video options “pow wows and ceremonies that present how our individuals are sturdy; that symbolize our Indigenous satisfaction,” says T-Rhyme. One in every of her strongest strains on Revitalize is: “Language is our seed and we’re rising by way of the pavement.”
That is additionally a painfully essential level for T-Rhyme’s good friend and occasional stage-mate Drezus, who raps on Bless: “They need to take my language / That’s an act of battle.” He recollects how his grandmother, who was barred from talking her mom tongue at residential college, “spoke it after I was rising up. But it surely was damaged.” Now he makes certain to finish many social media posts with “Miigwetch!”, which suggests “thanks” in his mom tongue. He additionally captioned a current Instagram picture of him and his little one: “I’ve been hugging my infants additional tight these days. And I low-key want my Kokum” – grandma – “was alive to see the rebellion.” Rapping, he says, allowed him to “take away the layers of psychological well being points, dependancy and self-doubt. Hip-hop gave me this voice, led me to the actual me and my tradition, and gave me the boldness to look deep into myself.”
His rallying cry Warpath caught the eye of Black Eyed Peas’ member Taboo, who invited Drezus to the Standing Rock protests and collaborated with him on Stand Up/Stand N Rock, which gained the Greatest Combat Towards the System trophy on the 2017 MTV Video Music awards. Drezus fondly recollects sitting close to DJ Khaled on the LA ceremony, and watching Cardi B carry out Bodak Yellow. “For a child from Saskatchewan to make all of it the best way to the VMAs? I began tripping.”
One other spotlight was his collaboration with Grammy-winning Indigenous producer David Strickland on his remix of posse minimize Rez Life, a reserve ode initially created by up-and-comers Violent Floor, a duo from the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach within the remoted northern borderlands of Quebec and Labrador. Drezus’s lyrics embrace a reference to being “put in a chokehold” by RCMP officers: the now-sober rapper was inebriated to the purpose of defencelessness when the Mounties stopped him, however “they nonetheless beat my ass. There was clearly extra to it than them simply doing their job”.
Rez Life was not solely cathartic for Drezus, but in addition Strickland (to not point out the music’s different contributors: HellnBack, Joey Stylez, Que Rock and Violent Floor). Born in suburban Toronto, the Mi’kmaw producer and engineer grew to become identified for studio work with Technique Man and Drake (profitable a Grammy as one of many engineers for the latter’s Take Care). After these mainstream successes, he educated his hip-hop expertise on Indigenous tradition, mentoring and supporting lots of the group’s socially aware MCs. His breakthrough was the 2020 compilation Spirit of Hip Hop, with conventional drummers and singers, and lyrics about Indigenous life from a who’s who of the group’s MCs.
“As soon as they begin studying, many non-Indigenous Canadians battle alongside us, as a result of most of them are good folks and don’t need anybody to undergo,” Strickland tells me. He longs for that allyship and activism to be galvanised by the invention of the graves, and for reserves’ lack of key sources to be improved: “How can we enable reserves to should boil their water? Are you able to think about attempting to bathe with that?” He provides that addressing such points will even profit Canada’s world standing now that the residential college graves have made worldwide information.
These current headlines can be addressed on a forthcoming Strickland-helmed observe by Violent Floor. The producer first met brothers Christian and Allan Nabinacaboo – AKA Naskapi9 and Nomadic – when he stopped at their far north reserve on a beat-making workshop tour. Strickland’s assist has been invaluable for the duo who, in keeping with Naskapi9, “didn’t even know you might discover ways to make beats from YouTube” till very lately due to their remoted group’s lack of high-speed web.
“Each time one thing hurts me, I’m going into my little sales space and don’t take into consideration something however my lyrics, and the way I need to categorical that ache,” Nomadic says. And when this summer season’s information about residential faculties made him take into consideration his aunties and uncles who studied at such establishments: “I wrote instantly about how I felt about it in my lyrics.”
Violent Floor’s forthcoming Strickland collaboration is named Conquer. Naskapi9 says it’s the excellent title: “They conquered us earlier than. However now we will conquer any problem.”