Loops, Dance-Offs and Ojibwe Verse: Native Creators Remix Old And New

Paul Wendell Jr.

Photo courtesy of Paul Wendell Jr.

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Gichi-manido wiidookawishin ji-mashkawiziyaan
(Great Spirit help me to be strong)

Mii dash bami'idiziyaan
(So that I can help myself)

Miizhishinaam zaagi'iiwewin
(Show us all love)

Ganoozh ishinaam, bizindaw ishinaam
(Talk to us, hear us)

Mii-wenji nagamoyaan
(That is why I am singing)

Nimishomis wiidookawishinaam ji-aabajitooyaang anishinaabe izhitwaawin
(Grand father help us to use the Anishinaabe customs)

Mii-ji-bi-gikendamaan keyaa anishinaabe bimaadiziwin
(So that we'll know how to live the Anishinaabe way/the good life)

Before I met rapper Tall Paul (Ojibwe), I hadn't heard much about contemporary Native American music, and certainly not hip-hop. Sure flutes and drums and chanting, but not the stuff he gave me to listen to. Tall Paul gave me a remedial education in Native American hip-hop in the form of a YouTube playlist. And then Jamie Figueroa (Boricua/Afro-Taíno), Assistant to MFA Creative Writing Director at the Institute of American Indian Arts, followed suit with YouTube playlists of Native American electronica, indie, pop, and experimental music. Once I started listening, I was blown away. I have what I thought was a fairly eclectic collection of music on my digital Spotify shelves—how had I missed this?:

  • Contemporary Inuit throat singing.
  • Dance-offs between reservation and urban Indians.
  • A looper in a full headdress.
  • Beautiful multi-language pop.
  • Ethereal electronica.
  • Angry rap that holds up to anything from LA in the 90s.
  • I almost forgot mention a group who blend hip hopreggae, and dubstep with elements of Native music called A Tribe Called Red. This A Tribe Called Red’s video left me speechless.

But the impact for me is small compared to the impact this work has on its creators.

Consider Tall Paul. He told me that he grew up in Minnesota without much connection to his heritage or native language. He started learning Ojibwe in college, and now flows seamlessly between English and Ojibwe in his rapping as a method of re-learning and reclaiming his native language. He sees hip-hop as a path to reconnecting young Native American kids to their roots.

“I feel like it uplifts so many people, it’s almost like a universal language. Hip-hop is a culture, not just a genre. And it is really an empowering culture that connects so many people and makes so many people want to fit in with it. It gives Native Americans something to look at."

If you’ve yet to experience Native American hip-hop or other forms of contemporary Native American music, start here. To save you some time, I’ve collected a by-no-means-exhaustive list of what I found. I am sure lots of great music is missing, but this is a start.