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This Native American Hip-Hop Trio is Putting Indigenous Music On the Mainstream Map

It’s unlikely that the average U.S. citizen could name a single North American indigenous film or actor, musician or album, book or author (excluding, maybe, Sherman Alexie). But the Canadian-bred hip-hop trio, A Tribe Called Red’s electric powwow (that’s right electric powwow) is putting indigenous beat-makers on the map.

Hailing from Ottawa, the three men known as Bear Witness, DJ NDN, and DJ Shub — aka A Tribe Called Red — originally set out solely to throw a good party, compiling digital dance rhythms and putting together sets at local clubs. But as Bear explains in an interview with PolicyMic, the band sold out their first show and quickly realized they were doing something big — something people had been craving for a long time.

“People in our community owned it so quickly and said ‘this is ours, for us,’ we really started to realize what we had done,” he says. “We had inadvertently created something within the hip-hop environment that all cultures can appreciate, but it’s ours. It reflects who [indigenous people] are and we can own it in a way — we’ve never had that before. We’ve never had something within pop-music or pop-culture that represented us, by us.”

These three stellar DJs have just launched their latest album, Nation II Nation, but it’s their self-titled debut — released in 2012 and available for free download on their website — that got me singing their praises and pushing their music onto everyone in a five mile radius. Their heavy, reverberating drum beats often heard at First Nations gatherings — the distinctive tonal chanting and wide, hollow drumming heard at powwows and celebrations — is remixed and reimagined with throbbing, pulsating electronic tones. It’s the music of throaty, emotive singing and of tradition, and now it’s the music of 21st century dance halls.

The first song I heard from the trio of DJs was “Woodcarver,” which remixes police recordings, broadcast news feed, First Nation drum beats, and ambient sounds to draw attention to the injustice of the 2010 John T. Williams police murder. Williams, a well-known indigenous artist in the Seattle area, was intoxicated and roaming the city streets early one summer evening, a piece of wood and carving knife in his hand. After a police officer repeatedly asked him to “drop his weapon” and Williams failed to comply — for full disclosure he was deaf in one ear — he was fatally shot.

When I heard the song, the recognizable wails and calls of aboriginal music with an overlay of assailant Officer Ian Burke yelling at Williams to drop the knife, I became emotional. I kept thinking of my family, who are members of the Duwamish tribe also in the Seattle area, and of the very real racism and oppression that continues to penetrate the lives of First Nations people. Yes, “Woodcarver” was a political song but as Bear Witness of A Tribe Called Red explains, the very act of native peoples survival is a political act.

“I wake up in the morning and I go to the store a get a coffee, that’s a political act because everything in this society has been done to stop that from happening. The fact that we’re alive and living and thriving now is already a political statement,” Bear said as we talk over the phone; the band was in transit from Chicago to their next gig in Detroit. “Being an aboriginal artist, you can’t ignore the political that comes with it. That’s where we are as a community right now; we can’t just make a pretty song, the politics come with it. You can’t really put away with that.”

Their sophomore release is just as confrontational. Bear, DJ NDN, and DJ Shub released “The Road” in support of the Idle No More movement that’s been galvanizing aboriginal communities in Canada, focusing on sustainable development and better support for indigenous communities often disregarded by the North American governments that displaced them.

A Tribe Called Red’s right hook is their ability to appropriate otherwise problematic and racist imagery and stereotypes of First Nations people, such as repurposing the Jamaican dancehall tune, “Scalp Dem,” which plays up tropes of the vicious and savage “native.” But in the hands of Bear Witness, DJ NDN and DJ Shub — and a little help from now defunct rap group, Das Racist — it’s “Indians From All Directions,” an addictive, modern celebration of indigenaity and an act of decolonization.

“What I like to say even more now is indigenizing them,” Bear says. “You’re taking this imagery, this one-dimensional, racist imagery and changing it, flipping it, sifting through it and finding a way to take the negativity out of it and turn it into something positive, or even empowering, for ourselves.”

But just because these boys don’t shy away from addressing the very real economic and social issues that affect aboriginal peoples, it doesn’t mean they don’t know how to make insanely addictive EDM.

From their debut album, Red Skin Girl, is a remix of a Northern Cree song with thumping, perfectly timed bass drops coupled with vocals full of tonality. The varied pitches have you swaying your body, shimmying your shoulders, and repeating, “Red skin girl, I love you, ah love you all the time.”

The oscillating vocals and hollow intro drum of “Sisters” from Nation II Nation is the perfect lure in, but it’s right after the fade out and the first drop that you can’t stop yourself from moving your hips back and forth. Follow that up with the fast paced, multi-layered, hyperactive “Tanto’s Revenge” and “Sweet Milk Pop,” music perfectly tailored for any strobe-lit, sweaty dance club but with an undeniable “native” twist, and you’ll be ready for your first electric powwow.

“We had created something for our community, but everybody loves it,” Bear says. “It seems to touch everybody in the same place, aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike feel the music.”

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