Hip-Hop's Aboriginal Connection Beat Nation is a traveling art exhibition that mines the similarities between hip-hop and indigenous culture. It's made a big splash in Canada, where indigenous protest movements have recently captured headlines.

Hip-Hop's Aboriginal Connection

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A new exhibition fusing hip-hop and native culture has become somewhat of an art sensation in Canada. It's called "Beat Nation." More than two dozen artists offer their takes on what it means to be indigenous today. They use beats, graffiti, street smarts and politics to challenge stereotypes. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: "Beat Nation: Hip-Hop as Indigenous Culture" greets you with a red neon glow and a ping-pong of sounds: A dubstep groove thumps, a high-hat skitters, a powwow chant echoes from another room.

MARK LANCTOT: The idea behind hip-hop is the idea of a mix.

SOMMERSTEIN: Mark Lanctot is a curator here at the Musee d'art contemporain in Montreal. He says hip-hop's sonic soup also embodies the diversity of being indigenous today.

LANCTOT: How aboriginal culture isn't a monolithical, single, static entity. It's something that's always changing, that always takes from other cultures.

SOMMERSTEIN: Listen closer to the sounds and you'll hear stories filtered through hip-hop. DJ and VJ madeskimo mixes traditional throat singing with electronic beats and footage of Hollywood Indian stereotypes.


SOMMERSTEIN: In another room, Kevin Lee Burton sliced and diced his endangered Cree language into a sort of rap.

KEVIN LEE BURTON: (Foreign language spoken)

SOMMERSTEIN: Beat Nation began as an online gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2006.

TANIA WILLARD: Waiec - that's a greeting in my language. My squest - my name - is Tanya Willard. I'm from the Secwepemc Nation.

SOMMERSTEIN: Willard co-founded the site and curated the traveling exhibition with Kathleen Ritter. Willard says she first made a connection between native culture and hip-hop when she was 16. She saw break dancers at a traditional powwow.

WILLARD: Hip-hop was just making inroads in mainstream culture and here was this all-native break dance crew - you know, this was 20 plus years ago - who are touring around the powwow circuit.

SOMMERSTEIN: Hip-hop blew up in Vancouver's huge native community in the 1990s and 2000s, spawning one of the early and influential native MCs, Manik 1derful.


SOMMERSTEIN: Tania Willard says the hip-hop beat fits naturally into the indigenous worldview.

WILLARD: We sort of talk about Beat Nation as not just electronic beats but also the drumbeats and the heartbeat.

SOMMERSTEIN: Hip-hop also filtered into native culture as young people left isolated, poverty-stricken territories for Canada's city streets, where things weren't much better. Many shuttled back and forth. And that cycle - known as the churn - is evident in Beat Nation. Skateboards turned into snowshoes are on display, along with turntables carved from wood, and indigenized iPods made of felt. Dylan Miner worked with indigenous youth to make low-rider bicycles - tricked out with painted hides and hand drums. He says a theme running through many pieces in the show is claiming space, like a slow-and-low moving low-rider, backing up traffic and demanding attention.

DYLAN MINER: Ways of asserting what I would say is indigenous presence in the contemporary moment in a way that's letting native people speak for ourselves.

SOMMERSTEIN: That message has been a big one in Canada recently. A year ago, a handful of indigenous women started a movement called Idle No More. The hashtag Idle No More spread virally. Thousands marched to protest poor living conditions and environmental degradation in native territories.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SOMMERSTEIN: Idle No More and Beat Nation are of a piece - assertions of identity and agency, says Geromino Inutiq, aka madeskimo. They tell Canada, hey, we're here and we matter.

GERONIMO INUTIQ: We're not idle anymore, you know. See us in the governments and the institutions and the companies. See us on TV. We're not sitting there idly on our reserves, waiting to die, you know. We're agents of change within society and that's what it means.

SOMMERSTEIN: It's tempting to say Beat Nation represents a new Idle No More generation. But co-curator Tania Willard doesn't see it that way. She says native artists have been mixing, borrowing, and sampling hip-hop style for centuries.

WILLARD: I see Beat Nation as this continuum of innovation that indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of.

SOMMERSTEIN: Beat Nation's had successful runs in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and in Montreal. The show moves on to Halifax in the spring, and this coming summer, Saskatchewan. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein.


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