Among First Nations Youth, Hip-Hop Is a Tool for Self-Expression and Cultural Preservation*
By Eduardo Avila
Young people from First Nations communities across Canada are reflecting on issues that are important to them through hip-hop, thanks to a series of travelling workshops.
As part of the N’we Jinan tour, workshops leaders have been taking mobile music studios directly to schools and youth centers to teach songwriting, recording, audio and video production, and live performance to youth groups since 2014.
The original workshops were led by David Hodges, a Montreal-based educator, who worked with 10 Cree communities in Northern Quebec, and later started to collaborate with the Cree hip-hop group The NorthStars. The workshop model starts off with conversations with the young attendees to explore topics such as “cultural identity, language, struggle, love, self-acceptance,” or whatever else is on their mind. They then use these issues as inspiration for songs and videos, with the youth in starring roles. Due to the workshops’ popularity, the team also has been working with other First Nations communities in British Columbia, and was invited to organize a similar workshop with the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska in the United States.
For example, this video from the ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum First Nation, British Columbia, tells the story of the Highway 16 or the “Highway of Tears,” a stretch of road in Western Canada where almost two dozen young women, mostly indigenous, have disappeared or have been murdered. The cases mostly remain unsolved.
This next video from Nemaska Cree First Nation uses a video game theme to communicate the importance of maintaining traditional customs and practices despite globalization’s influences.
And while there are varying degrees of First Nations language fluency among the youth that participate, many of the song titles are in the native language. In this song recorded in Whapmagoostui Cree First Nation, the song’s chorus is sung in the Cree language. The young people involved received some help from Gary Jolly from the Northstars hip-hip group, who lent them a verse in Eastern James Bay Cree.
On the N’we Jinan Facebook Page, a transcription of the verse was provided, along with the English-language translation:
Sometimes I feel like no ever cares about me,
but I’m still going to try to continue to walk my days on earth
this is the day you’ll hear our scream,
cause we lost our way in life as youth
but I believe that one day we will rise
I don’t want to see them live a bad life
so they can grow and lead our youth as well
so they can do as the creator destined them to
Within the same comments section, reader and Cree-language advocate Kevin Broussard also made a contribution of the transcription of the verse using the syllabics writing system (also published on his blog and republished with permission):
ᒬᐦᒡ ᐁᑳ ᒥᑐᓐ ᐁ ᐱᓯᔅᑳᑎᑲᐎᔮᓐ ᐁ ᐃᑌᔨᐦᑕᒫᓐ
ᓲᐦᒃ ᒫᒃ ᓂᑲ ᑯᒋᐦᑖᓐ ᐆᑕᐦ ᐊᔅᒌᐦᒡ ᒉ ᐱᒧᐦᑌᔮᓐ
ᐊᓄᐦᒌᔥ ᒋᑲ ᐯᐦᑕᐎᓈᐙᐤ ᐁ ᐊᔮᔑᐦᑴᔮᐦᒡ
ᒬᐦᒡ ᐊᓐᑌ ᐁ ᐗᓂᔑᓂᔮᐦᒡ ᑖᓐ ᐁᔑᓈᑯᓯᔮᐦᒡ ᐁ ᐅᔥᒋᓃᒌᐎᔮᐦᒡ
ᒥᒄ ᓂᑖᐺᐦᑌᓐ ᐯᔭᑯ ᒌᔑᑳᐤ ᒉ ᐸᓯᑰᑣᐤ
ᒨᔾ ᓂᐐ ᐙᐸᐦᑌᓐ ᓇᑕᐐᔾ ᐁ ᐃᔑ ᐱᒫᑎᓰᑣᐤ
ᒉ ᓂᐦᑖᐎᒋᑣᐤ ᐁ ᓃᑳᓂᔥᑲᐙᑣᐤ ᐅᔥᒋᓃᒋᐤᐦ ᑲᔦ ᐐᔭᐙᐤ
ᒉ ᑑᑕᐦᒀᐤ ᑖᓐ ᑳ ᐃᑕᔓᒥᑯᑣ ᒋᔐᒪᓂᑑᐦ
It was difficult to choose just three videos to feature that showcase the creativity of these First Nations communities. All of the songs from the project can be found on the N’we Jinan YouTube channel. Five compilation CDs from the various workshops have also been released.