Modern Native Voices Essay

This was supposed to be for a separate publication, but they didn't want it. So here's to not letting it go to waste!

            On March 21st, 2015, the Penn Museum bore witness to “Modern Native Voices: The Medium of Hip Hop”. Being the first event of its kind at this museum, the University of Pennsylvania had the honor of hosting four talented hip hop artists, each coming from some Indigenous backgrounds – Frank Waln (South Dakota), Def-I (New Mexico), Tall Paul (Minnesota), and Wake Self (New Mexico). During this day of events, attendees got the opportunity to witness spoken word – also featuring Cinnamon Spear (Montana), a two-hour panel – facilitated by myself, and a live concert in the evening – featuring some of the hip hop talent within the UPenn undergraduate community.

            What makes this event so special is something that can be reflected off of my own childhood dreams and experiences. Growing up on and around the various reservations that I resided in on South Dakota, I experienced the very same struggle that this country neglects, rejects, and simultaneously feeds off of. At an early age I began to know poverty and neglect, both at home and in the classroom. While there were many people in my life within both environments who showed me more of a positive and enriching support, it would be wrong to take blind-eye to the negativity that I had experienced. Our histories as Indigenous peoples across the planet is one that has mostly been overlooked, exploited, appropriated, and in many cases simply told falsely. Thus, growing up, there seemed to be this attitude around me that our ways weren’t necessarily wrong or illegal as it once was, but that it was now dying and kind of ridiculous to consider following. Suicides ran rampant, and with people who were supposed to be mentors discouraging kids like me from even applying to a place like Penn, it seemed like there was nothing good to strive for in the world, that none of it was obtainable anyway. This paragraph may seem a little scattered, but given enough research and experience on the reservation, the connections are clearer than you could imagine.

            Persisting through many of these problematic obstacles in my life, I found myself growing attached to music, particularly hip hop. While many depictions of the reservation showed our homes as hopelessly negative, hip hop showed me how to be proud of where I came from both as an individual and as a community member. I learned to translate messages from legends like Tupac Shakur and fit them into the contextual languages of where I resided. I learned to pay attention to every source of information, understanding that I could grab this knowledge and utilize it to articulate my own story, and to relay it to the world via lyrics, poetry, and music. As both a nerd and a hip hop head throughout schooling, the depths of my depressive solitude now found a medicating home within having a way to be heard and having something to listen to simultaneously.

            The beautiful thing about hip hop is that while it is considered a specific genre and a culture, it knows no boundaries as to where it can be utilized as a medium, and this event showed that. Watching the panel and performances, viewers can see and hear desires of equality, respect, love, compassion, expression, and honesty from these artists who come from different parts of the country. They courageously expose their own issues, inner-demons, and problems (both past and present) while pushing for a brighter day for themselves and those around them. They relate to each other and the crowd (including myself) not as a colonial-based categorical box of “Native Hip Hop” artists, but as common people, coming together and addressing the issues at hand whilst aiming to smile and have fun too.

            There are many expectations and stereotypes that come with hip hop, and granted some of these are fulfilled (especially in mainstream media), but looking at this event one can understand the unfortunate fact that this is an all too common feature in many depictions and commercialization of cultures, including those of Indigenous peoples. This event articulated the fact that not all hip hop is the same just as not all Indigenous peoples are the same. That hip hop is neither perfect nor savage just as Indigenous culture is neither perfect nor savage. Through music of today, expression of today, and articulation of today, these artists remove themselves from the sepia-toned portraits. They break down the museum glass and show you who they are as living people of the today, not as stereotypic, dehumanized, intangible objects of the yesterday.

            You see, as a Lakota/Dakota rez kid growing up in South Dakota, I always had trouble having pride in myself, having knowledge of myself. I never knew what it “should” mean to be who I was, nor if I could ever fulfill that aesthetic and perceived being. However, it is this medium, and artists like these, that showed me that it didn’t matter. That I could be proud no matter what. That I should be confident despite societal norms/expectations. This event was the childhood dream I always had, because it is what got me to Penn to study psychology in the first place. It kept a young Talon Ducheneaux sane, encouraging me to sideswipe all the negativity around me concerning this troubling history and the domino effect it had to my close relatives. “Modern Native Voices: The Medium of Hip Hop” showed itself as a day of events celebrating the diversity and persistence of people fusioning cultures and respecting themselves and others for who we all are as individuals and relatives.