When Hip-Hop Came to the Rez

O’siyo. One of our favorite authors and story-tellers Gyasi Ross, describes how Hip-Hop began in Indian Country years ago. He also explains why so many young Natives are still intrigued by the music today. You just might be surprised!

Discussion Questions for this post

Photo: Gawker News.

Photo: Gawker News.

Excerpt: Breakdances With Wolves...By Gyasi Ross

“…The reasons that I went to school in New York City are twofold: 1) good school, and 2) because I romanticized the birthplace of hip-hop since I was a little lad. I just knew that I had to live there at some time in my life. But when I moved from our little Suquamish Reservation to NYC and told friends in NYC why I moved there, they were always shocked—How the heck did you get into hip-hop on the reservation? 

Truth is that, in 2014, if you go to any Indian reservation within the U.S. you’ll find Native youth listening to hip-hop music en masse. You might even find some Native hip-hop artists (more about them later). Now, keep in mind that these are remote locations—hundreds of miles away from any urban centers, in the midst of acres and acres of forests, cows or sheep grazing and farmland—yet, hip-hop has a grasp on the young folks.

I remember the exact moment when Native youth in the most remote parts of the US began to find a strange affinity with young Black and Latino youth in the most densely populated metropolitan areas…we were in remote northern Montana a few miles south of the Canadian border, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. We weren’t completely unfamiliar with western technology—we had a TV, although there was no cable, with two TV stations (and one was in Canada so, y’know, take that for what it was worth). We had a car, a red Pinto that had an amazing ability to fit eight of us into it.

But then, like in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, it came from no place. A wonderful and powerful gift from up above—the Gods!! It required immediate action.The year was 1985—springtime. I think my older cousin Leland Bear Medicine (or maybe it was Julian Many Hides) got the first copy of Beat Street on the rez. Maybe. Both Leland and Julian tended to get stuff first—they were just those types of dudes. Mind you, movies usually didn’t hit the reservation until a good year after they came out mainstream. I now know that breakdancing had been around for a several years before mainstream (white) America got hip and it was several more before we got it on the rez. By then, it’d been around for quite some time. Since Indigenous people invariably come from an oral tradition, the notion of communicating history and/or calls to action via song is very intuitive, and the unabashed activism of the early-90s “Golden Age” of hip-hop makes a lot of sense to many Native people.

As I mentioned earlier, I moved from the Rez to NYC to experience the Mecca of hip-hop. I was also there to attend Columbia Law School. For me, it made perfect sense. Hip-hop’s activist spirit, combined with my family’s ancestral directive to always serve our community, compelled me to go law school.

But this story isn’t just about “breakdancing” or “dressing urban” or going to law school.We related to the hope that shone through the tough circumstances of the inner city. It sounded just like us maintaining hope in our homelands, where, make no mistake, things are harsh.  We embodied every single thing that Melle Mel was talking about in Beat Street Breakdown.

That was us. The struggle was us. Financial deprivation was us—rural as hell, country as hell—yet, something very real in common with poor, urban Black and Latino youth all the way across the country. And, somehow, weirdly, hip-hop became our soundtrack way out in the middle of everywhere.” Read more.

“That was the link, those were the ingredients—music, poverty, young death, and hope despite it all. We related to that. Like Kenny on Beat Street, we worked through the pain and the death and find ways to make life meaningful and better within our reservation communities.”~Melle Mel~Beat Street Breakdown

Native author Gyasi Ross.

Native author Gyasi Ross.

Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and an attorney. He grew up on both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Indian Reservations and continues to work and live within his community. He is the author of two books, How To Say I Love You In Indian and Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways).  He also writes his own column for Indian Country Today Media Network called The Thing About Skins

Discussion Questions for this post

Why did Gyasi go to New York City when he was young?

What year did Gyasi first see the movie Beat Street?

What were the Native social dances called?

According to Gyasi how was Native dancing different from Breakdancing?

Why do Natives relate to Hip-Hop music?


Category: Native Music