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Beat Nation: How Has Hip Hop Affected Aboriginal Culture?
Christian Allaire reviews the Power Plant exhibition from the perspective of an aboriginal youth

Image: ephin.com

The coalescence of aboriginal youth and urban culture–where traditional meets modern–is best apparent in Nicholas Galanin’s “Tsu Heidei Shugaxtutaan.” In the first part of the Sitka artist’s video, a breakdancer twists and glides his body to a ritualistic First Nations chant. In the second, a raven dancer in full regalia slinks to electronic music. Though the two performances could be seen as disrespectful to traditions, they do emphasize a tension between guarding conventions and channeling them into new forms.

“Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture,” on view at The Power Plant gallery until May 5, aims to explore just that: the connection between aboriginal identity and contemporary culture. Curated by Kathleen Ritter, associate curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Tania Willard, a Secwepemc artist, the exhibit features the work of 23 North American artists including paintings, video and fashion design. Though the exhibit focuses on hip hop’s effects on aboriginal youth–the good and bad–it also aims to defy First Nation stereotypes and highlight the different realities they face today.

As an aboriginal youth myself, I found some works, intentionally or not, serve as causes for self-analysis. They ask whether I have deviated too far from my ancestry or, like many others, adapted it in different ways. Duane Linklater’s “Migrations,” a mural of song lyrics including Jay-Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls”–“I got this Indian squaw the day that I met her/She said all you need to know is I’m not a ho/And to get with me you better be Chief Lots-a-Dough”–suggests a negative portrayal of First Nations by the hip hop community, something youth should be more wary of supporting.

Duane Linklater’s “Migrations”

But judging by the lack of anything that’s on my music playlist, the exhibit chooses to forgo the other side of hip hop–the progressive aboriginal artists, like Canada’s own Team Rezofficial. I remember hearing an A Tribe Called Red song for the first time, called “Electric Pow Wow Drum.” In it, the electronic “powwow-step” group fuses a steady traditional drum, syncopated electronic beat, and ceremonial wailing played in unison with a synthetic melody. I didn’t know if I was shocked or offended when I heard it — then it reached over 20 plays in one day and I forgot what I was contemplating.

Newness is supposed to be shocking, and if native culture doesn’t modernize it will forever be bound by its stereotypes. Other works here celebrate this revitalization of aboriginal youth. Sheena Reece’s “Raven: On The Colonial Fleet” displays modernized performance regalia, where a sacred headdress is paired with a black and white Haida-inspired print–done in a corset and skirt–and thigh-high leather boots. On the back of the performance blanket, styled as a sachet, is a dramatic sequined grenade–perhaps an ode to the young aboriginal woman as a “warrior figure” or, likelier, to youth’s increasing rejection of the status quo. That grenade ever triggers my first and only smile.

The exhibit comes at an interesting time when speaking of social change. The aboriginal community is currently at the height of Idle No More, the Canada-wide protest focused primarily on Bill C-45 and its pending changes to the Indian Act. Back in my hometown, cousins and friends even set up road blocks in honour of the protest, or participated in dance circles at the local mall — all minute, but significant, contributions. Though the exhibit makes no reference to the movement–it was installed only at the beginning of it–it is interesting to note that aboriginal youth are largely behind the protest. A protest that advocates exactly for what some works here claim we are against: customs, values.

Bunky Echo-Hawk’s “So Defensive.” Image: beatnation.org
But not everything is so accusatory. A number of works throughout the space represent a more innocent take on urban First Nations youth, such as Jordan Bennett’s “Jilaqami’g no’shoe,” a snowshoe carved into a skateboard to represent native skater culture. Dylan Miner’s “Native Kids Ride Bikes” presents four low-rider bikes arranged in the four colours of the medicine wheel, adorned with furs and feathers and various prints–accentuating both the importance of travel and migration to the First Nations community.

As the culture, and its youth, continues to evolve, each work here also has the potential to take on new meanings. Maria Hupfield’s “Space, Time, Interface,” for instance, presents a wall of silver Mylar emergency blankets, which can now be interpreted as a reference to Attawapiskat. The reserve-in-crisis declared a state of emergency back on October 28, 2011, when many community members were left living in tents and shacks. Yet, as I catch a distorted image of myself in the shiny, mirrored reflection, I wonder whether I am a youth purchasing Jay-Z albums or a youth sporting a sequined grenade on my back. 


Christian Allaire is a Toronto-based writer and former Toronto Standard intern. Follow his tweets here: @chrisjallaire.

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