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Rapping out of the box: American Indian artists join in hip-hop event

Amer Ahmed, a longtime board member at the Hip Hop Congress, found the concept of American Indian hip-hop strikingly unfamiliar. Last November, Ahmed, director of intercultural affairs at Concordia College in Moorhead, was organizing the first Mi...

Brian Frejo

Amer Ahmed, a longtime board member at the Hip Hop Congress, found the concept of American Indian hip-hop strikingly unfamiliar.

Last November, Ahmed, director of intercultural affairs at Concordia College in Moorhead, was organizing the first Minnesota summit of the international hip-hop grassroots network. That's when he heard from Alyssa Macy, an American Indian activist in the Twin Cities, who suggested he lure native acts from in Minnesota, the Dakotas and beyond.

"It had never crossed my mind before I met Alyssa that there is a significant constituency of native hip-hop artists," says Ahmed. "I found it to be extremely inspiring."

This weekend's summit at Concordia will be the first time native artists get involved with the Congress. The network was launched in California in 1993. It's goal is to clean up hip-hop's bad-boy image and harness the music for youth empowerment.

On Saturday night, Culture Shock Camp, an Oklahoma-based Pawnee hip-hop duo, will jam with Proof (a member of the group D12, which has recorded with Eminem), The Bedouin, The C.O.R.E and other acts.

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During the day Saturday, South Dakotans Gabriel Night Shield and Maniac the Siouxpernatural will join the duo on a panel titled "Native Hip Hop in the United States."

The events are a sign of native hip-hop artists' claim to mainstream recognition - and the mainstream's increasing willingness to take notice.

Ahmed says the Congress and native hip-hop are a natural fit: "Hip-hop has traditionally been a culture and a voice for those who are often overlooked and ignored in society."

Although American Indian hip-hop ranks have grown over the past decade, they've been mostly overlooked by the music establishment.

"We haven't had a native artist cross over into the mainstream and blow up yet," says Macy, who grew up on the Warm Springs reservation in central Oregon listening to Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and watching her peers break dance. "We're still waiting for someone to be an MTV-type thing."

Night Shield, who grew up on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation and now lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., says native artists are boxed in by mainstream expectations and stereotypes.

"I'm just a native in hip-hop, not somebody who makes native hip-hop," he says. "My goal is for somebody in New York to be able to listen to my music."

Indeed, even the tiny sample of Congress guest acts speak to the diversity of the native hip-hop scene. Culture Shock Camp, with antidrug and native pride activist Brian Frejo at the helm, makes music that's unapologetically political.

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Their hopeful, celebratory version of John Denver's trademark "Country Roads" tweaks the lyrics to say "Native America is where I'm from." The angry, strident "I Am My Ancestors" blends high-energy rapping - "I'm tired of it being OK for you to make fun of my culture" - traditional chanting, and oral-history recordings of elders bemoaning the mainstream's assault on native culture.

Night Shield, on the other hand, stays away from political messages, with slick, meticulously layered songs about love, breakups and clubbing.

He says native hip-hop artists are slowly starting to break out of the box. He just returned from a national "Hip Hop Goes Native" event at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, with a live performance by native rap star Shadowyze and a panel on the connections between native and black cultures.

Night Shield recalls the bewilderment of black and white rappers at a recent Lawrence, Kan., show - "They'd never seen a native artist before" - and their warm reception once they heard his music.

But what's even more important, says Macy, is the resonance the music of these artists has with young American Indians, who readily pick up on its antidrug and pro-cultural identity messages.

"They have an authenticity with young people," Ahmed says. "If it's only morals and values, and it's not authentic, young people will see through that, and they won't listen."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

If you go

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- What: Hip Hop Congress Minnesota Summit

- When: Friday through Sunday

- Where: Concordia College, Moorhead

- Info: Registration fee $25, admission to Friday's Midwest Hip Hop Jam $15. (218) 299-3872

- Online: Related Web sites: www.hiphopcongress.com , www.cultureshockcamp.com

Brian Frejo

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