Photo by: Lindsay Knight
It’s a cloudy, grey day in August in Regina’s Victoria Park, the Regina Folk Festival is in full swing and the beat pulses beyond the clusters of elms, echoing off office buildings and suffusing the downtown core with life.
About 75 music aficionados are seated on the lawn listening to the Breaking the Sound Barrier workshop—a showcase for multicultural artists around the world to share and compare their experience. Mihirangi, a Maori singer from New Zealand, is first up: “From the bottom of my heart, I’d like to acknowledge First Nations people, the custodians of the land that we are on.” She launches into “Slave”, a condemnation of colonialism and its brutal treatment of Indigenous women.
Then Eekwol, a.k.a Lindsay Knight, a First Nations University of Canada graduate and hip hop artist, takes the microphone. “In my mind, we’re all multicultural. I think it’s important to represent that and be proud of that. It’s what we have to be in order to be a progressive society.” Accompanied by her brother Mils and the other workshop participants, Eekwol’s first song is “That’s Just Me.”
“It doesn’t take a genius to see the situation. Oppression, class systems control of the nation, We want to be equal, but it just don’t cut it All my good people, it’s time to rise above it…” Charity Marsh, an ethnomusicologist and professor in the University of Regina’s Faculty of Fine Arts is in the middle of the crowd, swaying to the rhythm. Marsh was recently appointed as the University’s ninth Canada Research Chair (CRC), Tier 2 in Interactive Media and Performance.
Marsh has received more than $600,000 from the CRC and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and over $300,000 from the province’s Science and Innovation Fund to conduct research in three areas: Canadian Aboriginal hip hop culture; DJ culture including electronic dance music culture, community radio, and online DJ cultures; and the production and performance of music in Western and Northern Canada.
Eekwol is an artist who figures prominently in Marsh’s research. Marsh marvels at the dynamism and magnetism of her presentation. “Eekwol tells stories on stage,” Marsh says. “What informs her performance is surroundings—her community, her experiences, and her history. What her and her brother Mils are doing is incredibly important. There is something going on in hip hop that isn’t being taken up in other public discourse.”
Often referred to as a lifestyle as well as a musical form, hip hop is pervasive in modern pop culture. Although its genesis is tied to the South Bronx in New York during the mid- to late 1970s, hip hop draws from many past music and expressive cultures. Marsh says, “Despite the controversy surrounding its birth, hip hop signalled a new form of cultural expression for disenfranchised African-American and Latino youth (particularly for young men) during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The rhymes told complex stories concerning lived experiences of racism, poverty, and violence as well as highlighting the importance of community, resistance, and reclamation of public space.” Although the public may be more familiar with the current commercial brand of hip hop performed by artists such as 50 Cent and Kanye West, Marsh is interested in underground and politically conscious hip hop, which although changed, often retains its activist and communal roots.
“People, especially young people, are drawn to hip hop— there’s so many aspects to the culture,” says Marsh. “You don’t have to be a musician. Maybe you’re a graffiti artist, or you’re a break dancer, or you make rhymes, or you want to be on the turntable or make beats on your computer, or even just be in the audience. Hip hop can be about making a difference, about engaging with social and cultural issues that aren’t being talked about in the political realm.”
Eekwol, who graduated from First Nations University of Canada in 2004 with a degree in Indigenous Studies, views her music and lifestyle as inseparable in her support of Indigenous culture and rights. “I’m inspired by people who stand up and take action for what they believe in for the good of their people, like Leonard Pelletier, Malcolm X, Vine Deloria Sr. and Jr., Alfred Taiake and so many young people who are starting to speak about correcting and creating an awareness of history.”
She is a proud indie artist. Along with her brother Mils, she owns her own record and production and distribution company. Eekwol’s wry, relaxed manner comes from hard-earned experience. “I’m all about honesty. I grew up in an environment where people didn’t talk about problems even though there were huge elephants in the room. I grew up around addictions. To survive that you have to be honest with yourself.” Marsh notes that Eekwol is an important bridge between indigenous and hip hop culture: “Traditional indigenous musics have historically played an essential role in the preservation of identity for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. And yet, today many Canadian Aboriginal youth living in the Prairie provinces are turning toward contemporary arts practices, such as hip hop culture, as a way to express presentday lived experiences.”
Eekwol takes pride in her hip hop and Indigenous roots, drawing on a number of “traditional” signifiers, for example on her first album she is joined on some tracks by round dance singer Marc Longjohn. Brett Cyr BA’00 from Pasqua First Nation has a BA in Anthropology and Indian Studies and is returning to the U of R to finish his MA in Social Studies. When he’s not working, he makes hip hop music and videos. He first saw Eekwol at the 2004 First Nations Hip Hop Festival.
“Eekwol’s music has power to educate and move people because a lot of First Nations and non-Aboriginal people are listening. She’s indie and does her own thing. A charismatic rapper has the authority to educate and to move.” Eekwol is an anomaly on any music scene. She wonders, “Is it because I write good lyrics or is it because I’m female and Indigenous, filling a category no one else is occupying at the moment.” However, success at home has proved elusive. “There’s a saying that musicians have: ‘You’ll always get more love everywhere else first before you get love from home.’ It started that way for me, however it’s starting to shift.” Eekwol is currently more popular overseas than at home, selling more CDs in Australia and Japan than in Canada.
A world tour is in the planning stages. One of the reasons hip hop is so omnipresent is its adaptability. It is indeed a global music culture. Elements of hip hop have been fused with many other styles of music— the samba and the Senegalese mbalax rhythm, for example. In her work Marsh draws on Australian sociologist Tony Mitchell’s observation that hip hop is a “vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identity all over the world”.
Marsh explains, “Hip hop was born out of a place of struggle. Now there’s new musical elements and new cultural forms arising because of how people from all over the world are appropriating and adapting the culture to suit local contexts.” Hip hop is performed in Africa, China, Korea, Australia, the UK and France. “The culture of hip hop and its music changes depending on who is creating it, who’s listening to it and in what context it is being performed,” she adds. Does underground hip hop have the power to effect social change? Australia in particular is a hotbed of political action. Hip hop collectives concerned about the environment stage demonstrations at mine sites. There are also protests around native land claims and sovereignty issues.
Nick Keys writes on the Australian website theage.com.au that hip hop activists like the Elefant Traks collective have altered the tone of political discourse in society. “The political organization of Elefant Traks is fundamentally much more radical politically than a group or person (say like a Bono type) signed to a major label and doing a sort of guilt-purging 'protest song'”. But there’s more to hip hop than just lyrics. The beat is crucial and can take the form of a percussion track sampled from a different song. It can be manufactured on a computer or drum machine, or made by a DJ manipulating a turntable.
As part of her CRC research, Marsh plans to develop an interactive media and performance lab on campus. “One component will be a DJ workshop studio space with decks, mixers, speakers, mics, headphones. It will be a place for folks to learn how to DJ using vinyl, cds, and mp3s. The other component of the lab will consist of an ethnomusicology and beat-making lab, as well as a place for grad students and postdoctoral fellows to research.”
Marsh hopes that this aspect of her research will help connect the University with the larger urban community. She cites the success of Common Weal’s Prairie Roots Project, which brought youth from all over Saskatchewan together to participate in classes and workshops with established hip hop artists. As well the introduction of hip hop and breakdancing as extracurricular activities at Robert Usher Collegiate has proved successful in helping some high school students attend and stay focused on school. Hip hop tracks are relatively easy to produce because the production technology is affordable and fairly accessible, at times, even through community arts organization programs.
DIY or “do it yourself” culture is key with hip hop. Eekwol concurs. “We have industry-standard recording equipment that can be used anywhere. We’ve recorded in hotel rooms. Thanks to technology, it’s easier for broke artists to collaborate and create high-quality music. We produce albums on a small budget that are comparable to what you hear on the radio.” So you’re an independent artist with not much money for promotion.
How do you get the word out? Artists may be isolated, but it’s easy to connect to a worldwide audience using social networking websites such as MySpace.com, one of the top five visited websites on the planet. “It’s a new way of being introduced to music,” Marsh explains. “It’s a great tool for musicians to market and promote themselves. People can download and buy music directly off the site. I can also start at Eekwol’s site and then look through her ‘friends’ to see other musicians that she’s connected to and respects—people that I never might have found except through this process.
Then I go to their site and find other new artists. It’s a great way to support independent musicians. It’s a virtual community of people creating new musical communities.” Eekwol adds, “MySpace is essential nowadays for promotion. I don’t even have a website anymore because it makes more sense to redirect your URL to MySpace. I get way more hits and sell more CDs that way.” It’s now mid-afternoon at the festival and the sun finally appears. Eekwol and Mils are in the middle of performing “Move”—a call to political action, an exhortation to dance. The crowd needs no invitation, and who knows how far these beats will travel.