Music of resistance: First Nations hip-hop

Words: Jack Bennett

In Canada, music has formed the basis of First Nations communities’ popular resistance since the colonial period. From the 1970s onward, there was a process of reclaiming, reinventing and rearticulating native culture alongside African-American rooted hip-hop music and culture. Popular music since has become a space for developing counter discourses, and for forming a collective socio-political consciousness. 

From the extermination of buffalo to railway incursions, epidemics and colonial law, the First Nations of Canada (the predominant Indigenous group) have been subjected to appalling violence. These trends continued well into the latter stages of the 20th century: government policies aimed at legal and cultural assimilation, seeking to subjugate Indigenous lifeways and traditions to European (or white Canadian) cultural values and institutions. These policies included the ‘residential school’ system, which removed Indigenous children from their families, and the outlawing of First Nations religions, languages and cultural practices. It wasn’t until 1960 that First Nations peoples were granted the right to vote. 

Since 2008, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has brought about better political representation and enabled negotiation with government authorities at both Provincial and Federal levels. Nevertheless, issues persist. According to the Canadian Office of the Correctional Investigator, more than 30% of inmates in Canadian prisons are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up just 5% of the country’s population. Statistics Canada records a suicide rate among Indigenous peoples three times higher than the national average. 

Hip-hop, meanwhile, is steeped in its own history of cultural and political signification. The use of extra-musical elements like samples and narration gives the genre an adaptability that suits it to socio-political commentary. It’s rooted in Black resistance and struggle, with the genre’s blossoming in the 1980s an echo of the cultural and political changes of the 60s, as well as a direct response to the political landscape of conservative neoliberalism. 

Hip-hop is rooted in Black resistance, with the genre’s blossoming in the 1980s an echo of the cultural and political changes of the 60s, as well as a direct response to the political landscape of conservative neoliberalism.

To position the development of politics-infused First Nations hip-hop in the musical landscape of Canada, it’s important to consider the decisive nature of a law introduced in 1972. The passage of ‘Canadian Content’ and institutionalisation of the MALP (Music, Artist, Lyric, Performance) system was a turning point in the domestic music industry. Under Canadian Content, radio and TV broadcasters were required to air a percentage of content that was written, produced, presented or otherwise contributed to by Canadians. For radio, the standard was 25%, upped to 30% in the 1980s and 35% in 1999. It currently stands at 40%. When Canadian hip-hop artists emerged, the legal framework afforded them substantial airtime in their own country without having to first break the American market. 

Canadian hip-hop drew upon both British and Commonwealth – particularly Afro-Caribbean – influences, both lyrically and in terms of touring and distribution. Lyrics appeared both in Quebecois and Haitian French. 

1989 to 1991 was the first period of considerable domestic popularity, with glimmers of international outreach. Early mainstream artists included Devon, Maestro Fresh-Wes (Canada’s MC Hammer), and the Dream Warriors: Fresh-Wes was the first Canadian hip hop artist to break into the Top 40 and the Billboard 100 with 1989’s ‘Let Your Backbone Slide’. 

The Indigenous break into the mainstream came later, with Team Rezofficial. The group, primarily of Cree heritage, formed in 2003 and released ‘Lonely’ in 2009, which became the first track from a First Nations group to chart in the Top 10 of MuchMusic’s national ‘Rap City’ show. The collective included Drezus Warpath, who’s since gone on to a successful solo career. Other notable First Nations artists included Kinnie Starr, Eekwol, Winnipeg’s Most, Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red. 

A Tribe Called Red, particularly, draw on the cultural heritage of Pow-Wow, a gathering of Indigenous people which developed a new significance when proscribed by the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Tribe Called Red are known for their distinctive style of ‘Pow-Wow step’, carving out an urban Pow-Wow space for First Nations youth and the continuation – albeit in an adapted form – of traditional cultural practices. 

The active incorporation of cultural practices has been aided by dedicated TV and radio platforms for modern First Nations culture, like the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, which was founded in 1992 and granted a national license seven years later. First Nations hip-hop gained mainstream airtime and became an important public outlet for First Nations people, particularly in terms of language and dress, while linking into youth identity. The genre was also incorporated into programs focused on education and crime reduction: First Nations hip-hop music videos usually deliberately exclude the motifs of violence associated with hip-hop culture in the US. 

The continuing development of First Nations hip-hop provides a pivotal platform for the building of a modern identity around traditions that faced and overcame attempts at extinction. It is an example of a positive fusion of the realities of oppression in the modern world with heritage and history, securing future longevity for that heritage, and maintaining ancient traditions of collective creative expression.

learn more

  • ARTICLE: ‘Hip-hop and the global imprint of a black cultural form’ – Marcyliena Morgan and Dionne Bennett in Daedalus
  • ARTICLE: ‘From civil rights to hip-hop: towards a nexus of ideas’ – Derrik P Aldridge in The Journal of African American History
  • ARTICLE: ‘Hip-hop in Te Reo Māori by a Pākehā: Does Maitreya Provide Inspiration for Other New Zealanders?’ – Tony Mitchell in Sites: New Series

Jack Bennett is currently a History undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a columnist for the Retrospect Journal and an online journalist for TLDR News. Follow him on Twitter.