Think "hip-hop," and the first image that flashes into mind most likely isn’t raps thrown down on the rez. But if hip-hop’s the ultimate in urban grassroots expression – the voice of the street, of empowerment over poverty and lack of opportunity – it’s also the logical voice of choice on Native American reservations, where education is poorer, jobs are fewer and addiction rates are demonstrably higher than just about any other place in the country.
Native American hip-hop has become a sufficiently significant force that the Autry National Center and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are jointly sponsoring an event exploring its cultural ramifications and musical import. Among the questions they want to raise are whether and why hip-hop is embraced by the urban Native American population as enthusiastically as it is by reservation communities.
"There are lots of positive hip-hop groups out there in both the native world and the non-native world," points out Autry spokesman Scott Kranz, "but it also comes with some baggage. Some people hear ‘hip-hop’ or ‘rap’ and immediately think ‘gangster’ and all the bad things that are associated with it – that it’s misogynist, that it’s a drug culture, that it’s involved with gangs.
"Here’s an art form that sprang forth from the African-American community," continues Kranz, "but many other cultures, including the Native-American community, have really begun to own hip-hop and put their own cultural stamp on it. It’s been a fairly controversial occurrence."
This Sunday, Texas-born, Florida-based rapper Shadowyze (pronounced Shadow-wise) will give a half-hour performance at the Autry that, despite the parental-warning stickers on his "Spirit Warrior" and "World of Illusions" CDs, will be tailored for an all-ages audience. Like a lot of his mainstream contemporaries, Shadowyze (born Shawn Enfinger) infuses his raps with funk and techno. Unlike them, he finds inspiration and source material in his mixed ancestry (Creek Indian and European) as well as his anthropological studies and excursions to Chiapas, Mexico, and South America to work on behalf of Mayan Indians. Human rights, freedom, corporate malfeasance and pollution are among his favorite topics, so even his PG-rated raps promise to be blunt.
Afterward, Shadowyze will participate in a panel addressing the issue of race and the intersection of Native American and African-American communities through hip-hop. Other panelists will include Lakota dancer JR LaPlante; Ben Caldwell, who runs a hip-hop open mic project in Leimart Park; Cindi Alvitre, a member of the Gabrielino-Tongva Nation who’s also a consultant to the Autry; and moderator Carolyn Dunn from KPFK.