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‘Nobody can gaslight us’: the rappers confronting Canada’s colonial horrors

After the recent discovery of hundreds of Indigenous children’s unmarked graves at former Canadian residential schools, Drezus – an rapper of Cree and Ojibwe heritage from the Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan province – grew unsure about his longstanding plans to release a new music video, Bless. He starts the song by calling the atrocities his people have faced “an act of war”, then follows that with bar after bar of Indigenous empowerment. Unsure if that would be appropriate while his people grieved, he turned to his mother, who had attended one of those schools. Her advice? “Release it, son. We need it now.”

This government-funded, Christian church-administered boarding school system was established in Canada in the late 1800s. Its founders’ intent: to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their “savage” parents and impose English and Christianity. Some 150,000 Indigenous children attended these schools before the last one closed in 1997. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report detailed nearly 38,000 sexual and physical abuse claims from former residential school students, along with 3,200 documented deaths. The mortality rate for those children was estimated to be up to five times higher than their white counterparts, due to factors including suicide, neglect and disease.

A greater reckoning did not occur until this summer, however, when radar was used to discover over 1,000 children’s unmarked graves at former residential school sites in the provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Seeing such news has often caused Drezus to “break down in the past few weeks, when I look over at my family and think about what those children and their parents went through”. It also prompted him to tweet: “To grow up Native is to grow up grieving. Even when you don’t know you are.”

Born Jeremiah Manitopyes, the 38-year-old rapper also went to a residential school in the village of Lebret from 1996-97, a year before it closed. By then, it was operated not by the church but local Indigenous counsellors, who, he says “were not abusive. They were like our uncles, or big bros.”

And yet Drezus still suffered trauma there during a hazing ritual, when he was among younger boys forced to wear shirts emblazoned with targets before they were chased by the older students. Once caught, they would be stripped and shoved into a lineup in front of the girl’s dormitory. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers and paramedics were at the door, as if “they were standing by, just in case”, he recalls. He adds: “I remember the smile on the RCMP’s face, almost high-fiving me, like, ‘Fun night, huh?’ Everyone acted like it was in good fun. But thinking back now on how messed up it was, I can’t help but wonder: did this tradition come from something evil?”

Drezus says his grandmother’s generation contended with worse. She had to cook elaborate meals for staff, while she and her fellow Indigenous students were fed only porridge soup slop. His mother and uncle, meanwhile, were not permitted to sit next to each other at lunch or play together. “She said it was dead quiet in class all the time, because if a kid spoke, they got a whooping. And speaking their own language was of course taboo.” Drezus sees direct parallels between those conditions and the mental health and addiction issues afflicting young Indigenous people he has worked with across Canada in his hip-hop workshops. “I’ll see these kids turn from a closed-off person to rapping, singing and laughing. A lot of kids are completely shut down when it comes to social expression and being in touch with themselves. Because we lost a lot of that celebration of ourselves in these schools.”

‘We lost a lot’ ... Drezus.
‘We lost a lot’ ... Drezus. Photograph: Blaire Russell/ Courtesy of Dress

Other Indigenous rappers also spoke out on social media immediately after the discovery of the graves. For years, these artists have addressed myriad issues gripping their communities – from rising suicide and imprisonment rates, to the lack of clean drinking water on Indigenous reserves, along with a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, not to mention waves of Indigenous anti-pipeline protests.

One of the scene’s forebears is Karmen Omeasoo, who has rapped as HellnBack for 20 years. The Cree Nation-born, Manitoba-based MC’s latest single Kidney Warrior details his struggles with kidney failure. He aims to raise awareness about the affliction disproportionately affecting Indigenous people in Canada, due to a dearth of affordable healthy food in their communities, among other factors. He and his hand-drummer wife Lisa Muswagon will also address the residential school graves on a forthcoming album. A transcriber for the TRC report, Muswagon heard various accounts of residential school conditions, while HellnBack saw the effects of residential schooling on his grandmother who, as an elderly woman, was so triggered during visits from door-to-door evangelical Christians that she pretended not to speak English. “She wasn’t a hateful person, but she didn’t want to put up with it any more,” he says.

So, unlike much of non-Indigenous Canada and the rest of the world, the couple was not caught off guard by this summer’s news. “This will only get worse as they search more school sites. All we can do is pray and smudge,” HellnBack says, referring to the ceremony for which Indigenous peoples burn purifying sacred herbs. If those prayers are answered, then “families that were affected will finally know, rather than having to guess what happened.”

He also takes care to rap about earlier atrocities – the title track from his 2018 LP, #Fourteen91, describes colonisers bearing smallpox-infested blankets – and these deep dives are also a highlight of Eekwol’s discography. One of the first female rappers in Saskatchewan’s small music scene, the MC born Lindsay Knight (of that province’s Muskoday First Nation) has penned songs including 2004’s Too Sick, which nimbly connects current domestic violence in Indigenous communities to early colonialism. That song helped her consider “intergenerational trauma” so she could clearly see “that’s why this relative drinks, or this neighbour was abused. Because trauma comes out as despair,” she says.

And yet she insists those tragedies shouldn’t stifle stories of Indigenous perseverance. Instead, Eekwol would rather call attention to a multitude of female and LGBTQ Indigenous artists’ “powerful social commentary. It’s not a positive message, because the negative stories are true. But instead of dwelling on that, we are taking what we can and building it into a form of power.”

That notion is seconded by T-Rhyme (Tara Campbell), a rapper with Denesuline and Northern Cree roots whom Eekwol has likened to a sister since they banded together for projects such as their 2019 album FWBW. “The focus doesn’t always need to be on our trauma, even though we are constantly triggered by the news lately,” T-Rhyme says. “But nobody can gaslight us any more – this is proof that we were [deliberately] forgotten.” Whenever her mother recounted being taken to a residential school as a child, and only being permitted to return for two annual holidays, T-Rhyme couldn’t “fathom somebody knocking on my door to take my six-year-old son until Christmas, and trust that they’d take care of him. It wasn’t until my kids reached that age that I processed what my mom and grandparents went through.” She also has trouble fathoming the recent headlines because “those babies should have grandchildren of their own now. But we Indigenous people that are still here raising our children have to keep fighting the good fight, and not only process grief but celebrate resilience.”

FWBW features the uplifting tracks For Women by Women, and Revitalize, whose video features “pow wows and ceremonies that show how our people are strong; that represent our Indigenous pride,” says T-Rhyme. One of her most powerful lines on Revitalize is: “Language is our seed and we’re growing through the pavement.”

Drezus returning to the residential school he attended as a boy.
Drezus returning to the residential school he attended as a boy. Photograph: James Burns

This is also a painfully crucial point for T-Rhyme’s friend and occasional stage-mate Drezus, who raps on Bless: “They want to take my language / That’s an act of war.” He recalls how his grandmother, who was barred from speaking her mother tongue at residential school, “spoke it when I was growing up. But it was broken.” Now he makes sure to end many social media posts with “Miigwetch!”, which means “thank you” in his mother tongue. He also captioned a recent Instagram photo of him and his child: “I have been hugging my babies extra tight lately. And I low-key wish my Kokum” – grandma – “was alive to see the uprising.” Rapping, he says, allowed him to “remove the layers of mental health issues, addiction and self-doubt. Hip-hop gave me this voice, led me to the real me and my culture, and gave me the confidence to look deep into myself.”

His rallying cry Warpath caught the attention of Black Eyed Peas’ member Taboo, who invited Drezus to the Standing Rock protests and collaborated with him on Stand Up/Stand N Rock, which won the Best Fight Against the System trophy at the 2017 MTV Video Music awards. Drezus fondly recalls sitting near DJ Khaled at the LA ceremony, and watching Cardi B perform Bodak Yellow. “For a kid from Saskatchewan to make it all the way to the VMAs? I started tripping.”

David Strickland.
David Strickland. Photograph: Courtesy: David Strickland

Another highlight was his collaboration with Grammy-winning Indigenous producer David Strickland on his remix of posse cut Rez Life, a reserve ode originally created by up-and-comers Violent Ground, a duo from the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach in the isolated northern borderlands of Quebec and Labrador. Drezus’s lyrics include a reference to being “put in a chokehold” by RCMP officers: the now-sober rapper was inebriated to the point of defencelessness when the Mounties stopped him, but “they still beat my ass. There was obviously more to it than them just doing their job”.

Rez Life was not only cathartic for Drezus, but also Strickland (not to mention the song’s other contributors: HellnBack, Joey Stylez, Que Rock and Violent Ground). Born in suburban Toronto, the Mi’kmaw producer and engineer became known for studio work with Method Man and Drake (winning a Grammy as one of the engineers for the latter’s Take Care). After those mainstream successes, he trained his hip-hop skills on Indigenous culture, mentoring and supporting many of the community’s socially conscious MCs. His breakthrough was the 2020 compilation Spirit of Hip Hop, with traditional drummers and singers, and lyrics about Indigenous life from a who’s who of the community’s MCs.

“Once they start learning, many non-Indigenous Canadians fight alongside us, because most of them are good people and don’t want anyone to suffer,” Strickland tells me. He longs for that allyship and activism to be galvanised by the discovery of the graves, and for reserves’ lack of key resources to be improved: “How can we allow reserves to have to boil their water? Can you imagine trying to shower with that?” He adds that addressing such issues will also benefit Canada’s global standing now that the residential school graves have made international news.

Violent Ground: Christian Nabinacaboo, AKA Naskapi9 (left) and Allan Nabinacaboo, AKA Nomadic.
Violent Ground: Christian Nabinacaboo, AKA Naskapi9 (left) and Allan Nabinacaboo, AKA Nomadic. Photograph: Carlos Guerra

Those recent headlines will be addressed on a forthcoming Strickland-helmed track by Violent Ground. The producer first met brothers Christian and Allan Nabinacaboo – AKA Naskapi9 and Nomadic – when he stopped at their far north reserve on a beat-making workshop tour. Strickland’s support has been invaluable for the duo who, according to Naskapi9, “didn’t even know you could learn how to make beats from YouTube” until very recently because of their isolated community’s lack of high-speed internet.

“Every time something hurts me, I go into my little booth and don’t think about anything but my lyrics, and how I want to express that pain,” Nomadic says. And when this summer’s news about residential schools made him think about his aunties and uncles who studied at such institutions: “I wrote right away about how I felt about it in my lyrics.”

Violent Ground’s forthcoming Strickland collaboration is called Conquer. Naskapi9 says it is the perfect title: “They conquered us before. But now we can conquer any challenge.”

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