Rap connects Black and Indigenous communities

Grandmaster Melle Mel

In 1991 the godfather of Canadian hip-hop, Maestro Fresh Wes, released the critical song “Nothin’ at All.” The fiery track explored the parallels of how systemic racism affected both Black and Indigenous communities:

Listen, I want an explanation,

Why are Mohawks being kicked out of their reservations?

And being put in misery,

You’re stealing the land to create sporting facilities.

The Native man of the land is who you’re killing,

And then got the nerve to celebrate Thanksgiving,

Claiming every man is equal,

I hate to see what y’all got planned for my people.

DJ Shub (left), Shad (middle) and Mamarudegyal MTHC (right)

Since hip-hop’s early years, Black and Indigenous musicians have used their music as a way to spotlight inequality. One of hip-hop’s early trailblazers was Black and Cherokee MC Grandmaster Melle Mel, a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The American rapper penned socially conscious songs about marginalization, including one of the genre’s most influential tracks, “The Message.”

“If you go all the way back to ‘The Message’ [by] Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, they were talking about what was going on in New York at the time and in certain neighbourhoods that were just left to rot, really, and talking about it in this direct, really frank way that I’m not sure music had really seen before,” says Shad.

Although Maestro, Michie Mee, Dream Warriors and other Black artists were some of the first to find success in Canadian hip-hop, Indigenous artists such as Kinnie Starr, War Party and Rez Official were also making waves when the genre started to gain momentum in the country during the ’90s. They each released candid songs tackling similar themes of racism, injustice and more.

Grandmaster Melle Mel

In 2019, Mamarudegyal MTHC explored these connections between Black and Indigenous musicians in The Foundation: Indigenous Hip-Hop in Canada, a documentary that analyzed the rise of Indigenous rappers.

“We have the drum and we have the DJ, we have MCs, we have storytellers, we have the break dancers and the fancy dancers and the powwow dancers, and so there’s quite a bit of parallel,” she says of the cultural similarities.

Black and Indigenous rapper Boslen also says the shared connection between the two communities is “as real as possible.”

“Specifically Black and Indigenous people, they’ve been fighting [for equal rights] a lot of their lives,” he says, adding that it’s natural for them to come together to make powerful music.

In 2020, Mohawk DJ and producer DJ Shub collaborated with rapper Phoenix Pagliacci on the impassioned track “The Social,” which details the ongoing trauma in both Black and Indigenous communities. Some verses speak directly to the repercussions of colonialism and others detail the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, with Pagliacci spitting scorching lyrics that apply to both groups.

After explaining the concept of a social to Pagliacci — Indigenous communities gathering to have fun, spend time together and check in on each other — Shub says she found “all the similarities about looking out for the community and what we need to do to keep our communities safe” and began writing the words.

“When the Indigenous and the Black communities come together, I think it’s a beautiful thing because … you can see the history of Canada through the stories of both of our people,” he adds. “I just think it’s very important that things like this are talked about and music is shared.”

All proceeds from the track went to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

It’s been more than 30 years since the release of “Nothin’ at All,” but Maestro’s message of Black and Indigenous solidarity has persisted.

“When we come together collectively and listen and learn from each other’s struggles, we can make this place better for everyone,” Maestro said in a 2020 interview with Canadian Dimension.” That’s what I was saying in the early 1990s. That’s what I’m still saying today. Without togetherness, we’ve got nothing at all.”