Indigenous Hip-Hop is Entering a Golden Age

Just over a decade after releasing her forward-thinking anthem “I’m Proud (Remix),” JB the First Lady is poised to empower the next generation.

At the end of September the Vancouver-based, Nuxalk Onondaga Nations MC will perform at a local high school that will host her for four assemblies in order to accommodate all the students coming to see her. The last time she played there, four years ago, a student thanked JB for her inspiring set. “It’s great to run into someone who shared my story, and it affected them positively,” she says.

It’s by no means the first time JB and other seasoned vets of Canada’s Indigenous hip-hop scene have reached out to younger fans. From British Columbia’s trap-subverting Haisla Nation duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids to Afro-Indigenous artist Boslen (who is signed to the major Capitol Records/Universal Music Canada in partnership with Chaos Club Digital) to queer Indigenous MC Dio Ganhdih and more, JB and her fellow OGs have helped usher in a golden age of Indigenous hip-hop in Canada.

As JB puts it, “I’m not saying I opened doors for them—they stepped onto that path. But I was able to guide them and say, ‘Hey, this is a good path to go down.’ One of my main things with them: Polaris is the top level in Canada. And Snotty Nose did that. And seeing Boslen play major festival stages—it’s such a beautiful sight.”

Through solidarity, unflinching lyricism, and production that combines hip-hop with traditional sounds, Indigenous rappers are bursting into Canada’s mainstream with songs to galvanize the marginalized.

New Brunswick’s City Natives are particularly noteworthy because they are helping the overlooked East Coast get its due. “The Honour Song Remix,” the lead single off LP The People of the Dawn, is a remix of the “Mi’kmaq Honour Song” a drum song and community anthem by George Paul, an elder from their region.

Paul’s traditional rhythm was honed into a hip-hop beat by Classified, who sampled both Polaris Prize-winning, classically trained Indigenous musicologist Jeremy Dutcher’s remix of Paul’s song, and Paul’s original. Over that groundswell of an instrumental, City Natives indict the Indian Act and lay other ugly truths bare with their lyrics.

“I’m not saying I opened doors for them—they stepped onto that path. But I was able to guide them and say: ‘Hey, this is a good path to go down.’ - JB the First Lady

“This album is a piece of our lives, as we talk about what we live and see happening on reserve or being indigenous in the city,” says Brandon Arnold, who co-founded the duo with Blake Francis. Arnold (who is Maliseet and from the Tobique First Nation/Wolastoqiyik Neqotkuk, while Francis is Mi’kmaq from Eel Ground/The Natoaganeg First Nation) described the album as “the struggle and the success. On one side, you see family or friends on welfare struggling to get by… you [also] see other family and friends that overcame the welfare system and became something. There’s some harsh realities living on reserve that you don’t hear artists talk about, like how certain members don’t get help from the band because of who they are connected to, or how Chief and Council actually work for the government.”

When asked about producing the song, Classified calls Paul’s original “a classic. And then, when Jeremy did it over, it became even something bigger.” Sonics aside, Class says when he heard what City Natives “were speaking on, I thought it was super dope and something that people needed to hear. The verses definitely took it to the next level.”

Although City Natives have rapped for a few years and have begun breaking bigger recently, a number of even younger Indigenous artists are making New Brunswick a hip-hop hotbed. Pabineau First Nation (near Bathurst) MC Wolfcastle leapt into the national limelight last year with “Get Lit.” There’s also Flacko Finesse, who’s Wolf Castle’s cousin and also grew up on Pabineau. On “Pay the Price,” Flacko lends a chilling objectivity to rhymes about the meth addiction ravaging his community. He also declares “love for my mama and the rez, that’s it.”

“Songs like ‘Pay The Price’ definitely fit into this renaissance” of Indigenous rap, Finesse says. “We deal with issues like substance abuse and lack of services every single day on the rez, so when I hop on the track and be honest about what we experience, it allows more people to notice it and talk about it.”

Indigenous hip-hop talent goes beyond the coasts. Manitoba MC Caid Jones was praised by Exclaim! last year for No Distractions Please. “Frozen City,” details the rising homicide rates disproportionately affecting indigenous residents in Winnipeg. He delivers aspirations on the album’s title track, including lines about buying his family a mansion and fixing the damage inflicted on his community. Though Jones is non-status, his father is of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised by adopted parents outside that community. Jones began going to ceremony in 2014 and reconnected with his Indigenous heritage.

“[We’re here] to bring awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, to residential schools, to no clean water on 90 reserves. On my reserve, Six Nations, there hasn’t been clean water for three years. And that’s not OK.” – JB the First Lady

“With prominent issues in the inner city such as homelessness, addiction, poverty, and underfunded programming, it has always been something close to my heart,” Jones says. “Whether I’m involved in the community doing programs and care packages or we are supporting other organization, I have always been around the community. There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to true reconciliation and healing for Indigenous people. But there are a lot of good people doing good work here in Winnipeg. This sparks a lot of passion when I’m writing.”

This increased attention followed years of steady growth. In 2008, Indigenous supergroup Rezofficial dropped the rugged “Lonely” and has drawn praise to this day, including a spot on Complex Canada’s 20 Best Canadian Rap Songs of All Time. JB The First Lady dropped Get Ready Get Steady in 2011. A year later, fellow B.C. rapper Ostwelve released “Indigenous Summer.” Before all that, and before his political career, Wab Kinew dropped Live by the Drum in 2009.

There have been milestone moments, and when news about the discovery of unmarked residential school graves garnered international headlines, it affirmed the harsh history Indigenous MCs have long known and written about. Seeing T-Rhyme featured in international outlets like The Guardian, not to mention an earlier Vice documentary, was exciting for up-and-coming MCs like Valkyrie. The Edmonton MC says an Indigenous rap renaissance has been “happening for years. I feel the rest of the world is just finally waking up and listening to our stories and finally hearing our voices. I love to say we’re taking back space, utilizing music to heal and reconnect with our identities and culture.”

With all this momentum, The International Indigenous Hip-Hop Awards held its second ceremony in late August. The awards’ marketing director Chris Sharpe says, “Hip-hop is a beautiful culture, and Indigenous hip-hop in Canada has its root messages hitting very powerful topics and life issues such as standing up for human rights, missing and murdered women and girls, fighting for the land, and more. Hip-hop at its core started in the Black community in the USA, and I feel it has always been a voice for the voiceless. So yes, a renaissance has begun and the reason is simple: It’s all in the messages coming from these young and powerful talents in the First Nation Communities.”

Many of those points are seconded by JB. “[We’re here] to bring awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, to residential schools, to no clean water on 90 reserves. On my reserve, Six Nations, there hasn’t been clean water for three years. And that’s not OK.

“Indigenous people are oral history people. I see myself as capturing oral history in a contemporary way, called hip-hop. It’s amazing to see that evolution.”