At the entrance of a new exhibit at Montreal's Musée d'Art Contemporain, visitors are greeted with a red neon glow and a ping-pong of sounds. A dubstep groove thumps. A high-hat skitters. A pow-wow chant echoes from another room.
Beat Nation: Hip Hop as Indigenous Culture has become something of an art sensation in Canada. Featuring more than two dozen artists using beats, graffiti, humor and politics to challenge stereotypes, the exhibit coincides with the growth of Idle No More, an indigenous political movement in Canada.
"The idea behind hip-hop is the idea of a mix," says Mark Lanctot, a curator at the Montreal museum. He says the sonic soup that follows you throughout the exhibit represents the diversity of being indigenous today.
"Aboriginal culture isn't a monolithic, single, static entity. It's always changing, always takes from other cultures," he says.
Listen closer to the sounds, and you'll hear more indigenous stories filtered through hip-hop's lens. DJ Madeskimo mixes traditional throat singing with electronic beats and footage of "Hollywood Indian" stereotypes for a multimedia presentation called Dubyadubs. In another room, Kevin Lee Burton slices and dices his native Cree language into a sort of rap.
A Drumbeat And A Heartbeat
Beat Nation was born in Vancouver in 2006 as an online gallery; today it's a traveling exhibit. Co-founder Tania Willard, a member of Canada's Secwepemc nation, says she first made a connection between native culture and hip-hop when she was 16. She saw breakdancers at a traditional pow-wow.
"Hip-hop was just making inroads in mainstream culture and here was this all-native break-dance crew — this is 20-plus years ago — who are touring around the pow-wow circuit," Willard muses.
Hip-hop blew up in Vancouver's huge native community in the 1990s and 2000s, spawning influential MCs such as Manik 1derful. Willard says hip-hop beats fit naturally into the indigenous worldview. "We sort of talk about Beat Nation as not just electronic beats, but also the drumbeat and the heartbeat," she says.
Hip-hop also filtered into native culture as young people left isolated, poverty-stricken territories for Canada's city streets, where things weren't much better. Many shuttled back and forth, nd that cycle — known as "the churn" — is evident in Beat Nation. Skateboards turned into snowshoes are on display, along with turntables carved from wood, and "indigenized" iPods made of felt.
Dylan Miner worked with indigenous youth to make low-rider bicycles. tricked out with painted hides and hand drums. He says a theme running through many pieces in the show is the claiming space, like a slow-and-low moving low-rider, backing up traffic and demanding attention. "[We are] asserting indigenous presence in the contemporary moment in a way that's letting people speak for ourselves," he says.
Agents Of Change
That message of presence has been a big one in Canada recently. A year ago, a handful of indigenous women started a movement called Idle No More. The hashtag #IdleNoMore spread virally across the country, and thousands marched to protest poor living conditions and environmental degradation in native territories.
Geromino Inutiq, a.k.a Madeskimo, says Idle No More and Beat Nation are of a piece. "We're not idle anymore. See us in the governments and the institutions and the companies. See us on TV," Inutiq says. "We're not sitting there idly on our reserves, waiting to die. We're agents of change within society and that's what it means."
It's tempting to view Beat Nation as representative of an Idle No More generation, something new and different. Tania Willard doesn't see it that way. She says native artists have been mixing, borrowing and sampling — hip-hop-style — for centuries.
"I see Beat Nation as this continuum of innovation that indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of," she says.
Beat Nation runs in Montreal through Jan. 5. Then it's off to Halifax and, this summer, Saskatchewan.