Urban Indigeneity and Hip Hop Practice in Contemporary North America

Liz Przybylski
Musicology, Northwestern University
June, 2016


Urbanization has long influenced Indigenous music. While this is often characterized as cultural loss, Indigenous hip hop in the United States and Canada instead demonstrates a vibrant urban musical practice. Developing the framework of "relocated Indigeneity," this dissertation analyzes hip hop as a form of musical messaging that actively renews heritage culture, marking the city as an Indigenous space. Grounded in Winnipeg, with attention to connections in Chicago, Minneapolis, and other areas, it proposes a move in Indigenous hip hop that parallels a rapprochement between conscious and commercial subgenres in U.S.-based rap. This allows the music to extend beyond existing subgenre conventions of race and gender presentation and to present urban Indigenous communities as spaces of possibility. Finally, it develops a methodology for online ethnography specific to ethnomusicological research that responds to this scene in which musicians and listeners increasingly move between on- and off-line spheres. The dissertation centers upon case studies that address the major concerns arising in hip hop that samples Indigenous sources: performance practice, representation, and mediation. Contextualized analysis of performances at Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards festivities demonstrates the opening of an interstitial space between conscious and commercial rap subgenres. Examples from cross-border artists Chase Manhattan (Anishinaabe/Oglala Sioux/Muskogee Creek) and Drezus (Cree/Saulteaux) indicate how artists adhere to some subgenre conventions while also proposing new ways of listening to heritage cultural knowledge. The study interrogates how rapper Samian (Algonquin) samples powwow music and throat singing by Marie Belleau (Inuit) in a collaborative composition to reveal how hip hop sampling impacts shifting ideas of cultural ownership. Programming decisions made by professionals at radio station StreetzFM demonstrate tensions in mediating Indigenous hip hop in on-and off-line mediums. Ethnographic research with media professionals, artists, and listeners clarifies the relationship between hip hop messaging and narratives about urban Indigeneity. Each chapter combines investigation based on participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and musical analysis. Countering stereotypes that artists reference, Indigenous hip hop that samples heritage music provides participants with a strategy to demonstrate that Indigenous communities in cities provide locations for rich cultural expression within a contemporary urban landscape.