Hip-hop turns 50 in 2023. ICT looks at some of the Indigenous artists across the nation who have been impacted by the music.
“Thinking of a master plan. Got tobacco and sage inside my hand. Pulling out my wallet I’m collecting rent, land back is the vision stacking presidents,” artist Kunu raps in the opening verse of “Master Plan.”
Both a “love letter to hip hop” — with an ode to “Paid in Full” by Eric B. & Rakim in the first line — and a call for Land Back, “Master Plan” is local hip-hop artist Kunu Bearchum’s latest single.
Born in Eugene, Oregon and raised in New Mexico, Kunu Bearchum, Ho-Chunk and Northern Cheyenne, first began to make music in high school. After graduating in 2007, he moved back to Oregon with his hip-hop crew, Che Finch aka WYZAKER WORLDWIDE and his brother Nahko Bearchum aka Mista Chief.
“Growing up, hip-hop music was always part of my day to day life,” Bearchum said. “The way I relate to hip-hop is to give voice to the voiceless.”
Between 2012 and 2013, Bearchum and a group of other Native artists formed a hip-hop crew called Burial Ground Society. The intertribal collective is made up of hip-hop musicians, artists and craftspeople using their platform to amplify Indigenous voices and stories.
“We were trying to connect with our tribal heritage. As we were doing research about our different tribes, we knew that there are these different societies within tribal culture,” Bearchum said. “Within our view of being modern day artists, storytellers and musicians, we want this to be a society of what we do. I guess we would call it an artist society.”
Throughout the year, Burial Ground Society members perform at community events, open to all ages.
Bearchum has found a through line between his work and the work of all of his Native hip-hop role models — education for tribal youth.
Currently, Bearchum volunteers with the Native Youth Wellness Program through the Lane Education Service District in Eugene. Serving as a mentor for Native youth, Bearchum works with youth both one on one and as a group through activities such as hand drum making workshops and music classes.
“I hope that I can do my due diligence to represent [hip hop] culture that I feel literally saved my life and kept me busy and away from a lot of the bullshit that constantly plagues our tribal youth,” Bearchum said.
For Bearchum, his music is an outlet for messages of social justice. He grew up with the teachings from his Ho-Chunk grandparents, who were deeply involved with the American Indian Movement.
In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests erupted in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation — an effort led by Indigenous people to protect the water, land and spiritual sites threatened by the pipeline.
On Oct.27, 2016, Bearchum and other Burial Ground Society crew members arrived at Standing Rock to help show their support of the movement and document the events taking place.
Bearchum went home a few days later, with feelings of anger bubbling inside.
“It felt like I got jumped, beat up, and there was nothing I could do about it,” Bearchum said.
Working to channel his anger and frustration into action, Bearchum began working on a song — the title single of his debut album, “Through the Battle Smoke” which was released March 14, 2020, the night before the country went into a COVID-19 lockdown, shutting down his long awaited album tour.
The music video for “Through the Battle Smoke” opens with a black screen and text conveying the following message, signed by Kunu:
“Dedicated to all the water protectors and land defenders worldwide. We do this work for seven generations ahead and seven generations behind. Be a good ancestor.”
As Bearchum’s lyrics fill the air, images of oil rigs drilling into the earth and black smoke released into the air fill the screen.
“Through the battle smoke, I invoke traditions of old going to those places where legends unfold. Merciless Indian savages with a vengeance, born with a life sentence of being a renegade,” Bearchum raps.
Interspersed throughout videos of Bearchum rapping are clips of protestors at Standing Rock — the song itself feels like a call to action.
Though informed by his time at Standing Rock, the album had been bubbling for a long time and the title is even more personal.
Bearchum’s Ho-Chunk name is Xii mąąni, which means “he who walks through the battle smoke.”
If life is a battle, Bearchum is answering the call and pushing through the smoke with his music.
Lead image: Hip hop artist Kunu Bearchum at the First Nations Performing Arts convening 2022, in partnership with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival. (Photo courtesy of Robert Franklin)