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Giving Algonquins a Good Rap

Section: Arts Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: Indigenous, Hip Hop

March 13, 2010

Giving Algonquins a Good Rap

Hip-hop artist Samian rants for reserves

by Stefan Christoff

An image from the video for Samian's "Kisakiin."

MONTREAL—Algonquin hip-hop artist Samian raps about the realities of life on First Nations reserves in Quebec. With a growing following on reserves and in Quebec's cities, he's also struck a chord with hip-hop communities everywhere.

Exploding the classic political binary of Quebec's two solitudes, Samian raps about Indigenous people and their history in the province. His chart-topping hit "La Paix Des Braves," a duet with Quebec hip-hop crew Loco Locass, appeals for solidarity between Quebecois and Indigenous people. Samian's recent collaboration with Sans Pression on their single "Premieres Nations" helped cement his role as a key voice in the Montreal contemporary hip-hop scene.

Stefan Christoff sat down with Samian to discuss contemporary hip-hop in Montreal and the ways the genre is increasingly speaking to, and representing the struggles of, First Nations communities in Quebec, in Canada and throughout the Americas.

Hip-hop's origins in New York City were rooted in rhymes that addressed social injustices, especially the racism and social exclusion faced by African-Americans. Today in Canada, Indigenous people face similar systemic social exclusion: racism, incarceration, substandard housing and medical options and poverty. Hip-hop is increasingly used as a response to this reality and artists are rapping about the social injustices faced by Indigenous people. Can you talk about how your work relates to the history of hip-hop as a socially conscious art form? How do you connect your work to hip-hop history?

Hip-hop has always been an art form through which people have made demands, appealed for change and denounced the social injustices faced by African-Americans in US ghettos. Certainly the history of African-American struggle in the US, like we saw with the Black Panthers, is tied to hip-hop music [and] culture.

Indigenous people in Quebec, in Canada, have lived through a history of oppression like African-Americans. Today we are still calling for justice, and hip-hop is a vehicle to call for this change. As an artist, I love hip-hop because it allows for free expression: You can talk about whatever issues are important to you. Hip-hop is a space for me to express myself on many subjects, to denounce injustices. It's also a space to propose positive solutions for social ills, and to reflect on the world around me.

What are you trying to make people more aware of through your music?

Our reality, the life on the reserves, the fight to retain our culture, the fact that we are struggling to keep our language. Also I want to make people aware that Indigenous people have a rich history and culture that is ignored by the mainstream.

Through hip-hop we are opening people's eyes to our culture and also to our long, long history on this land. I want to speak to youth in Quebec who don't always learn about real indigenous history in the school system. Quebecois and Indigenous peoples' history in Quebec are interlinked. This relationship between our cultures has shaped what we know to be Quebec today, and who we are. Sadly our Indigenous history is often shoved to the side because it shows an underlying brutality in the national narrative.

Many Montrealers don't know about the situation facing Indigenous people on the reserves here and in Quebec. In this context, how do you see hip-hop as a way to educate people about the Indigenous reality here? How do you address these issues in your music?

I think my music has the biggest impact on the reservations. The music sparks the spirits of the new generation on the reserves, and gives youth pride in our culture, and in our language.

But for everyone in Quebec, I hope my music inspires a more open spirit towards the realities faced on reserves, because people need to wake up to the difficulties and poverty we experience. The mainstream media don't address our situation thoroughly, so I am trying to communicate our reality. Simply put, there are two different realities, two different worlds, two different experiences of life in Quebec—one on the reserves and one off the reserves.

In Quebec, we have a national slogan: Je me souviens. But really, what do we remember in Quebec? In Quebec we forget some of the biggest parts of our own history. How was Quebec and Canada founded? What ever happened to the people who originally lived here? Why does the world forget that there are over 500 languages spoken across Canada, and not just English and French? So much about our history has been hidden or erased, and so young people never learn about the first peoples. These are all questions that—incredibly—aren't well answered in our schoolbooks. The government is also directly responsible for the lack of knowledge about our history, because Indigenous culture and history is not a priority, and not taught seriously within the public school curriculum.

Recently, I looked up "Algonquin" in the dictionary and was shocked. The definition read something like "a people that don't exist." I was shaken to the core after reading this—how absurd. I am an Algonquin artist today in Quebec, I exist and my people exist. Today, after thousands of years, we are still on this land as Indigenous people. We are still here and are gathering strength; my hip-hop verses express a pride for Indigenous people in Quebec.

As an artist, your hip-hop is unique and has struck a chord in Quebec. What do you think makes your work compelling to so many different audiences?

I wrote poetry before ever thinking about rap. I eventually fell into rapping almost as an accident. Today I work with amazing musicians who are able to complement my verses with music. I think the relationship between my verses and the musicians that I collaborate with has become richer with time.

My second album is much deeper musically than the first album, and now it feels like things are constantly developing for me in exciting ways as an artist. All my first songs weren't written with, or for, specific music, so now that I work with musicians in developing my verses, the creative process has changed a lot.

At the root, I am an artist, not a politician. My songs are about real issues, but I address those issues as an artist. Many people say that my work is really political, but actually I know nothing about the political world. I address issues that are important to me.

But you are linked to grassroots political movements. Do you mean you aren't tied to the world of politicians and government?

I am interested in speaking out against injustice and trying to build towards solutions that solve those injustices. I'm not at all interested in official politics or political parties. Actually there hasn't been a major politician in North America, in the US, or in Canada who has proposed something really good for First Nations people. No proposal deals with the historical injustices we faced and the contemporary situation.

Perhaps we could look to Evo Morales in Bolivia as an example?

[Laughing] Today Bolivia is an exception in the Americas, because Morales is an Indigenous president! In Bolivia, Indigenous people are the majority, while in Canada we are such a small minority today.

In Bolivia the government of Evo Morales signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the national constitution. Here, Stephen Harper refused to sign the letter or even vote in favour of the charter at the UN. Harper made that apology for residential schools, but he voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The government in Canada wants us to remain in an unequal position and as a minority, with no political power. Indigenous people live in Third World conditions right here in Quebec and throughout Canada. So, is Canada progressive? In the US there is an African-American president; could you ever imagine a First Nations prime minister in Canada? Indigenous people in Canada should take inspiration from the African-American struggle, which won many rights for black people in the US. Actually, we need to wage a similar struggle in Canada, a civil rights struggle.

Can you talk about the concerts that you've given in Indigenous communities across Quebec? Do you feel different about the concerts that you give on reserve and those in the city?

Actually my concerts on reservations are really, really special for me. I feel that the most meaningful impact from my music is on the reserves. To meet youth on different reserves and to connect with youth, to talk about their realities—this is a big source of inspiration for me. I can connect strongly with this, given that my own experiences are linked.

My work tries to project the true voice of First Nations people: Those on the reserve that I meet who are always struggling to survive, struggling for justice... I hope my music inspires youth to dream louder and create a better future.

This interview originally appeared in the Hour.

For more info, visit www.samian.ca.

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based community organizer and journalist who regularly contributes to the Hour. He can be contacted at christoff@resist.ca.

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