Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aboriginal rapper, CBC host has plenty to say

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IMAGINE the headlines if the first black president met the first aboriginal prime minister.

Now imagine that maybe it already happened. In May 2008, Wab Kinew travelled down to Sioux Falls to see Barack Obama speak to an assembly of Lakota chairmen. "You could see his ambition, but I didn't see a rock star," the CBC Radio producer-host recalls. "I saw one of the most intelligent people I've ever seen. And if a black guy in the States can do it, then a native in Canada can do it."

In fact, he says, his 10-year plan is to see himself at 24 Sussex Drive. He's joking -- but only a little. "I don't want to feel like I've wasted the opportunities I've been given," Kinew says, reflecting on his rather unlikely rise from underground rapper to up-and-coming CBC star. "But I'd rather be like Joe Kennedy and have my kids run for office, set 'em all up," he adds with a grin.

That will be a long time coming. Kinew's sons Dominic and Bezhigo are all of three and one. In the meantime, their father is busy launching his own career. This weekend, Kinew is releasing his debut solo album, Live by the Drum, titled after the well-reviewed CBC Radio show he launched in 2006. On the surface, it's a relentless rap record with a political undertone. But it's also personal.

"I made it to be the album I wish I had heard when I was 13," he says. "It's a mix of deeper beats with some intelligent s to say. That's all my life up to that point on the record. It's my testament." He points at the album's introspective closer, Last Word. "If I were to die tomorrow, that's what I would want to tell the world."

Kinew has accumulated a lot of things to say in his 27 years. He came up as part of hip-hop crew Dead Indians, spinning rhymes at Le Rendezvous while he became more and more disillusioned with his economics program at the University of Manitoba. "I thought I was going to save the world. I thought I was going to save my people," he says. "By the fourth year, I didn't want to be like those economists. I wanted something more."

That frustration triggered some dark years. He got in some fights, drove when he shouldn't have, got a few stains on his record. But in 2005, when he got fired from his job hosting a reality TV pilot because of a criminal record, Kinew lashed out -- in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The issue was whether shamed NHL player Todd Bertuzzi should be allowed to play on Team Canada with a criminal record. The medium was a ranting letter that was published in the newspaper. "You can't just write everybody off because they made a mistake," Kinew says. CBC Radio producers saw the letter and invited the rapper in to record a rant for their morning show. They liked his blunt delivery so much, he stayed on, becoming a host-producer for Live by the Drum, Shaken Not Stirred and Canada Live.

"The CBC didn't change me / I changed the CBC," Kinew raps on Live By The Drum. It's true: though he tones down some of his more caustic delivery for CBC audiences, the Ojibwa rapper has taught the Mother Corp. a thing or two about the power of words. Last year, he successfully lobbied the national broadcaster to change its language policies to refer to "residential school survivors" instead of, ahem, "former students." Then he set up a residential school memorial concert, featuring survivors like bluesman Billie Joe Green, that was broadcast nationally on CBC Radio.

Wab Kinew releases Live By The Drum today at the Pyramid Cabaret. Tickets are $10 in advance at Urban Bakery, House of Bands, Hood Hop'rz, $15 at the door and get you a copy of the CD as well.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2009 C3

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