Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Speaking to the beat

Aboriginal musicians find a natural form of self-expression in the rhythm and flow of hip-hop

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This is where hip-hop came from: the streets of the Bronx, where a generation of black youth in the late 1970s found poetry fit for a vibrant but chaotic city.

This is where Karmen Omeosoo found it: humming through his grandfather's house in the tiny First Nation hamlet of Hobbema, Alta.

Depending on how you look at it, anyway. "I always heard the music," says Omeosoo, a rapper also known as MC Hellnback and once, long ago, as Kool-Ayd the Chubby Cree. "I remember waking up at my grandpa's house to powwow music, the sound of him playing hand-drum in his room, and going to sleep with the same sound."

The beat and the words: hip-hop is built on them. So are the oral traditions of Canada's aboriginal nations. So is it any surprise that aboriginal youth are putting their own spin on that blockbuster music genre from the Bronx?

"Hip-hop and the aboriginal community, they've been married so long that people don't understand," says Omeosoo, who lived in Winnipeg for seven years and recently moved to Vancouver to explore a solo career.

Married, and still honeymooning. "Everybody has so much love in the aboriginal community when it comes to hip-hop," says Frankie Fontaine, 21, who raps under the name Young Kidd.

Growing up in Winnipeg's battered inner city, Fontaine -- the son of an aboriginal mother and Jamaican father -- ran right into the same ills that strangle urban 'hoods across the world: poverty, gangs, violence.

Almost half of Winnipeg's First Nations live in those same central boroughs. So when Young Kidd spits out rhymes about those trials, his audience listens. That's the thing about hip-hop: It can transcend. "I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't doing music," says Fontaine, who hopes to get his GED after dropping out of Tec Voc in Grade 11. "I'd probably be in jail."

On Jan. 23, Fontaine released his third album, 10x10. "I've got a song on there, Hometown. It sounds kind of happy," Fontaine says. "But if you listen to the lyrics, it's all struggles and sad stuff. But I've flipped it so maybe people will be like, 'I went through the same thing he went through. It makes me happy that I'm not the only person that went through that.'"

Because Fontaine is "seeing the light," he says. He wants to put on rapping workshops at youth community clubs. He wants to reach out. "Kids should rap instead of dropping out of school," he says.

"I've been through that. It's like a cycle. The kids before me did it, I ended up doing it. It's a cycle I want to stop. It leads nowhere, but to jail, or being dead. I want to be where they can see me on TV, and say, 'Man, I know him. He told me to stop. He told me to go to school, he told me to work hard.' Because you've gotta work hard if you want to make it."

Omeosoo worked hard, and he made it. He started rapping as a boy in Hobbema, inspired by American artists like Brooklyn's Fat Boys. Back then, he says, "natives rapping was like crazy talk. We didn't have any doors open for us. It was a lot of flak from people asking why we were doing this, it's a 'black thing.' To me, it was just music. It was music that jumped out and spoke to me... and I decided, maybe I could try to do this."

One day, Omeosoo and a bunch of friends hopped in a van and drove down to the Indigenous Games in Connecticut, determined to make a name for themselves as a hip-hop group. They called themselves War Party. And they blew the door open for aboriginal hip-hop artists.

"We had to make the market," Omeosoo says. "We didn't really start to change anyone's perception until we got national exposure. And even then, it was like... 'Oh come on, you guys are native, is this a joke?' They thought we were a gimmick."

They weren't a gimmick. After War Party, Omeosoo joined the Winnipeg-based Team Rezofficial; in August 2008, with a single called Lonely, the Team became the first aboriginal rap group in Canada to land a No. 1 video on MuchMusic's RapCity. Other voices have taken over the mainstream, too. Rapper Wab Kinew is a popular CBC Radio host; in 2007, MC Joey Stylez of Moosoomin, Sask., landed in the pages of multinational rap magazine XXL.

Still, there's one more door left to break down. When Team Rezofficial's latest album, 2008's The World (And Everything In It), was nominated for a Juno award, it was nominated for Best Aboriginal Album... not for the best rap disc.

"I love that we got nominated in the same category as artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Billie Joe Green," Omeosoo says. "But why not best hip-hop album of the year? I've got no hate, but come on. I love the fact that we're known as natives doing hip-hop; I hate the fact that we get stepped on as real artists. We're not just good for natives, we're good for being good artists."

Omeosoo pauses. "Hip-hop has embraced us with open arms," he says. "I just wish that Canada would do that."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Calling all mcs

Never mind your background: If you've got rhymes and know how to use them, you could take it to the top of the local charts, with a little help from top Canadian MC Choclair.

On March 1, Northern Remix Records is launching the first Urban Star contest, an elimination competition to find Manitoba's hottest new hip-hop star. The winner will get a record deal with Northern Remix, a music video, and more.

Sitting on the judging panel will be folks including Choclair, Streetz 104.7 FM host and MC Sadie, Bishop Brigante and Belly. Streetz morning host Miss Melissa Spence will host the competition.

The final round will go down on May 21 at the Marlborough Hotel's Skyview Ballroom. Applications for the competition can be downloaded at Northernremix.ca and Urbanstarcontest.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2010 A46

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