By: Gus Navarro
Earlier this summer, we sat down with artist, activist and educator Dylan AT Miner (Métis) to discuss how he incorporates elements of hip-hop into his artwork and teaching. Miner is a descendent of the Miner-Brissette-L’Hirondelle-Kennedy families with ancestral ties to Indigenous communities in the Great Lakes, prairies and subarctic. He has collaborated with indigenous youth and artists to create spaces of reflection and resistance all around the world. He currently holds the position of assistant professor in the Residential College of the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.
Excerpts from this interview with Dylan Miner were taken on May 17th, 2013…
Bonus Cut (BC): When you hear the words hip-hop, what does it mean to you?
Dylan Miner (DM): For me, hip-hop is an ontology; it’s a way of being in the world. I think a lot of times we think of hip-hop as a form of music or even a lifestyle. I think its both of these things but as someone who grew up involved in hip-hop and punk rock, I also see these as parallel movements of underground, alternative, anti-capitalist movements that have grown up in resistance. For me, hip-hop embodies a way of being in the world that goes against the dominant mode. We know that it comes out of the Bronx, out of New York City with Black and Latino communities in resistance to white colonial rule. If you look at it now, hip-hop is what youth movements are using throughout the world. You go meet with kids in Australia, I’ve worked with aboriginal kids in Australia and they’re listening to hip-hop. Young MCs are producing excellent music. Everywhere you go kids are making hip-hop as a way of expressing themselves and resisting. So I see the five hip-hop elements as a way of being in the world that connects people.
BC: Growing up as a kid you were involved in the hip-hop and punk rock scene, what does that mean exactly? How were you involved?
DM: I tried my hand at being an MC and a DJ and wasn’t good at that. I tried breaking and wasn’t good at that either. I also wrote graffiti for a while with a couple of different tags, names and monikers but wasn’t good at that either. I’ve been involved in it in a variety of ways. In punk rock I made “zines” which are alternative magazines and published those and communicated with other people that way. I grew up in a small rural town in Michigan, out in the woods. Punk rock and hip-hop were a way that I was able to connect with people my age and people form other places and I thought that was important. I was involved on a variety of levels in my younger days but I was never anybody that was of importance. So now one of the things I do with my artwork is I work with youth and have a bunch of different projects that use hip-hop as the starting off point and as a way for us to speak of our shared experiences.
BC: What is an example of how you use hip-hop in your art and with youth?
DM: One of the more well-known projects I have is called Anishnaabensag Biimskowebshkigewag which means “Native Kids Ride Bikes.” Basically it’s a low-rider bike project that works with urban-indigenous kids throughout North America and takes hip-hop as a shared relationship and goes from there. We build low-rider bikes that allow us to talk about the origins of low-rider cars and bicycles. If you know the history, there are some conflicting histories, but many people say that the origins of the low-rider can be traced to Española, New Mexico. However, other folks say East Los Angeles, California. The low-rider is central to west coast hip-hop if not the east coast. It’s also an automobile and it’s a thing that runs on fossil fuels which is a way of transportation that is built off of the burning of deceased and fossilized animals that is creating a huge systematic climate change. So we have a conversation of hip-hop, a conversation of transportation, think about sustainable transportation and traditional forms of movement. We look at the low-rider bike as something that’s tied to ways that Native people moved in this continent before the automobile. For my community, we had something call the “Red River Cart” which is a two-wheeled cart. In this part of the continent, people traveled by jimaan, which is a canoe. So this project uses hip-hop and then looks at the low-rider. We then bring in fluent speaking elders in the traditional languages who impart their knowledge with the youth. We bring in “young professionals,” often times DJ’s and hip-hop artists and MCs. Through that multi-leveled, multi-aged, multi-generational collaboration we put together these low-rider bikes that are based in traditional knowledge, traditional ways of being in the world, as well as ones that are very much about contemporary indigenous lives. For many of these kids it means growing up in hip-hop and being involved in the hip-hop world.
BC: As you said, hip-hop is being used as a jumping off point to promote collaboration and resistance. What are some of the other projects that use hip-hop?
DM: That’s obviously the most central one. But as I’ve traveled and met people, I’ve done a little bit of collaborative work with Sacramento Knoxx who’s an Ojibwa-Chicano MC from Detroit. I recently did a project working with Latino and Native youth on both sides of the U.S. and Canada border. I worked with one group in Detroit and one group in Windsor, just across the Detroit River. We put together these mobile screen-printing carts, from bicycles created to function as work tricycles in Mexico, which we retrofit to be mobile screen-printing units. Those are now being used by a group of primarily Latino and Native MCs, graffiti artists and DJ’s in southwest Detroit called The Raiz Up. Southwest is primarily a Latino neighborhood in Detroit that in some ways is gentrifying, that has a large art world. The Raiz Up is an activist based collective of folks involved in hip-hop. Now they’re using this vehicle in community events at Clark Park and in other places in the neighborhood. I don’t see myself as an MC, DJ or graffiti artist anymore but I use the modes, the different elements as a way to influence what I’m doing now. I’ve collaborated with people all around the world. There is this great Sami artist in Northern Norway, in the Arctic Circle, in this community called Trømso. The Sami are the people once known as the Lapplanders, the indigenous reindeer herding peoples through Scandinavia and Northern Russia. This dude, Joar Nango, is putting together an archive of indigenous hip-hop. He’s archiving songs, meeting with artists and putting together a mix-tape. You’ll see these amazing events or moments emerging all over the world. I don’t know if you or your readership is familiar with A Tribe Called Red, a three person DJ collective out of Canada that is blowing up right now. When I had a show up in Ottawa, Bear Witness, one of the three DJ’s played the reception. My bikes are also traveling as a part of this wonderful show called Beat Nation which is a traveling exhibition of all indigenous artists, primarily from the U.S. and Canada who have made art that was inspired by hip-hop. It’s not just me, but with urban-Native communities and Tribal communities throughout this continent there’s a relationship with hip-hop that I think is really important.
BC: We’ve talked about hip-hop as a way of being and as a form of resistance against capitalist societies. However, there is this large presence of capitalism within the pop-culture realm of hip-hop. Why is that?
DM: I think there’s always going to be those elements. It’s the same thing with any movement, any social movement and I think hip-hop is and has always been a social movement. Hip-hop is important because it’s not simply one aspect; it has five elements to it. It has the visual arts, it has the music, the performative, the lyrical or written word and then of course the fifth element. Depending on who you talk to, the fifth element is what I always talk about as knowledge. Other people talk about it as entrepreneurship or as community development. All of these things together make it an important social movement. Within social movements there’s always moments of cooptation, moments of disagreement, there’s always moments and space for differing voices and different perspectives. When you hear what’s on the radio and see the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine is that hip-hop? It’s an element of it, but it’s not central to it. What did KRS-ONE say about the difference between being a rapper and an MC? The same happened to punk rock when it became mainstream. Especially with early groups like the Sex Pistols as they came of age and even in the 90’s with things like the popularization of Green Day. Now they have a Broadway show. Is a Broadway show punk rock? Not really but that doesn’t diminish what the roots are because the roots are important. For me, that’s what’s crucial about hip-hop. At the roots, these five elements when you think about them, when you understand them and they become a part of how you live your life, that really is in resistance to the dominant way of being in the world.
BC: You’ve mentioned punk rock and groups such as the Sex Pistols and how they started out as group that embodied resistance. In a sense, hip-hop and punk rock are similar in that they are about defiance and struggle. Is there a way to group them together?
DM: For me it’s all about youth sub-cultures. If we look globally and historically, young people have always been one of the most oppressed peoples in the world, especially in the modern nation-state. If you’re not eighteen, you really don’t have any rights. You can’t vote, you don’t have a say in governance, you’re forced to go to school whether or not you want to and in some ways these are meant to protect and create a specific form of society. At the same time, they’re very repressive. I think for me, hip-hop grows out of youth resistance and punk rock grows out of youth resistance. Initially, hip-hop was a black and brown collaborative effort in New York. Punk rock, depending on if you’re looking at it in the States or England, was mostly a white working-class movement. You could even say the same thing about elements of heavy metal. All of these genres are about youth creating a space for themselves in a world where they haven’t been allowed a say. For me, that’s the core that brings them together.
Stay tuned next week for part two of this interview!