• Feature

Northern Beats, Righteous Rhymes: The Arctic Heats up 50 Years of Hip-Hop

Aug 16, 2023
by Priscilla Naunġaġiaq Hensley

This article contains brief mentions of colonial violence and substance dependence. Support is available 24 hours a day for anyone affected by or who may be triggered by this content by calling the Hope for Wellness Help Line toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.

“And it don’t stop!”
– DJ Kool Herc

It was late on a summer night; the Arctic midnight sun shining its unreal light on the valley below. The show was about to start. 

A hip-hop beat thundered from the stage as figures silhouetted against a bright, white background appeared from the wings. One raised a microphone: “What up Riddu?”

The crowd of hundreds of Indigenous northern people roared in greeting. 

Every July, the Riddu Riđđu Festival is held near Samuelsberg, Norway, in Sápmi, the traditional homeland of the Sámi. It’s roughly 300 km above the Arctic Circle and draws attendees from throughout Sápmi and the Sámi diaspora, and Indigenous people from around the world for an outstanding cultural festival of music, art, discussions, workshops and connection.

In 2018 one of the mainstage headliners was the groundbreaking Circumpolar Hip Hop Collab. Invited and supported by the festival and spearheaded by Aqqalu Berthelsen (also known as Uyarakq), a Kalaaleq hip-hop producer and musical artist, the Collab brought together Inuit and Sámi rappers and singers to create and premiere original works. They spent days together, rapping in English, Northern Sámi, Inari Sámi, Kildin Sámi, Kalaallisut and Ińupiaq, adding throat singing from Nunavut, yoiking and dance. Then they brought it to the stage.

There’s a difference between meeting normal European and Sámi because, when you meet Europeans you have to, there's some, some things that they can never understand, like colonialism and, well, if you meet a Sámi, I tell them I'm from Greenland and they get it. They know the history.
– Uyarakq, interviewed in WE UP: Indigenous Hip-Hop of the Circumpolar North, 2018

Coloured smoke poured into the air as dancers raced and grooved around and in front of the stage. The rappers and singers demolished the final song with the chorus: “This is the circumpolar cypher, we share our stories to ignite the fire.”

That fire they rapped about has continued kindling and flickering throughout Indigenous communities of the circumpolar North. Hip-hop, mostly in its musical rap form, carries on in rich and exciting ways that its founders, 50 years ago in the Bronx, would never have imagined, but would probably be pretty stoked on.

“People hear about, you know, the East Coast, the West Coast, South, but they never hear about the North, you know, so like why not? Why not us? I feel like it's time for Natives to shine.”
– Bishop Slice, interviewed in WE UP: Indigenous Hip-Hop of the Circumpolar North, 2018

When hip-hop was coming to life in the big-city Bronx, many of our northern Indigenous communities were just getting electricity, telephones and radio stations of our own. We’d grown into greater political power and were fighting for recognition, for our land and for the right to exist as ourselves. We were beginning to work together across the circumpolar region.

Today in the Arctic, there are kids having rap battles while they wait in small plane airports, artists throwing up murals and rappers spitting cyphers from Utqiagvik to Utsjoki. There are sleek festivals, a music industry group in Nunavut and serious artists making creative work and receiving recognition for it.

Uyarakq has a particularly border-busting perspective as his travel, work and relationships with artists take him throughout the circumpolar North. This year, with many great artists in the running, Uyarakq was recognized in the fan-voted inaugural 2023 Arctic Music Awards, winning Artist of the Year, Single of the Year, Album of the Year and Music Video of the Year. 

Uyarakq is originally from Nuuk in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) and in the past several years he has worked with Indigenous rappers from Alaska, Nunavut, Kalaallit Nunaat, Sápmi and beyond. In recent weeks he’s been in Iqaluit, Toronto and Ottawa in Canada, and Riddu Riđđu in northern Norway. For the past several years he’s been living in Inari, Finland, though he’s in the process of moving to Canada. He’ll be performing in New York in September.

“I've been working with a lot of people. That's kind of my specialty,” he says. “I work in the background and I'll let the rappers do the thing.”

One Kalaaleq rapper Uyarakq is especially enthusiastic about is Tarrak (Josef Tarrak-Petrussen), whose skill, power and heart comes through even if you don’t understand Kalaallisut. Tarrak’s first album, Fxgxs (2016) featured the song “Tupilak,” which directly calls out the racism people from Kalaallit Nunaat face, specifically by the colonizing Danes. Now, seven years later, Tarrak has just released a song with Suspekt, the biggest hip-hop group in Denmark, who also joined him onstage during his absolutely boss set at the legendary Roskilde Festival.

Tarrak is currently living in Denmark and working on his third album. In addition to his remarkable showing at Roskilde, with a massive crowd, he’s busy performing throughout the North. Not so long ago he met up with several other Indigenous artists to work on a compilation album in Iceland. 

Homegrown festivals continue to blossom and form an important scaffolding for intra-Arctic collaboration and connection. Riddu Riđđu birthed the Collab, events like Arctic Sounds in Sisimiut and Nuuk Nordisk in Nuuk have kept artists in touch with one another and circumpolar audiences. Alianait Arts Festival in Iqaluit facilitates a lot of work between artists from Kalaallit Nunaat and Nunavut, and featured a similar collaborative concert in 2022.

Shauna Seeteenak is one of the artists who participated in that concert. Originally drawn to hip-hop by the fabulous Salt-N-Pepa when she was a little girl in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, Seeteenak was later inspired by Eminem to use writing as a way to deal with emotions. She’s come a long way from releasing her songs on social media, though it worked well as a way to share her music and have opportunities to start performing around Nunavut. She continued writing and performing and in 2021 released her first album, Therapy Sessions with Hitmakerz (a social enterprise record label), which received national coverage, including on MuchMusic, which was a personal thrill for her since she’d grown up watching the video channel. Seeteenak is currently working on her second album.

Asked why she makes hip-hop, she says, “I do what I do because music has saved my life on multiple occasions and I’ve heard from so many people that it has helped them with their struggles. I want to keep that going.” One way Seeteenak hopes to keep it going is eventually to start her own record label to help other Inuit and Indigenous people make albums.

In addition to special hometown performances and the releases of her first single and album, one of the top moments in Seeteenak’s musical life was when she got her first recording equipment as a young teen. Having the equipment she could use to make music on her own was really profound and made all the difference in her life as a hip-hop artist.

This resonates with Thomas Lambe as he reflects on the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and why the portability and low bar for entry to hip-hop has held appeal for Indigenous people. “I feel like hip-hop has lasted so long because of how accessible it is for people who are in marginalized communities, who are not making as much money as, you know, people who can afford guitars and drums and all these other things,” he says.

Lambe is an award-winning artist and producer based in Iqaluit, who raps under the moniker 666god. He often raps with his partner, fxckmr, at pubs and open mics around town. In recent months, Lambe has performed alongside Uyarakq, KimOJax and Tarrak—both at home and abroad, appearing at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, at Arctic Sounds Music Festival in Kalaallit Nunaat, and as part of the gathering in Iceland with other musicians from Nunavut and Kalaallit Nunaat to develop a compilation album. 

He’s also a label representative with Hitmakerz, which partners to help support and promote the music industry in Nunavut. Through Hitmakerz, Lambe has provided training to artists on topics such as technical skills and ensuring proper payment through music streaming services. Cultivating online audiences and receiving appropriate compensation for listens is a necessary set of skills for today’s musicians.

KimOJax and 666god performing at the Alianait festival in Iqaluit
KimOJax and 666god performing at the Alianait Art Festival’s Aajuik collaboration event in Iqaluit, NU, July 1, 2023.COURTESY ALIANAIT. PHOTO VINCENT DESROSIERS/VDOPRO.CA

Though he’s only 26 himself and has been rapping since age 17, Lambe is excited about the next wave of Inuit rappers in Nunavut. He’s especially impressed these days by a young trio in Arviat, Nunavut, on the western shore of Hudson Bay—Jacob Okatsiak, Lutie Kaviok and Chrisjr Mikeeuneak. Okatsiak recently released an album with Hitmakerz. In addition to recognizing their talent, he admires their straight-up hustle. “They're like traveling places, making music videos, and really promoting themselves to a level I've never really seen other Inuit rappers do before,” says Lambe.

Looking ahead, Lambe wants to help support other artists. “I definitely would love to produce for the next generation of Inuit hip-hop artists and kind of show them the ropes of how to distribute your music properly or make sure you're getting all your money,” he says.

He also admires the directness of the genre, saying “hip-hop is probably the most honest and most sincere genre of music out there […] With hip-hop you have someone literally telling you straight to your face, or in your ear that things are messed up right now, or I grew up in this situation, or you know, I make money sometimes! […] It’s a perfect vehicle for people to really get their thoughts out and feelings out, or some kind of message.” 

His own message: “Just be yourself.”

Aaron Leggett, Senior Curator of Alaska History and Indigenous Culture at the Anchorage Museum, was a producer on the documentary film, WE UP: Indigenous Hip-Hop of the Circumpolar North (a film I co-directed with David Holthouse in 2020), helping to interview and film with artists such as Slincraze, AKU-MATU, bgirl Snap1, Bisco and those in the Riddu Riđđu Collab. Many of those artists have continued to work with the Anchorage Museum on other events and projects. 

When asked about why a museum would be interested in music, and in hip-hop specifically, he replied, “You know, it's a creative expression; it's a dynamic outlet. And I think a lot of it is about contemporary Native identity.”

Bishop Slice rapping "Bibles and Bullets" at the campfire in his grandma's smoke house
Bishop Slice rapping “Bibles and Bullets” at the campfire in his grandma’s smoke house near Dot Lake, Alaska.VIDEO STILL FROM WE UP: INDIGENOUS HIP HOP OF THE CIRCUMPOLAR NORTH. COURTESY PRISCILLA NAUNĠAĠIAQ HENSLEY 

Leggett mentioned there are some things that are tricky to put in a little museum label on a wall. He offers Bishop Slice’s song “Bibles and Bullets” as an example of the complex histories hip-hop can illustrate: “I mean, that gets to the heart of colonialism and the pact between loss of Native language and assimilation and the church.”

Bibles and bullets, Bibles and bullets, Bibles and bullets.
If we do not want to conform will they shoot us?
They say that they'll do it.
They pillage my people, drop kids to the floor.
This is the way of your Lord.

Leggett mused about this and the place of hip-hop in our communities. “A takeaway from the film and doing this project […] all the rappers that we interviewed, what they're talking about, the reason they relate to it is twofold. One, it's about the struggle getting the shitty end of the stick, you know, marginalization, poverty, all the sort of negatives but then—how do you put a positive spin on it, or at least tell your story and, and try to rise above it?”

There is something else to it as well. As Leggett points out, “There’s also the fact that we as Indigenous peoples come from cultures where the ultimate form of expression is storytelling.”

When one looks back at mainstream (mostly American) hip-hop there have been different movements—geographically, thematically, sonically. There were times in the early history where people thought it was a joke. Then, that it was the dangerous realm of gangsters. Later, that it had to carry a serious message or that it was purely party music. Over time, it’s become more evident that hip-hop is an expansive, flexible form—perfect for the Indigenous storytelling innovators of the north.

To listen to tracks by the artists mentioned in this article, as well as other new and established voices in circumpolar hip-hop, check out this playlist, assembled by writer Priscilla Naunġaġiaq Hensley:

Priscilla Naunġaġiaq Hensley (Iñupiat) has mixed roots in Qikiqtaġruk (Kotzebue) and Anchorage, Alaska. A parent, writer, artist and filmmaker, she has seen a lot of concerts, but her favorite rap performance in memory was Ailu Valle at Riddu Riđđu in 2017.

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