My Connection to Hip-Hop as an Indigenous Person: Guest Editorial

Veteran audio engineer David Strickland pens a guest editorial on hip-hop and self expression through the lens of his Native American roots.
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David Strickland, 2020

This is a guest editorial by David Strickland, a GRAMMY and Juno Award-winning audio engineer, with credits on projects by Drake, Clipse, Method Man, and more.

Colonization and assimilation—two words I never associated with my life until I grew up, looked around, and realized who I was, what I was doing, and how I came to be where I was at that moment in time. A L’nu (Mi’kmaq), decolonizing myself meant embracing hip-hop and laying the foundation of hip-hop music in Toronto, and in Canada, for future artists. Between the late ‘80s and early 2000s, I lived in studios across the city, working with everyone and anyone with true talent: rival crews, unsigned artists, signed artists. For free, for money, for food, it didn’t matter. Hip-hop was my life, and letting the world know we did it well in Toronto was my mission.

Growing up, I was not aware of the implications of who I was. My self-perspective was limited to my environment. The city shaped my view of who I thought I was. A multicultural concrete jungle and its inhabitants deemed me just another poor white kid.

The reality: I was a direct result of colonization and assimilation. My people were shamed and hidden from the world, our stories yet to be told in full. However, the spirit of hip-hop came into my life at a young age. It was new, raw, and revolutionary. It baffled the conservative and streamlined sentiments of the ‘80s around me.

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For the vast portion of my life, hip-hop culture resonated with me the most. I was passionate about it. Its roots, history, people. The versatile nature that allowed it to be whatever the artist wanted it to be, often surpassing their initial goal.

Hip-hop has its own language, dialects, and heritage with traceable lineage, forms, and conventions. It gives the artist and its audience an identity that is both individual yet collective.

I also had a language, heritage, culture, and traceable lineage. Yet, I knew so little about my culture. It was not proudly passed on. My ancestors were made to feel that being who they truly were in their everyday life was not good enough for centuries, due to racism. Who we are as Indigenous people became a secret hidden in plain sight.

This may sound extreme, but that is the nature of colonialism. It puts the voice and the history of those it seeks to subordinate on mute. It strips the culture of the people while altering how others see the colonized and, sadly, how the colonized see themselves. That is the corruptive nature of a colonial mindset. You cannot introduce the true you because that introduction has been made for you. Thrust upon you. Ideology such as this is harmful because the opinion of colonizers is presented as the only view that matters.

Colonialism has profoundly affected Indigenous communities. There is no one Indigenous experience that epitomizes the colonial violence. Much like the diverse Indigenous nations throughout Turtle Island (North America), each experience is varied, nuanced, and valid.

When people who are continuously subjected to colonial powers have said, “We have had enough,” it appears to come out of nowhere for those who have not been affected by this brand of colonialism. Often, the reaction is confusion, defensive, dismissive, and sometimes complete denial. They have not seen the destruction in their families, communities, or selves. They do not have to unpack the weight of that at all.

So as someone who was a living embodiment of assimilation, hip-hop became a lifestyle and culture I could live out loud.

Hip-hop began in the Bronx as a voice for African Americans to tell stories based on the realities and truths in which they lived. Hip-hop was a vehicle to reach members of its communities first—placing their narratives at the forefront above the curiosity of outside observers or detractors. If you were an outsider who wanted to participate, it was up to you to learn about the people, the environment, the motivation and sources of empowerment; the onus was on you.

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For me, the connection between hip-hop and my Indigenous roots came later in life. The relation to my Mi’kmaq culture was no secret; there was still a gap to bridge. No tangible traditions were compounded by living outside my territory. The connection between the two was ambiguous, non-traditional, and abstract. It took a lot of effort, help, and healing for me to have a solid understanding of what it meant to be an Indigenous person. There is the family heritage, the community aspect, the historical, the traditional, and its relation to the present.

Hip-hop has always been a vehicle for self-expression. As I continued to explore my roots, the logical conclusion became: my relationship with hip-hop and my culture did not have to exist in polarity.

I was fortunate to meet legendary Indigenous photographer Ernie Paniccioli, whose body of work is synonymous with hip-hop photography. I did not realize hip-hop and my outlook as L’nu were so similar. The connection between both existed in me all along—during this process of decolonization, and through my participation in hip-hop culture.

The importance of storytelling in hip-hop through the lens of a marginalized community makes sense. Storytelling is a form most people are familiar with in some capacity, as we are usually introduced to the art form by our teachers at an early age. Whether told to us, read to us, illustrated, or viewed on screen, stories have the power to intrigue, inform, influence, and entertain. We all have stories that were told to us, remained with us, taught or helped us shape who we are today.

Stories and storytelling continue to be a key element in teaching, sharing, social engagement, and entertainment in the world. Where would we be without a good story to tell? Stories are fundamental to human experience.

Marginalized people tend to exist in this bizarre space; not being a part of the dominant culture, while remaining acutely aware of its perspectives, norms, and values, and are deeply impacted because of them. Storytelling through hip-hop adjusts perspectives, giving way to the norms, predicaments, principles, struggles, triumphs, dreams, outlooks, and pride. Unapologetically for its own, with the potential to reach anyone who hears them, because a good story, told with integrity and emotional honesty, is powerful.

Art and music in Indigenous communities are intrinsic to who we are. Our stories have yet to be told on a larger scale from our perspective, and hip-hop is a healing tool that provides a way for our people to tell our stories to the world. Storytelling in Indigenous culture is equal to the MC in the four elements of hip-hop, a conceptual framework, based on the medicine wheel. 

A teaching is given in the form of a story by Brother Ernie Paniccioli:

“Hip-hop, to me, is native culture in the modern technological sense. The DJ is the drum, the MC is the storyteller, the B-boy is the dancer, and the graffiti artist is the sand painter.”

My goal has always been to remain true to the spirit of hip-hop while also honoring my ancestors. Thankfully, through both, I have discovered that staying true to my roots was the deepest way to remain true to the roots of hip-hop.

As one of the most successful Indigenous audio engineers in North America, David Strickland has a GRAMMY Award, multiple JUNO awards, and platinum-selling records under his belt. From Method Man to Drake to Clipse, Glenn Lewis and Sade, Strickland has worked behind the boards with some of the most celebrated artists in hip-hop and R&B over the past 25 years. After reconnecting with his Native American roots, Strickland has made it his passion to shed light on the similarities between hip-hop and Native American culture and bring artists together through music.

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