Native Tongues: An Interview with Cristina Verán
July 5, 2006
Cristina Verán has been a participant in hip-hop since she was a teen growing up in North Jersey, and the West Bronx and Washington Heights sections of New York City in the early '80s. She joined up with Afrika Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation and the Rock Steady Crew, the two institutions most responsible for taking hip-hop culture globally.
Years later, she is a well-respected journalist and a media correspondent at the United Nations. She has seen up close how the ideals of hip-hop pioneers have excited and transformed native youths, and she now documents these movements. (See her recent work here and here.)
I spoke to her about how she sees hip-hop being practiced around the world, especially by indigenous young people.
Jeff: In your travels, how do you see hip-hop practiced in other countries as compared to the U.S.? Are hip-hop movements around the world shaped primarily by commercially available images?
Cristina: Certainly, commercial images of American rap stars are omnipresent and inescapable the world over. At the same time, outside the U.S., young people receive these images coming from a place of greater understanding of their own respective cultures. More often than not, this has encouraged their interest and engagement with hip-hop as a complex cultural movement far beyond a loose assemblage of commercial imagery. They value achieving a real, comprehensive fluency in its language and symbolism, as well as knowledge of its history and context.
Jeff: Your recent and ongoing work at the United Nations has been around indigenous people's movements. What do you see young native people doing with hip-hop? What does it allow them to say about themselves?
Cristina: I understand hip-hop as having arisen among a milieu of urbanized youth from "detribalized" origins. Whether we're talking about Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, or African-American folks and also including U.S. urban Latinos of indigenous Amerindian ancestry hip-hop, particularly in founding collectives like the Zulu Nation, imagined itself as a new kind of kinship group embracing myriad "lost tribes".
At the same time, I find it very exciting and encouraging that indigenous youth here and abroad particularly those who have remained connected to their cultural identities have actually found in hip-hop a useful tool to remain strong in their cultures. It's not a question of replacing their own cultures with hip-hop, but rather using hip-hop elements as ways to translate their own messages, mores and movements into this universal language of sorts.
Rap music being produced in indigenous languages like Maori, Maasai, Saami and so many others serve as strong incentive for young people to use and maintain their mother tongues. Even the aerosol graffiti art aesthetic of hip-hop has encouraged new, contemporary reimagining of traditional artforms and styles in places as remote from one another as Tahiti, South Africa and the Navajo Nation.
Jeff: Are native hip-hop movements different from other local hip-hop movements that you've seen around the world?
Cristina: Well, particularly with the Maori and other Pacific Island immigrant groups indigenous to New Zealand, the local hip-hop movement is actually driven by the aesthetic and ideals of indigenous peoples. Far more common, however, are situations where Native hip-hop artists remain as marginalized within the larger hip-hop scene as they do from the mainstream, national culture overall. In the U.S., Indian Country's parallel "Reservation Hip-Hop" scene remains virtually excluded from an African-American dominated mainstream which doesn't really even acknowledge its existence. In Australia, the mainstream is controlled and dominated by White Australians, leaving Aboriginal hip-hop in a kind of virtual apartheid in their own country.
Jeff: Given the kinds of uses of hip-hop culture you've seen, what do you see as the problems and potentials of using hip-hop to express political ideas?
Cristina: Generally, Native hip-hop movements have had no choice but to be political, to the extent that their very engagement in the public sphere can constitute a political act in itself; a patent refusal to be silenced or invisible.
In terms of its potential, certainly throughout the U.S., it has inspired young people and I must distinguish here between those who study and engage with hip-hop as a culture and movement, not the multitude of passive consumers of commercial rap to get into community organizing, voter registration and other political activities.
Artists like Hawai'I's Sudden Rush not only pioneered rapping in the Hawaiian language over a decade ago, but were unafraid to take a very public stand supporting the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Cherokee M.C. Litefoot and also Muskogee Creek Artist Shadowyze have found in hip-hop a particularly encouraging and successful platform to express political ideas supporting community initiatives to combat everything from alcoholism to school drop-out rates to media stereotypes of Native Peoples.
But one can't gain a comprehensive, conclusive understanding of complex issues solely through the elements of hip-hop. Hip-hop is only a point of entry albeit a compelling, unifying one. I can only hope what the Native hip-hoppers tune into encourages further dialogues with community elders, independent research and even formal institutionally-supported study and participation.