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A Tribe Called Red: Reappropriating American Music

by admin on November 14, 2014

The hyped-up Electronic Dance Music performed by A Tribe Called Red at the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s Lipinsky music hall on November 5 did not sulk on the horrors of the Native American community’s past. The auditorium was utterly in the moment – the DJs called for the dance crowd in the front to jump, clap, and turn up. A middle-aged white woman seemed to be enjoying herself, swaying just behind the rope used to quarantine the turnt crowd up front. The projector screen behind the DJs mixing stands showed psychedelic loops of cartoon aboriginals, including clips from El Dorado and Bravestar. The thought occurred to me that these were all probably just white artists’ drawing of a people he knew no more about than the scriptwriters who cast them as sorcerers and brutish warriors. The bigoted visuals seemed to flow ironically with the bass that pumped along with samples of passionate native chants.

Tears began to well in my eyes, which is not something I expected to experience at an EDM concert full of drunk students, cultural spectators, and aboriginals alike. The power of A Tribe’s music to bring such a diverse group together was quite overwhelming. I thought back to my Music and Environmental Consciousness class, taught by Dr. William Bares, where we had learned about how music tends to epitomize the environments that it is conceived in. Territorializing, as the concept is called, appeared in the opposing sounds of East Coast and West Coast rap, where gangsta artists produced noise-making music to let their world know of the hellish conditions living in urban ghettos. In Detroit, where Techno music first emerged with Derrick Mays’ “Strings of Life”, electronic music manifested the post-industrial sound of the semi-abandoned cityscape.

The prevalence of the Native American community arriving to witness the approaching performance was made known by a troop of aboriginal children huddled closely by their caretakers, indigenous families sharing cigarettes under the eave of the music hall, and the “Please Party Without a Headdress” brochures passed out in the lobby by the UNCA Native American Students Association. Cultural appropriation is practiced by ignorant people who wear traditional headdresses without realizing the sacred spiritual significance that they downplay, according to the brochure. In fact, A Tribe Called Red, now made up of DJ’s Shub, NDN, and 2oolman called off a performance at the opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights because they had refused to acknowledge the genocide of aboriginal people in America (CBC News). The cultural appropriation of Native Americans is a socially ignorant remnant of that genocide and forced relocation that the race was forced to endure when Europeans first discovered “India”.

A Tribe Called Red’s mastery of Electronic Dance Music corresponds to how modern Native Americans of the First Nation really are and reminds us of what they have endured. Native Americans were always more American than any descendant of a European immigrant could be. After decades of genocide, unjust relocation, and centuries of being compartmentalized into reservations that exploit indigenous culture as a tourist attraction, these DJs have risen above all these injustices done to their people to create passionate, contemporary music relevant to popular American culture while still heavily incorporating their own cultural musical motives. A Tribe Called Red was greatly appreciated by the teenagers of the Cherokee Youth Council who traveled from the North Carolina reservation and the Native American families attended – one mother waited next to the stage after the show for her husband, who danced in traditional aboriginal attire onstage during the show. The DJs took their own time to take pictures and sign autographs for anyone and everyone who remained in the auditorium after the show, demonstrating their commitment to nurturing pride within their own community while still involving outsiders who support them.

Electronic Dance Music is a product of the evolution of techno dance music, and like techno, EDM reflects the highly urbanized and industrial culture that many human beings now experience. DJ Shub and DJ NDN grew up in Ottowa, Canada, but DJ 2oolman said that he grew up on the Six Nations reservation outside of Ontario. He said that growing up he listened to “Country, Blues, Old soul like Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles, and Blues like Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Country like Randy Travis and George Jones.” He also said that he was introduced to standard aboriginal music from birth, and he started singing traditional music at the age of eight. “My mom’s side of the family has tons of bluegrass musicians. My uncle actually formed this Soul-Funk native band. I come from a very musical family. I knew from a young age something was wrong with me because I really liked music more than everyone else.” He said he eventually got an ear for Hip-Hip, and started messing around with making beats, even though it was unpopular on his res (read: reservation). Although he was not familiar with the club scene, he began to venture to Toronto when he was 17, where he was exposed to more Hip-Hop. He said that at first his community disapproved of him participating in the club scene, but they eventually came to accept his choice of involvement when they realized the sincerity of his talent.

2oolman was especially ecstatic about the power of their music to attract local Native American communities wherever they perform in their tours throughout Canada and the United States. “Whenever we put a show together, the native community always seems to connect with our music the most, not the most, but maybe they just feel it,” 2oolman said. “They understand… That crowd [at Lipinsky] was half and half if anything, maybe seventy/thirty [split between Native Americans and others]. It’s good. I’m glad that they come out, because I’m glad to see them proud of themselves and us being proud, proud of us.”

by Healey Cox-McMahon

Works Cited:

“A Tribe Called Red Cancels Performance at Human Rights Museum.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 19 Sept.            2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.

Hill, Tim. “2oolman Interview.” Personal interview. 24 Sept. 2014.

Villalobos. “I Still Hear The Drum: A Tribe Called Red Brings Nation II Nation to The New Parish.” KQED    Arts. KQED Inc., 20 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

Shelby Putnam November 19, 2014 at 4:09 pm

It’s fascinating how the Native Americans that you’ve talked to have lost touch with their culture’s music (not surprising however, considering how they were forced to assimilate and loose their traditions). More interesting, however, is their music of choice being country. Why is that? While I enjoy A Tribe Called Red’s music, it is sad that they are the only manifestation of Native American music evolving.

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