http://alibi.com/feature/41403/article.html
Feature
‹‹ V.21 No.17 | April 26 - May 2, 2012

Feature

MC Lakota Jonez Raps on Hip-Hop’s Glass Ceiling

By Margaret Wright
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

As a small child, Lakota Jonez stood out. She was the one little kid amid throngs of adults, marching alongside her parents at civil rights rallies and sitting in on organizing meetings or conferences on social justice.

As an older child, she stood out as the one girl watching from the hood of a car in fascination as her older brother and much older male cousins huddled in the driveway, beatboxing and taking turns rapping in a cipher. Soon they were teaching her lyrics, and she’d join in when she recognized songs from her favorite artists.

A grown-up Lakota Jonez, now a mother herself, easily falls into the old songs. She raises her arms and dips into a dance move, lowers her voice into a husky cadence (“I am a troo-per / I am a true Fu-Schnicken!”), cracks up laughing.

While she grew up listening to all kinds of music, she says hip-hop always gripped her more than any other genre.

“Probably because I have so much to say. With all other types of music, the songs have, like, eight bars. With hip-hop, there are 16 bars, so I can say a lot in one song.”

Jonez is of Mohawk, Lakota and Cherokee descent, and she’s from a politically active family that moved up the East Coast over the years, from Florida to Canada. She says her ancestry and upbringing infuse her work—but perhaps not overtly.

“If anything, I learned to stand up for myself, and no matter what to keep pursuing what I believe in,” she says. “Being around all that stuff growing up and just being the one little kid, I stood out and didn’t really fit into what was going on.”

Her choice to try to be a successful MC didn’t exactly help her blend in either, she says with a grin.

“I was fine with it. I never really fit in anywhere, so it’s fine.”

Studying the Old School

"Fitting in" is a complicated concept in hip-hop. Some practitioners rule the underground, while others run the business realm, transforming themselves into worldwide brands. There’s a tug-of-war between “authenticity” and dance-pop marketability.

In 2010 Erykah Badu signed onto her Twitter account to publicly mourn the developments (or perhaps denigration) of the genre. An excerpt: “I like the idea of no distinction in race when it comes 2 music, but SOULkeepers, U dont give up the boom bip and the hump 4 the payday,” she wrote. “I love house and techno as a side dish. But now it’s served as the main course AND that’s ALL u gone get.”

“When I was coming up in my genre, I was like ... I’m going to enjoy it, and travel, and all those good things, but I’m not going to be a 'Native MC.' I’m going to be a female MC who happens to be Native.”

Jonez concurs with Badu’s Twitter monologue that hip-hop is far from what it used to be. Jonez is from the school of thought that the upward trajectory of lyrics and storytelling died a while ago, with Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. She argues that a void opened in their absence, a vacuum that’s been filled with producers and acts that are only concerned with money at the expense of substance.

“And there’s room for it,” she says, “because people are like, Why bother making something real when people are just listening to this?”

It's also not clear whether commercial success is even possible anymore without donning a regurgitated gangsta rap costume. Artists attempting anything genuinely new and/or incisive (see: Little Brother’s rumored Minstrel Show controversy with BET) stay stuck underground. And maybe their fans like it that way.

Of course, painting with a brush that’s too broad gets messy. There are talented female MCs still trying to break the mold, more with edgy wordplay than booty-hugging hot pants. But if the hotly hyped, well-paid realm of hip-hop no longer has room for artists unwilling to be anything other than themselves, for themselves, how much do we want to listen? And what will become of the offshoots of that original subculture?

One of those sub-subcultures has been Lakota Jonez’ home turf for years. She’s made pilgrimages by bus to spread hip-hop’s gospel, honing her low-toned, staccato delivery. Several YouTube videos show her to be perfectly at home onstage as she flows through her bravado-laced compositions. And she’s stepped onto some pretty large stages, winning Best Rap/Hip-Hop Album at the 2009 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

In December she was able to meet a longtime goal and wrap up a full-blown, professional video shoot for her single, “Girl's Night.” She says she has high hopes that the Elevated Records label she co-founded will add some propulsive force to her career. Whenever she can, she saves up for studio time with money scraped together from what's left after the bills have been paid.

Microphone Check

Delve into the world of Native American hip-hop and the yield is a handful of artists of with indigenous ancestry (Melle Mel, Funkdoobiest, Litefoot) that might jog the recognition of an avid listener. Dig a little deeper for well-known female Native American artists, and you'll only come across a few singers, such as Jana Mashonee or R-&-B-singer-turned-Ginuwine-arm-candy Solé.

Nativehiphop.net, one of the bigger promotional venues for indigenous artists in the genre, occasionally features women who are front-and-center rapping, not shaking their azzes or perched on the edge of a hot tub in the periphery. Still, Eekwol of the Canadian Muskoday First Nation—a female artist promoted on the site the other day—is hardly blowing up the airwaves.

Jonez says that a lack of recognition and mainstream accolades is not because First Nation and Native American musicians aren't capable of holding their own against other artists. It's that they rarely get the opportunity, training, pressure, encouragement or material support to try.

It's easy for dreams of recognition to gradually break down. She's seen it herself many times, starting early in her own career, performing for families gathered at reservation community centers or rapping at big-name powwows, music competitions and award ceremonies. She says she often meets talented artists with enthusiastic followings within their own community. Expanding appeal to audiences outside of Indian Country after being branded a “Native” artist is another ball game altogether.

“I haven’t given up yet. But I think Native people give up, because there’s only so far you can go as far as being taken seriously.”

“You can be performing every weekend,” she says. “But it’s going to be at the same venues, at the same conferences, at the same powwows, the same everything. You can have great money and all the Native people will know you.” But ask someone who’s non-Native if they know Rezofficial, Derek Matthews, Digging Roots, Indigenous, The Plateros, Martha Redbone? The response is a blank stare.

That realization cemented Jonez' sense of determination early on to appreciate the support of her community while simultaneously refusing to label herself.

“When I was coming up in my genre, I was like ... I’m going to enjoy it, and travel, and all those good things, but I’m not going to be a 'Native MC.' I’m going to be a female MC who happens to be Native.”

As Jonez points out, it's not just musicians but Native artists of all stripes that still have to fight for legitimacy. She cites Johnny Depp's casting as Tonto in the forthcoming big-budget remake of The Lone Ranger. Myriad actors who actually are rooted in Native America (Smoke Signals’ Adam Beach, for example) could have excelled in the role, she says.

Jonez admits to cynicism about Native musicians breaking into the mainstream. “I would love to be wrong—but look at Buffy Sainte-Marie.”

They met when Jonez was 11, backstage during a Canada Day celebration. (“I’m back there in my regalia, and there’s Buffy Sainte-Marie, all shining, with beads in her hair and that crazy shaky voice”). Jonez says it astounds her that Sainte-Marie is not afforded the same fame and attention as other folk icons of her era.

“Why is she not a household name? It makes no sense. The only things I can think of to explain it is that it’s just not cool to be Native. That, or a Native person won’t sell out. They’re not going to take money over who they are and being proud of who they are.”

Expanding further on the factors that go into the construction and maintenance of the metaphorical wall Native artists encounter, Jonez' drawl-tinged voice rises a notch.

“There is not anything out there glorifying being Native or how cool it is. It’s still fun to make fun of Native people. It’s still fun to think that they don’t even exist any more. And people still think that being Native just means feathers and teepees.”

She takes a breath.

“I haven’t given up yet. But I think Native people give up, because there’s only so far you can go as far as being taken seriously,” she says. “There is no Native person out there that’s running the game for us or leading the way.”

Gathering Support

One of the most recognizable platforms performers have is in New Mexico. On April 27, Jonez performs at the Gathering of Nations’ Stage 49 showcase, which hosts Native musicians of all genres. The biggest powwow in North America brims with other diverse performances and activities, and Jonez says she's amazed more non-Natives from the area don't attend. Maybe it’s that misconceptions about the event abound.

“I’ve asked, and I think a lot of people don’t know that they’re allowed to go. They think you have to be Native. People that live here don’t even go, when there’ll be some guy from Australia there, or Norway, or people who came all the way from Africa.”

For artists, Gathering of Nations can be a valuable opportunity to network and try to get their name out there. Though, like any event that draws big numbers and big money, it's not without complexities and controversy. Not everyone agrees with how the powwow is managed or who reaps the profits.

“Then there are people like my dad,” says Jonez. “He went one year, and he was like, Nope, not going back. It was too commercial for him. For anyone that’s really traditional, the Gathering is like the super-mall of powwows.”

On a community level, the event is equivalent to a huge family reunion. She says she never knows which relatives and friends she'll run into. “It just feels nice. You’re never around that many Native people at once. I mean, even living here, there’s tons of Native people, but that many, all in one place, all at once? That just doesn’t happen.”

Jonez says she looks forward to this year's performance (her third), in part because of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants atmosphere backstage.

“There’s no sound check, there’s no 'Get ready!' If it’s your time slot, you get up and go. Anything goes wrong? Too bad. When your time slot is up, they’ll get the big ol’ hook and just yank you off. There’s no grace period, nothing. So you just never know what to expect.”

The Push

After Gathering of Nations and the release of her music video, Jonez says she'll be ready to step back and concentrate on the next items on her to-do list. She says she’s always mulling over how to use her music to convey stories that are both accessible and meaningful, and how to balance that priority with the Cristal-soaked, cash-strewn expectations of popular hip-hop. She also says she can't help but be sensitive to the industry emphasis on songs constructed with maximum crowd appeal.

Jonez has drawn some lines in the sand, though. She says she's always been more comfortable performing in Dickies and oversized sports jerseys (“I never wanted to get up onstage in booty shorts and a little bra”). She thought long and hard about whether it was appropriate to include a few explicit words on her last album, worrying that it would alienate the little kids or grandmothers that she's counted among her fans.

“I’m still not going to rap about things that I don’t know about or don’t have, or that I’ve never experienced,” says Jonez. She says that mass appeal to her is not about marketing an image, but constructing music that's both relatable and danceable. Still, she's not always sure whether her own label and all the love in the world from her close circle of fans will be enough to get her work into a larger arena.

“Sometimes I get tired of this Lakota Jonez thing,” she says. She also admits, shrugging, that she's no Nicki Minaj.

“I'm not as crazy as she is. But I think my skills hold up pretty good. I think I could stand up next to the best of the female MCs and do all right. Maybe even some male MCs,” she says. “But it’s like, all this time, just pushing, pushing, pushing, and I wonder: Can I make it?”

Lakota Jonez

Friday, April 27, 7:45 p.m.

Gathering of Nations, Stage 49
University of New Mexico Arena ("The Pit")
1414 University SE

Tickets: $17
gatheringofnations.com

lakotajonez.com