Native Artists Have United to Make a Song for Standing Rock
Watch the premiere of the video for "Stand Up / Stand N Rock" and sign the petition urging President Obama to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
By the time I finish writing this, the indigenous-led movement to stop the North Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile tube that would stretch through sacred grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and potentially damage one of their major water supplies, could be under siege.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has set a deadline for the group to leave their encampment north of the Cannonball River by the end of this weekend, Monday, December 5. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalyrimple has done the same, issuing an executive order demanding the "mandatory evacuation of all persons" from the site. It is unclear whether the Morton County Sheriffs, who have already used aggressive disbanding tactics like spraying a high-pressured water cannon at crowds, will use force to make this happen. Regardless, with colder temperatures on the horizon and local officials growing increasingly impatient, this weekend seems to be a key juncture in the fight over the pipeline.
Those organizing in it seem to recognize this, too. Some 2,000 veterans have joined the demonstrators with the goal of reinforcing their frontline. It's the latest show of support for the cause, which has rallied people from across the country and helped draw together the Native communities of North America in an unprecedented way. In that vein, a collection of artists and public figures, most of whom are Native, are releasing a new song and video today, titled "Stand Up / Stand N Rock," in support of the movement. Organized by Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, who has Shoshone heritage, the song is meant to serve as both a tool to promote awareness, as well as an anthem for the indigenous people across the country who've united in the effort against the DAPL.
"It was just important to acknowledge the originators of this land," Taboo tells me over the phone. "We don't really have many songs that can cross into international waters... because I'm a Black Eyed Pea, I'm able to speak to Germany and Japan and Mexico. They'll now ask [about] what's going on."
To accompany him on the song, Taboo recruited a number of Native artists, including Apache and Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation flutist Tony Duncan, Navajo vocalist and model Kahara Hodges, Seminole singer Spencer Battiest, Plains Cree MC Drezus, and Crow beatboxer and rapper Supaman, who drops a verse in his tribe's native Apsaalooke tongue. Over the track's uplifting beat, which was produced by Taboo in the same vein as his productions for BEP, this proved to be a challenge, Supaman tells me. But after spending time at the demonstration and seeing how Native people were coming together, he was eager to express his enthusiasm.
"My tribe is Crow, and our traditional enemies are the Lakhotas, and they shared a [peace] pipe together at [Standing Rock]," he says. "They haven't done that in a long time."
Supaman is not alone in his excitement over tribes coming together. Drezus, who is from Saskatchewan, believes the collaboration among indigenous people has been the biggest takeaway of Standing Rock. He still remembers his kokum (the Cree word for grandmother) warning him to not interact with members of various other clans—a result of century-old disputes created by colonization, he believes. Through his involvement with the demonstration, he's been able to bypass those longstanding beefs and go back to a time when the border between the US and Canada, his home country, didn't exist. "[Standing Rock has] kind of reinforced the fact that they just drew borders on a map and ran with it," he says.
Unlike Black Eye Peas, Drezus's signature sound is hard-hitting, a reflection of the pain his people have endured for generations. A former drug dealer who's been able to funnel his dark past into inspiring songs for Native youth growing up on reservations, the heavy-voiced rapper wanted to bring a different perspective to "Stand Up."
"There's a lot of natives out there who are super militant, super focused," he tells me. "They're out there on the front lines fighting, man. That's who I wanted to represent and show love to."
Originally, Drezus was surprised by the invitation to collaborate from Taboo, who he and his youngest son saw in concert four years ago "flying on a fucking motor bike in the middle of the stadium" as part of a BEP show. But the two shared a common goal in raising awareness for Native rights, as well as exposing their sons to the movement. Drezus plans to take his ten-year-old to the camp next month, while Taboo took his 23-year-old last weekend. While there, the Los Angeles-raised MC performed a small concert for the "protectors" (many involved in Standing Rock consider the term "protestor" offensive based on their belief that they're merely advocating for the US government to uphold its end of a treaty agreement signed in 1851). He tried to downplay the fact that he's a member of one of the highest-selling groups of the modern era, however, and used the time to reconnect with his Native culture, which was passed down to him by his grandmother, whom he'd visit often in Arizona as a kid.
Taboo's activism shouldn't come as a surprise: Hip-hop heads may recall that when BEP first started as an act on gangster rapper Eazy-E's Ruthless Records in the mid-90s, Taboo actually wore eagle feathers and war paint on stage as an homage to his Shoshone roots. That changed once the group found mainstream success, but the conscious nature of the band remained relatively intact (albeit in easily digestible form). This is confirmed to me through Taboo's account of visiting the DAPL frontline, where he unashamedly asked the officers in riot gear, "Where is the love?"
One participant of the song who is not Native, however, is Shailene Woodley. The actress, who's been extremely vocal about her support for NoDAPL and was even arrested in October for criminal trespassing and engaging a riot while at the demonstration, is one of the first people you see in the video for "Stand Up." She also does a spoken-word intro for the track. Her participation taps into an ongoing question as to whether celebrity involvement in Standing Rock is a good thing—or whether it's merely for show. According to all the Native artists I speak with, it's the former. This includes Drezus, who, if you've ever heard his work as a rapper or activist, you know is not one to hold his tongue on the topic of appropriation.
"I got mad respect for her," he says. "Even if [celebrities'] hearts aren't all the way in it, just having those millions of people that look at them be exposed to us… and just letting them know that we're not dead, man. So many people think we're dead."
If anything, Native culture is more alive than it's been in years even as it finds itself under renewed assault as government and business momentum pushes for the pipeline. "Stand Up," with its shout outs to iconic Native figures and references to different tribes across the world, is a celebration of that. But for all the long-term benefits the song is likely to have for the culture, the musicians behind it hope it also makes an immediate impact. Along with its release, the group is calling on the public to sign a petition for President Obama to stop the pipeline from being built.
"This is protecting Native land," Taboo says. "People are coming together because they know it's an injustice being brought upon people that are standing up for their right."
Sign the #NoDAPL petition to President Obama here.
Photos courtesy of Taboo / Hip-hop Caucus
Reed Jackson is a writer based in New York.. Follow him on Twitter.