Rapper Supaman talks Standing Rock and mixing Native traditions with new beats
You might not expect the middle of Montana, one of the least populated states in the union located far from either coast or any major entertainment hub, to serve as the birthplace of a bold new voice in hip-hop. But for Supaman – born Christian Parrish Takes the Gun on the Crow Nation reservation – the connection was clear when he first experienced a hint of hip-hop.
"Hip-hop and the MCs, they gave a voice to people being oppressed, and that kind of gave us, as Native Americans, that voice, too," said Supaman, in a phone conversation with OnMilwaukee. "What they were talking about was what we were going through, so it was almost a voice for us."
But now he's found his own voice, releasing five albums (with a sixth on its way, hopefully to begin the new year), touring the nation performing his music to the masses – especially to young people on the rez – creating viral music videos with his unique blend of rap and Native traditions and even winning a VMA award this past year for the rap collaboration "Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL" with Black Eyed Peas member Taboo. That voice will also fuel Friday night's MAM After Dark event, a "Novemberfest" also celebrating Native American Heritage Month.
Before he takes the stage, however, OnMilwaukee chatted with the rapper about finding his voice between two cultures, his experience at Standing Rock and being a proud Native American in 2017.
OnMilwaukee: When and how did you discover your passion for rap and hip-hop?
Supaman: Early on, when we first got a glimpse of b-boying and breakdancing. I heard Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight," and after hearing that, I was like, "Yo, there's the sound." I really enjoyed the vibe and the feeling that it put out. We started breakdancing, and any little bit of hip-hop that we could see on TV or anywhere, we were drawn to it.
How do you go about figuring out how you want to combine your modern influences with your more traditional influences?
It actually wasn't something I sought out, because I always kept the cultures separate. I always had our Native culture and our customs and heritage – our normal life, growing up on the rez – then you have this other culture, which is hip-hop culture. I always kept them separate for all these years, for a long time. You could catch that I was from the rez and that I was Native American by the content of my lyrics, but not really in the music sampling or the instruments. So I always kept that line there between them both, because it was like you don't do that.
When did that line go away?
About six years ago, I was invited to do a presentation about Native dancing for Native American Heritage Day for a college here in Bozeman, Montana. They had a drum group and they'd display the culture and talk about the dances. So we went over there, and they were like, "Don't you guys rap too?" And we're like, "Yeah, we do." So they said there were a bunch of schools there and asked if we could rap too, and we said yeah.
So we go to this college and doing Native culture, dancing and talking about the histories of the dances, and then afterwards, we're going offstage to change into our hip-hop stuff and come back and rap. And this lady is like, "Where are you going? I need you to go on right now! Our other speaker, he didn't show up, and you guys are the last ones, so just go on right now and finish it off." And we're in our outfits, our regalia, and my nephew just looks at me – he's a rapper too – and says, "Well, let's just do it." We were kind of forced into that position, but we got on stage and started rapping in our outfits, and everybody's like, "What the hell's going on here? What's this?" (laughs) And it became kind of special and unique. People were open to it and were like, "Wow, this is kind of cool." So they vibed out with us during our set.
We got done and went offstage, and I saw one of my grandpas from back home. He's an elder in the tribe. He's like a historian. He knows every protocol, he knows the language, he knows everything. I saw him coming over, and I was like, "Oh no, he's going to scold me."
As he got closer, he took his hat off and he extended his hand to shake my hand. And he said, "Grandson, I want to shake your hand. That was pretty damn powerful what you just did. You got up there, and you showed these people that you're proud to be Native. You knew the history of the dance, and you showed them that you come from that world. And then you spoke the language of those youth, of those kids out there, which was hip-hop. And then you had something positive to say, talking about being drug and alcohol-free, being a husband and a father, and that's powerful. You guys keep doing that, because our youth, they're dying. They're committing suicide, and they're on drugs and alcohol. Anything you can do to reach them in a good way, with good intentions, it's worth of the effort."
So right there was the green light for us to say this is a good thing, mixing the cultures together, as long as you have good intentions and positive vibes that you're sending out.
You were a part of Taboo's "Stand Up" video for Standing Rock, which won an MTV VMA Award this past year. How did you originally get involved with that project and that video?
I did a show with MTV called "Wonderland," featuring live performances from some new artists. I went down to L.A. and performed there, and I met one of the producers. Later on down the road – she does a lot of big shows out in L.A., like the BET Awards and Hollywood stuff – she's in the background of a Black Eyed Peas concert, and she knows Taboo is a Native. And she's like, "Hey, I need to show Taboo my friend Supaman's video, because I don't know if he's ever seen it, but I'm back here."
So she tells him, "Have you ever seen this guy Supaman?" And she shows him the video, and he freaks out. He's like, "Who the heck is this? Who is this guy? How come I don't know this guy? I need to work with him!" So she gives him my number, and a week later, Taboo calls me up on the phone. He's like, "I just wanted to say I'm a fan of your work and what you're doing in the community." He starts giving me all these props and I'm just like freaked out. This is a multi-Grammy-winning, multi-platinum recording artist here; he could call anybody and help anybody, and he's calling me and giving me props. It was a huge blessing.
He let me know that he wanted to do some work, some music, and then he said he was doing a song for Standing Rock and he would be honored if I could be a part of it. And he asked if I could do it in my language. And I said, yeah, of course, I'd do it. So he sent me the beat, and I did my verse in my language, which was a huge honor to be a part of that and represent my people with the language, which is really powerful in Native culture.
So we put that out and then we made the video for it. We just put it out; we didn't put it for sale or get money off of it, the song is available online for free. But MTV found the video and nominated it themselves for the VMAs. A label usually submits for its artists, but MTV themselves went and found this video and nominated it. It was really huge and really awesome for the movement of Standing Rock.
So they put it in there and Taboo texts us all in a group text and says we just got nominated for a VMA, and we're all like, "What the heck! That's crazy!" We're all trippin' out, and it was amazing, like a dream come true to be on that level. As an artist, everything dreams of that kind of level of an opportunity and to be there was surreal. So Taboo's like, "I got tickets for everybody, so if you guys can make it, let's mob up in there." (laughs)
What was that like?
We all flew down there, and we got to walk the red carpet. DJ Khaled's on this side, Kendrick Lamar is on this side, Cardi B is over here, Katy Perry and Logic and all these celebrities are everywhere. We're rubbing elbows with them right there on the red carpet – and we're there, for a good cause representing the medicine of water and the whole movement and all Native people. I don't know any Native crew that ever was at the VMAs like that, representing. I wore my family's war bonnet. I wore my wife's beaded cuffs that she got me. I had my moccasins on. We did it right when we walked the red carpet.
And then to win. That was just icing on the cake.
You had been to Standing Rock several times as well during the movement?
Yeah, I went back and forth there, because it's not that far from where I live – maybe six hours or so. So I went there about four different times, different occasions, and brought family out there to witness the movement. That was amazing, that was history being made, so I wanted them to see that and be a part of that. And then I got invited a few times to go back and perform and even go into some of the schools there to speak to the kids, so that was awesome.
What was the atmosphere like there?
It was definitely hopeful when I went. We rolled up into the campsite, and I don't know what it was, but it was just a feeling in the atmosphere, the energy in the air itself was positive and prayerful and peaceful and love. You'd look at this camp on this side, and they're praying over there. You'd see another camp, and there was a ceremony. Another camp is singing round dance songs and people are powwow singing. It was just all people coming together – clergy, Catholics, Muslims, all religions – and putting aside their differences to stand up for what we all need in this life to survive, which is water.
What do you think is the most misunderstood part of life as a Native American in the United States in 2017?
That's a heck of a question. There's so many, so much to choose from. But overall, there's so much and it's so basic at the same time. I'd say the education and knowledge of who Natives are and looking at them as human beings. Even in the Declaration of Independence, it says we're merciless Indian savages. It refers to everyone else as human beings – except the merciless Indian savages. So just to be looked at as a human being and correct the systems that have been against Natives.
That question is tough, but I'd say it's the education system. That needs to be changed, because America is ashamed of what they have done. When you bring out the truth, it shines a light on that darkness that American history really has and that tries to get swept under the rug. So I would say the education of the Native life.
And Hollywood also has made it bad for Natives. We're always in feathers and looked at as people in the past. We're always looked at as old people in the past, our movements are in the past, rather than we're doctors and lawyers, we're actors and hip-hop artists. We're thrivers. We're thriving in society, and we still have a culture that we're still maintaining.
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