Forty years after hip-hop culture was born in the South Bronx district of New York City, its foundational creative forms, or “four elements,” are taking on new life with indigenous artists of the Circumpolar North.

These rappers, breakdancers, graffiti artists and turn-tablists (DJs) hail from places throughout Arctic nations, from reindeer herding villages in northern Finland and Norway, to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, to communities large and small in Northern Canada and Alaska. 

Though separated by long distances, they are unified by common elements and recurring themes: connections to ancestral land, defense of hunting and fishing rights, loss of language, climate change and the continuing aftermath of colonization.

By grafting indigenous languages, rhythms, movements and storytelling traditions onto styles designed for reinvention, these indigenous artists are putting their own spin on the radical self-expression, celebration of home, and keen social commentary that hip-hop represents.

What draws people of the north and indigenous cultures to hip-hop is self-expression. Being and showing who we are. Living in the northern regions, it’s hard to express ourselves beyond our communities, because we’re so far away, and isolated, and we don’t ‘fit in’ with the mass population. We go through things they have no idea about. And so with hip-hop, we’re able to take how we feel about things and express them, through graffiti, through rapping, through dancing, and through DJing, and through dancing. Many indigenous cultures treasure the art of movement. They have tribal dances and movements, and that’s where a lot of breakdancing moves stem from, is that sense of a tribal beat and tribal movement.
– Bgirl SnapOne, aka Brianna Pritchard

This summer, the Anchorage Museum began work on a documentary film exploring the similarities and distinctions of indigenous hip-hop artists of the north. Its working title is We Up.

The film is the core of a project to highlight the work of Alaska Native hip-hop artists, and to help forge collaborative links between northern indigenous hip-hop artists in Alaska and other places.

“Hip-hop came out of the South Bronx in the 1970s during a time of great economic and social turmoil,” says Aaron Leggett, Anchorage Museum curator of Alaska history and culture. “As a musical art form, hip-hop told stories of hope mixed with exciting new sounds. Indigenous cultures in the north have a long and rich storytelling tradition, so it makes sense that this music would ultimately inspire people from places about as far removed as you can get from an urban New York landscape.”

Museum visitors may preview a video installation of this project on the first floor west galleries. The installation consists of raw and minimally edited footage excerpted from recent filming sessions in Alaska, Norway, and Finland, with breakdancer Brianna Pritchard (Bgirl Snap One) of Anchorage; rapper Samuel Johns (MC Rebel) from Copper Center, Alaska; and rapper Ailu Valle of Kaamasmukka (Gámasmohkki), a Sámi village in Utsjoki, the northernmost municipality of Finland.

The images and sound are intentionally unvarnished. Chatter between interview subjects and filmmakers is audible, along with the buzzing of mosquitoes and the river rapids outside a sauna. In one clip, the camera operator and Pritchard collide. The background noise and missteps will be edited out of the final film. They are kept here for a candid presentation of the filmmaking process.

Production on We Up continues with a planned release in 2018.

 – David Holthouse, Curator of Public Engagement


Interested in other exhibitions that feature video installations?

SLOW - on view through Sept. 24, 2017


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