Growing up in a small, central California town, Melissa Leal, Esselen/Ohlone, was captivated by the music of rappers and hip hop artists and harbored dreams of becoming a professional dancer. During difficult times in her life, it was that ambition and hip hop artists’ messages of resistance that inspired her and helped her find a way forward.
Her room became a hip hop shrine, its walls plastered in magazine posters of Nas, the Roots, Common, Busta Rhymes as well as her favorite rapper Tupac Shakur, whose powerful eyes seemed unfiltered and familiar, as if he was gazing back at her like she was an intimate friend.
Many of those photographs, she would discover, were taken by renowned hip hop photographer Ernie Paniccioli, a Cree Brooklyn native, an unexpected link between her favorite music and her Native identity.
Later in life, she would learn that the connection between hip hop and her indigenous roots went far deeper than she imagined, and she would eventually make it the focus of her doctoral studies at the University of California, Davis.
“The main thing to understand is that Native people involved in hip hop aren’t appropriating other people’s culture,” said Leal, 30, who finished her doctorate in Native American studies in June. “Hip hop is an indigenous aesthetic: it’s drumming, it’s dancing and it’s storytelling. It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless.”
Across Indian country, there are examples of Native rappers and artists who are using hip hop to reinforce or transmit cultural traditions, and Leal believes hip hop can be a medium that bridges the generation gap in these teachings.
Dakota students, for instance, have written rap songs about their lives, she said, and asked elders to translate them into the tribal language. Another hip hop/reggae group named Audiopharmacy, which includes Ras K’Dee who is Pomo, uses deer hoof rattles and other traditional instrumentation, Leal said.
K’Dee, one of several hip hop artists Leal interviewed for her dissertation, said the experience of traditional Pomo songs—the dreams, the energy, the vibrations—is similar to his experience of creating Audiopharmacy music, she said. Another interview subject, Navajo hip hop dancer, Marschelle James, told Leal that all the preparation required for dancing helps her be more Navajo because they also fit the Navajo protocols for balance in life.
A Navajo rapper, Writtyn, who Leal interviewed writes lyrics about a former abusive relationship and uses that expression to help heal herself and others who listen to her, Leal said.
After conducting extensive research with a linguist, Leal herself has written a rap in the Esselen language, and in her work with local Indian education programs has organized hip hop workshops with students and Savage Family, a well-known Native rap group.
“Hip hop music kept me alive in a lot of ways, and so I’ve always recognized the power of music, whether ceremonial or hip hop,” she said. “Music is powerful and can do a lot for people on an emotional and physical level.”
In her current position with the Indian Education Program in the Elk Grove Unified School District in Northern California, Leal has begun using her research to engage her students in their culture through hip hop. She recently partnered with Savage Family, a well-known Native rap group, to hold a workshop where the students wrote their own raps. Though she’s a little shy about her own rapping skills, Leal said she still performed her Esselen rap during the workshop.
“I had to set a good example, so I did the song just so they hear it and see it and follow my example,” she said.
She is also interested in how indigenous people might have been influential in the genesis of hip hop. In part because Paniccioli was so immersed in the early hip hop scene, Leal believes other Native people were undoubtedly involved with the creation of hip hop in the New York City.
Though she hasn't found significant historical evidence of early Native hip hop artists, Leal believes indigenous culture influenced hip hop from the beginning because of Paniccioli's work and because the activism of Indian people and the history of colonization was inspirational to many rappers. KRS-ONE, for instance, raps "there could never really be justice on stolen land" in his song "Sound of Da Police."
In a paper that will be published in an upcoming anthology “Hip Hop and the Law,” she used her knowledge of indigenous languages to more accurately translate the name of Tupac Shakur, one of the most famous rappers of all time who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996. His name is Quechua—a South American indigenous language—and is often translated simply as “shining serpent,” but Leal says the deeper meaning of those words are more accurately translated to “resplendent symbol of knowledge and learning.”
Shakur’s mother was in turn a Black Panther who was inspired in 1958 by the Lumbee Indians famously fighting off a KKK rally near her home in Robeson County, North Carolina.
“Artists like Shakur have helped me understand that feeling of struggle,” she said. “I recognized how it relates to us as California Indians, with that history of being missionized and declared extinct. I was able to learn a lot about myself because I was inspired by them.”