A new generation of hip-hop artists is reaching back with skilled hands, toward their birthrights as gifted orators, on the same hard-won land of their ancestors—our ancestors. They pick up the microphone, a new torch of leadership, and generously offer inspired understanding of their culture, something they say is so often misrepresented in the media.
It is easy for any young person rooted on Six Nations of the Grand River—the largest First Nations reserve in Canada, located approximately a hundred kilometres west of Toronto—to live both a traditional life and a contemporary life, given the amount of support and resources available to them. Six Nations is a self-sustaining community with many Indigenous-owned businesses, cultural and educational schools, radio stations, two lacrosse arenas, media production houses, and, most recently, not one but two Indigenous-owned Tim Hortons coffee shops—not to mention a slew of smoke shacks. Music is a large part of Six Nations culture. The Juno Award winners Derek Miller and Murray Porter come from here. So does Tru Rez Crew, the hip-hop team that was adept at producing banging beats and penning socially conscious rhymes, and that won two Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Awards before disbanding. The freestyler Wes Day, a.k.a. Fresh, says the Six Nations brand of hip hop has ceremony built into it, focusing on the energy and poetics of freestyle. “Everything is irrelevant when you’re in your element” he says.
Today, two names feature prominently on the Six Nations hip-hop landscape: 6BronxZoo and Chilly Chase. The name 6BronxZoo “riffs off the term ‘Six Nay zoo’—when big tourist buses roll through the rez, filled with people taking pictures of us like we’re animals in a zoo,” says James Blood, a.k.a. Jimi James, a 6BronxZoo member with senior hip-hop status from his days performing with Tru Rez Crew. “The Bronx part honours the roots of hip hop, where it started.”
Chase Jarrett, a.k.a. Chilly Chase, comes to the game with a degree in English literature, and so far has released a mix tape, an album, and an EP. His song “Tommy Longboat” was last summer’s most requested song on Jukasa Radio, a Six Nations–based station. Chase, whose rhymes are rooted in current political and cultural struggles on Six Nations, is a self-described songwriter, and has employed beats mixed by the Six Nations D.J. Hunter Sky. Chase is also supported by Gary Joseph and Shane Powless, of the production house Thru the RedDoor, who worked on Chase’s album King of the Rejects. (Chase also worked on several still-unfinished songs with the D.J. 2oolman, before 2oolman got recruited into the trio A Tribe Called Red.)
The artists here call themselves a family, looking out for and supporting each other. (Though, despite Haudenosaunee foundations with matriarchal leadership, Six Nations hip hop is still largely a boys’ game.) The daddy of this family is John Henhawk, who offers support in numerous ways. But the self-promotional game that often takes precedence over real talent and honest rhymes is not the motivation here: these are people with kids, with families, so they’re not driving hard toward the finish line, or to any kind of fame-dom. “We chill,” Fresh says. We’re artists.”
Jeff Speed, an award-winning commercial and editorial photographer based in Toronto, struck up a friendship with Fresh two years ago, while on assignment for Norfolk County Tourism. Speed mentioned his interest in creating a photo essay on Indigenous culture, and Day suggested the Six Nations hip-hop scene. “He’s cool,” says Fresh of Speed. “He’s down to roll.” In the time since, Speed has visited the reserve numerous times, capturing a scene some describe as “underground,” but with bubbling talent surfacing as surely as corn in a soup pot.