Beat Nation Live melds hip-hop and art at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
Call it a party with a purpose. Beat Nation Live’s upcoming PuSh International Performing Arts Festival appearance is sure to skew towards the celebratory, because that’s what this troupe is all about. By embedding hip-hop beats and tribal rhythms within a state-of-the-art media environment, the show’s creators make an energetic case for the idea that contemporary technologies are completely compatible with a First Nations aesthetic.
“The rad thing about Beat Nation Live is the digital graffiti screen and the use of the iPads. It’s pretty immersive,” says half-Cree cellist Cris Derksen, who’ll join vocalist Kinnie Starr, video collagist Jackson 2Bears, visual artist Corey Bulpitt, muralist Gurl 23, and others as part of the festival’s cabaret series, Club PuSh. “Although we have really strong roots in hip-hop, in concert we also delve a lot more into art music and electronics—and I think that’s a good thing.”
One of her fellow performers should be in an especially festive mood: rapper Ostwelve will be celebrating his graduation from the Justice Institute of British Columbia’s Aboriginal Leadership program. It’s a major milestone for the man otherwise known as Ronald Dean Harris, and he doesn’t take it lightly.
“When I started this, I was 13 and it was all about being a rap star,” says the soft-spoken member of the Sto:lo Nation, reached on his cellphone in East Vancouver. “Now there’s a transmutation from what I thought a rapper or a hip-hopper should be into someone who should take on a leadership position in the community.”
Ostwelve is speaking to the Straight during a break from researching biofuels: he’s just bought a car and wants to convert it into a more ecologically friendly ride. Promoting alternative energy sources is one of his passions, although that doesn’t mean he’s going to be rapping about burning green diesel anytime soon. That, he says, is what social media is for. “I was just tweeting about biofuels right now,” he explains. “I get to share those things with people, who in turn share them with their people.”
In his lyrics, Ostwelve seems more of an observer than a politician: he might rap about the evils of meth addiction (“Methodology”) and environmental collapse (“12 Signs”), but he’s not interested in advancing any particular ideology.
“I never say I believe in anything,” he stresses. “It’s all open to debate.”
But his writing is definitely rooted in the First Nations philosophy he has absorbed as an initiate of the Sto:lo Nation’s Spirit Dance society.
“That was where I found out that it’s not about cash, clothes, money, and ’hos,” he explains. “You start to take life for something different. That sense of greed—that sense of being only a consumer of material things—kind of goes away.”
Ostwelve’s Native heritage is less immediately obvious in his music. As a producer, he’s interested in finding ways to incorporate First Nations drumming into his programming, but the most distinctive aspect of his sound is the way it draws on his Fraser Valley upbringing. In other words, he’s at least as fond of hard rock and heavy metal as he is of rap.
“I really like the energy of rock,” he says. “And it’s hard for me to do a protest song about indigenous struggles to, like, George Clinton’s ‘We Want the Funk’. It’s just not the same. It would be like talking about residential schools to ‘Jingle Bells’; it’s never going to work. But Black Sabbath works. ‘War Pigs’ is a protest song, right?”
Ostwelve’s hybrid approach fits right in with Beat Nation Live’s aesthetic. Haida manga and video mashups? Live graffiti on a digital “wall” accompanied by electronically processed cello? The collective seems open to almost anything. And while Ostwelve admits that some Native elders have been dubious about the troupe’s fusion of hip-hop culture and the oral tradition, it’s clear that they’re a natural fit.
“Basically, we’re all storytellers. We’re all Native people with our own traditional cultures—but we’ve made ourselves popular by doing contemporary art.”
Beat Nation Live plays Club PuSh at Performance Works on Wednesday (January 25).