A Cree hip-hop artist is making a significant contribution to ending the cycle of violence from residential schools.
K.A.S.P. (Keeping Alive Stories for the People) Sawan is a multi-award winning motivational Cree hip-hop artist, who travels the continent performing and hosting motivational workshops for youth. This weekend he will perform at the first annual North American Indigenous Winter Celebration.
The Georgia Straight reached K.A.S.P. in Mistissinni, Quebec, by phone.
“I grew up in foster care,” he said “and hip-hop music pretty much brought me back to my culture and my roots.…Hip-hop music and aboriginal culture relate with each other so much.".
The four elements of hip-hop culture are reflected in indigenous cultural traditions, said Sawan. The MC is like the storyteller, DJs are like the indigenous drummers, break dancers are equivalent to indigenous dancers, and graffiti art is like hieroglyphs and totem poles, he noted. In each of these expressions, both in indigenous cultures and in hip-hop, the artist uses his or her identity and speaks of the past, present, and future.
A storyteller and MC, Sawan speaks openly of his journey through trauma, forgiveness, and giving back. Due to his father’s heroin addiction, Sawan spent his childhood in and out of foster care. Now, six years sober, Sawan said he was able to forgive his father before he passed away.
“He didn’t know how to parent because his father went through residential school,” Sawan said, noting that in later years his father “sobered up” and “gave back”.
Sawan discovered hip-hop in Grade Four when he came across an unmarked cassette tape on his way home from school.
“I ran home—and my dad was passed out on the couch—and we had this tape player and I undid the duct tape on it… put it [the tape] in and pushed play, and the first words that I heard was [NWA’s] ‘cruising down the street in my 6-4’,” Sawan recalled.
That his lyrics are wholesome is no coincidence. He takes care to differentiate himself from the “gangster hip-hop artist” that he once aspired to.
“I call myself a motivational hip-hop artist. …You know, music is healing, right? Music is motivating…” he said.
Craig Stephens, organizer of this weekend’s Indigenous Winter Celebration, said he hopes K.A.S.P.’s message rubs off on his kids. “I play it in the car for them… It would have been so awesome if I could have been growing up listening to his music,” Stephens said.
It’s clear that Sawan’s music has the potential to influence a generation. His song “Hero in My Own Mind” is perhaps corny, but undeniably inspiring. Overall his tracks are a relief to ears tired of the rampant sexism in mainstream music.
Sawan calls Penticton home, where he and his former wife, Elaine Alec, are raising their daughter. It was Alec who helped him find his path.
“I was 19,” he recalled, “and she said ‘you go out there and…all you do is rap, don’t you think there’s more to it than just rapping? Don’t you think you could go out there and educate people…share your story but also share our history…do workshops and educate these kids [about things] such as addictions and our culture?’ And I was like ‘What, what are you even talking about?...It just blew my mind…[her] saying these things, that I could make a change.”
Reached by phone in Penticton, Alec is forthcoming with praise for Sawan. “He’s an amazing father,” she said. Sharing that Sawan was born drug-addicted, Alec said that “he hasn’t had an easy life since day one, and he continues to struggle every day to get past his trauma. …he has fought through it all,” she said.
Alec said she noticed that Sawan was being ripped off by club owners who weren’t paying him for his shows, and that he didn’t realize how big of a following he had. That all changed when she assumed the role as his manager, which she continues doing to this day.
K.A.S.P. expressed optimism for healing and equality of indigenous people in Canada, adding that “doing what I love and motivating communities and youth, I feel pretty blessed.”
K.A.S.P. performs at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Saturday and Sunday (December 19 and 20). His upcoming album is scheduled for release on June 21, 2016 (National Aboriginal Day).