Your knowledge of dance music does nothing to help you understand yesterday. It may in fact limit your ability to understand tomorrow. What little you know of powwows, what gobs you know of whatever fills your days – it’s likely that none of it prepares you to understand the rising of the "urban rez" as conveyed by DJ NDN, Bear Witness, and 2oolMan, otherwise known as A Tribe Called Red.
Some of us have been ready longer than others. Having marinated in our own generational displacement and resilience, some of us already know how A Tribe Called Red buries fluorescence into heads. Dancers flash and glow in whirlwinds of strobe and black light. Sometimes tears well up in the bottom halves of eyes, sometimes they spill over, sometimes we manage to choke them back.
Sometimes, if a crowd screams out loud, is it because they recognize the sound of the drum? If a drum screams, is it because it recognizes tradition retreating too deep into our past? Between throttled reservation land, federal relocation plan, and gentrifying waves, what is lost and how do we regain it? A Tribe Called Red offers answers.
Examining misrepresentation, flipping racist imagery, and bolstering thousand year-old traditions, A Tribe Called Red presents 21st-century storytelling across media. As a Native American DJ collective out of Canada, the scope of danceable saga orchestrated by Bear Witness, 2oolman, and DJ NDN finds root in the Cayugan and Ojibwe histories that are their origin points. On August 28, at Oakland’s The New Parish, you’ll experience the sound and vision that have propelled the group far and wide since the 2008 birth of their weekly Electric Powwow party in Ottowa.
When’s the last time you heard a Northern Cree love song chopped and looped beneath swirling Hollywood drama Native romance video snippets? Not once? It’s just that sort of never never that’s broken down since A Tribe Called Red distributed their eponymous debut online for free in 2012. Since then they’ve continued to feed a Native community that hardly finds itself reflected in a larger society that is, in the ultimate irony of all things, infatuated with incessant self-reflection.
What’s the natural human response to invisibility? If the phrase "Trail of Tears" stirs any thoughts for you, then you understand a degree of the significance at play when we talk about a beat down leaving you more alive than bleeding. For First Nation youth in the Bay Area, the reclaiming of cultural space delivered by A Tribe Called Red is as danceable as any revolution can be. A Tribe Called Red is community restorative healing by design. They are a youth-sanctioned style of informed care. Call it reclaiming cultural space. Call it housecleaning. The wail of air horns, the click-clack of shotguns loading; certain pistol grip steel clappers leave you wounded, bleeding out, sprawled upside down across city hall steps, and some wheels of steel revolve to leave you reborn, vibrating out from your core, dripping history from your pores.
Walk long enough through Oakland to cool down after your boogie induced sweat and you’ll stroll across traditional four directions symbols painted on sidewalks fanning out from downtown into Berkeley and the East. These icons are guideposts for a living memory. One of them is front and center on the sidewalk near Intertribal Friendship House entrance on International Boulevard. The House has been a sort of Indigenous Ellis Island in the Bay Area since opening its doors in 1955 on the heels of a government relocation program that found thousands of Native people relocated to the Bay. Today the House serves thousands of local Native people and their descendants, as well as a larger community of First Nation people who represent 100 tribes from around the hemisphere.
Make your way into the Friendship House and no one can tell you who painted the four directions icon on pavement citywide, but a few will praise the road of A Tribe Called Red. One of those supporters is Intertribal Friendship House Executive Director, Carol Wahpepah of the Ojibwe Nation. Past a freshly watered garden, beyond a charge of murals depicting Native American historical figures and living history, at the end of long hall hung with archival photos from the House’s beginnings, Carol lights up softly at mention of the group.
“A young woman and her parents were up here and I mentioned A Tribe Called Red was going to be at The New Parish and she immediately got excited,” says Carol. “What they do gives pride to the community,” she says, peering out at the community garden just past the office window, beyond a desk piled with flyers for upcoming events. The sight of the garden is a reassurance of sorts, that something healthy is certain at the Intertribal Friendship House, and perhaps in Oakland at large.
It's a sense of wellness through culture that's as certain as the nocturnal certainty of four on the floor. As certain as the Tribune tower, as certain as the Transamerica Pyramid, is the certainty of the Painted Desert, of a Black Mountain ridge that sweeps from underfoot in slopes and crags that speak millennia; as powerful as an expanse of grasslands scanned from a distance as it rolls out like a tight woven tapestry sliced by wind.
A Tribe Called Red is likewise an impressive geography of sound and vision: a hoop and its dancer are an alluring portal deftly played; an audience and its exuberance are a spontaneous nation fresh and waking; a remix of animated caricatures is a rewriting of history that propels a new story.
Do you hear the drums yet?
A Tribe Called Red plays Thursday, August 28, 2014, at the New Parish in Oakland. For more information visit thenewparish.com.