Indigenous people worldwide have used hip hop music to address various aspects of their lives, including their relationships with tradition and decolonization. While many scholars have written about Indigenous hip hop, Raj Singh is one of the few researchers studying it from the perspective of the musicians who create, produce and distribute it.
Singh joins the Don Wright Faculty of Music this fall as one of this year’s successful scholars funded by the Western Research post-doctoral fellowships program. The program was created to draw top-tier post-doctoral talent who will help advance Western’s strategic research plan.
Singh’s current work in ethnomusicology – the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of people who make it – explores hip hop’s popularity amongst Inuit youth and how the genre is helping them to express themselves and voice their concerns and grievances.
“Hip hop is one of the most predominant forms of music that really allows people to say what’s on their minds,” said Singh. “It’s very appealing to young Inuit people because it’s a very DIY culture; you don’t need much. But it’s also an interesting way to express themselves, and what they’re going through in a way that also connects them to the modern aspects of life.”
From throat singing to throat boxing
Singh’s prior research focused on throat singing, a traditional form of music unique to the Inuit. Originally performed by women, the technique creates rhythm by controlling breathing and the passage of air through inhaling and exhaling. Although Singh loved the sound and the performance of watching throat singing, her interest is in “the strong relationship between throat singing and the singer’s relation to identity, culture and belonging.”
“Through throat singing, people really know their environment,” she said. “A lot of women, and now men, told me they wanted to learn it because it was a sound they grew up with, and that it made them feel ‘more Inuk.’ Even (throat singer) Tanya Tagaq, was drawn to throat singing because she wanted to be ‘more connected to home.’”
Singh’s now discovering the same cultural connections being forged for Inuit hip-hop artists – and their impassioned young fans. A large part of her research centres on Nelson Tagoona, a musician from Baker Lake, Nunavut, who combines throat singing with beat boxing to create ‘throat boxing.’
“Nelson’s more focused on regeneration and putting throat boxing and throat singing out there so other youth can get into it,” Singh said. “And there’s a resurgence happening, where the more people are connecting to their culture, the more it impacts intergenerational trauma, healing, leadership and cultural health.”
Music by artists such as Tagoona is having an important impact on youth in communities across Nunavut, where the suicide rate is the highest in Canada. The musician has openly shared his experiences with suicide and struggles with depression through his music and motivational talks.
Singh also hopes to work with Shauna Seeteenak, an Inuk hip hop artist and rapper also from Baker Lake, and cousin to Tagoona.
“She’s one of the very few, if not only, female Inuit hip hopper that is out right now with a recorded album.”
In her song, See the Light, Seeteenak shares the struggles she’s overcome, encouraging others to “keep on fighting” against the trauma and issues that are not their fault.
Bridging two worlds
For many Inuit youth, hip hop, which continues their culture’s rich history of oral storytelling, can help bridge the old traditions they want to keep with the technology and innovation that also plays an important part in their lives, Singh said.
“There’s this tension between tradition and modernity youth face, where there’s always a call to be out on the land to hunt, fish and know your surroundings. But that’s also juxtaposed with media, and media consumption. Facebook is one of the largest forms of communication between the Inuit communities.
“Hip hop is the mediation between the two, where they can talk about these tensions. And when you combine throat singing to form throat boxing, it’s just the perfect blend of past and present life in music. It’s necessary, but also informative.”
Building best practices
Singh will be supervised by assistant dean of research and music professor Emily Ansari.
“We’re very excited to welcome Raj to the faculty of music where we are working hard to bring greater knowledge of Indigenous music-making across Turtle Island to our research portfolio,” Ansari said. “Raj’s presence here will help enormously with that.”
Singh will work closely with Ansari and popular music studies professor Norma Coates to build and employ best practices in Indigenous research. Ansari said she is hopeful Singh’s presence in the faculty over the next two years will encourage other young Indigenous musicians and scholars to consider Western as a place to study and conduct research.
Singh is eager to help make Indigenous music – and Indigenous issues – a more central part of education and mission at Western and beyond.
“One of my goals is to bring Inuit hip hoppers to Western to give performances and talks so that we can have meaningful conversations,” she said. “It’s about creating awareness around the social issues, but it’s also about sharing Inuit music, because there’s so much happening in Inuit communities that we never hear about.”