His stoic and stern demeanor makes him look like a turn-of-the-century Edward S. Curtis photo subject come to life — albeit in a flat-brimmed Timberwolves hat. But Tall Paul couldn’t help but laugh just a little about where he wound up doing his first interview with his hometown newspaper.
“Just my size,” the 6-foot-3 Ojibwe rapper dryly cracked, taking a seat at a knee-high table in the only unquiet corner of the East Lake Library in south Minneapolis: the kids area.
Sober five years now, the 26-year-old South Sider did not want to meet at one of the many bars near his Lake Street apartment, where other rappers might go for an interview. Lake Street was one of the few constants in his childhood. He and his four siblings bounced north and south of it, between foster homes and their grandmother’s house, while their mom repeatedly succumbed to addictions.
“It wasn’t the best childhood, but I know people with a lot worse,” he said, hinting at some of the lyrics in his songs.
A couple of weeks later at a coffee shop near Lake Nokomis, Paul’s fellow American Indian rapper Chase Manhattan laughed more and talked far less guardedly about a better childhood spent mostly in Eagan. But he, too, has firsthand knowledge of the dire social issues faced by native communities and puts them into song.
It was his older brother Jiman who convinced him to incorporate his indigenous roots into his rap music. That was just a year or two before Jiman’s 2010 death of a prescription drug overdose, a tragedy that Chase blames in part on mistreatment from Indian Health Services.
“He told me all the South Side natives and other native communities would get behind me if I started to write about being a native,” Chase said, smiling at the memory. “He was right.”
With a buzzing underground rap scene and one of the biggest urban Indian communities in the United States, the Twin Cities seems as likely a place as any to breed the seemingly unlikely genre known as native hip-hop. While it’s not exactly booming (yet), Tall Paul and Chase Manhattan are making names for themselves nationally on the Native American arts circuit, and in Canada in Chase’s case.
They’re gaining momentum in non-native hip-hop circles, too. Most prominently, Tall Paul came to the attention of rap-loving comedian Dave Chappelle during his 10-show Minneapolis run in November: “If he really can rap, I’ll sign him up for a million dollars,” Chappelle quipped. “But he’d better be more than 5-foot-7 … and he’d better have better rhymes than just ‘Tall’ and ‘Paul.’ ”
He can, he is, and he does. Here are some of Paul’s lines from “Prayers in a Song,” a 2012 track about being a child of cultural assimilation:
“Inner-city Native raised by bright lights, skyscrapers / Born with dim prospects, little peace in living / As a child, hot-headed ’bout the fact I wasn’t wild / Like they called my ancestors, imagined what it’d be / To live nomadic off the land and free / Instead I was full of heat like a furnace ’cuz I wasn’t furnished / With language and traditional ways of my peeps.”
Paul got into hip-hop in his early teens watching “all the glitz and glamour” in music videos on BET’s “106th & Park” — great escapism then. It wasn’t until he started studying his ancestral Ojibwe language at the University of Minnesota that he thought of channeling his indigenous background into his music, most conspicuously in “Prayers in a Song,” a track half-rapped in Anishinaabemowin verses.
“It got a big reaction within the [Indian] community, and not all good,” Paul remembered. “Some people thought I was desecrating something sacred.”
Chase has wrestled with his native identity in song, too, especially on his 2010 album, “Tribal Tribulations.” The song “What Can I Say to You” relates his pain over his brother’s death to the wounds of the Indian community. In another track, “Native American Dreaming,” he praises President Obama for “giving us hope,” but then asks “when’s he going to give us back the Black Hills?”
The chorus goes: “It’s the blood I’m bleeding and the love for my people / I can’t bear seeing the fear of my heritage leaving / It’s the land that I stand on, the air that I’m breathing / You can’t stop me from Native American dreaming.”
Both rappers cite advantages and disadvantages to being designated as Indian rappers. On the plus side, they naturally stand out from the crowd. But there’s also a certain lack of respect from more mainstream rap crowds, who see them as something of a novelty.
Said Paul, “It makes you unique, but you still have to be a good rapper first or they won’t take you seriously.”
They also have been shunned at times by other Indians, especially elder leaders who see rap music as a scurrilous artistic pursuit — a generational gap common to any hip-hop artist.
“I’ve had some elders say to me, ‘Why are you trying to act black?’ ” Chase said, shaking his head. “That’s them being racist.”
Neither wants to be pigeonholed as an Indian rapper, and both have more songs that don’t refer to their heritage than ones that do. They are as likely to take gigs in clubs — including small-town bars near rural Indian populations around Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Dakotas — as they are to play pow-wows or other traditional native events.
Still, they said, they will never again shy away from bringing out their native past in their music.
“I’ve gone on stage in front of 500 people and brought attention to the issues the native people face, and I think that’s a powerful, important thing,” said Chase. “A lot of times the people in the crowd are people who don’t watch the news on TV or read it, so my songs are the only way they’re hearing about what’s really going on.”