It’s a long way from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Baby Shel made the trek two years ago and was greeted like a major rap star — albeit only by one mistaken sushi restaurant.
“They kept bringing me free stuff, and I was like, ‘What’s all this?’ ” recalled Shel. “They said, ‘Anything for you, Fat Joe!’ ”
Yes, the real-life Sheldon Cook Jr. bears a resemblance to burly New York rapper “Fat” Joe Cartagena, but he’s almost full-blooded Ojibwe. That wasn’t the first or last time the 25-year-old member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa has been mistaken as Latino, an error he chalks up to the fact that people simply aren’t used to seeing American Indian rappers.
Baby Shel certainly qualifies as a “local” act when you consider that most of his gigs have been in Minneapolis. He doesn’t think twice about making frequent five-hour drives to the Cities to perform. “A lot of times I’ll come down and do a show and drive back afterward, so I don’t get home until like 7 a.m. It’ll be like a 14-hour road trip round-trip just to do a 30- to 40-minute show,” he said. All Twin Cities rappers who complain about how hard they have to work to get a gig can officially stop now.
Baby Shel has been fully invested in his rap career for about five years now, including a couple of solo albums and work with the Red Lake-area group 100 Souls and the resident label/crew Rez Rap. Last year, his crew opened a string of Midwest dates with Yelawolf (who’s part Cherokee). Shel is headed back to SXSW this month whether or not he wins Are You Local?, with at least two confirmed gigs. Not bad, considering the big gap he faces, both geographically and culturally.
“A lot of people think we live in the Stone Age up there, but we have the Internet,” he said. “That’s a hugely important thing in our case.”
Shel said they’re devouring hip-hop like never before back home. “There are relatable topics in it for native kids,” he said, going down the list: “just living in the gutter, going through violence, losing family members and friends way too often. Hip-hop touches on the really raw, tough stuff that’s happening to us.”
Shel’s personal life attests to how grim reservation life can be. He’s known many friends and relatives who have committed suicide. His cousin Leah Cook was in the classroom that was shot up by a 16-year-old student at Red Lake Senior High School in 2005, where eight died.
His dad — who originally gave him the nickname Baby Shel — just got out of prison in December after serving a 10-year drug sentence. Friday’s showcase might be the first time Sheldon Sr. gets to see his son perform. “He really stressed it to me to stay out of that lane and learn from his mistakes,” Baby Shel said.
A rapid-tongued and intense MC, Shel reflects the bleakness of his settings in some of his hardest, heaviest songs. More often than not, though, his songs are about escapism and rising above. He said, “I want to be known as a rapper who just happens to be native, not a native hip-hop artist.” Likewise, he said, he also hopes to portray the reservation in a more positive light.
“It’s a tough place to live, but at the same time it’s a beautiful place. You can see the stars at night and enjoy the quiet woods life.”
Just getting into Are You Local? was big news back home, he said. “I feel like people are rooting for me up there,” he said.
It’s easy to expect people to start rooting for him down here now, too.