Mahlikah Awe:ri:

An artist of conscience

 

In light of the Pan Am Games and  in conclusion of “National Aboriginal History Month”, we sat down with the remarkable Mahlikah Awe:ri to discuss Hip Hop culture, spoken word and arts education.

 

Mahlikah Awe:ri , Enml'ga't-Saqama'sgw, Walking Woman, is a First Nations (Haudenosaunee Kanien’kéha and Mi’kmaw) drumtalk-poetic-rapologist; musician; hip hop MC; arts educator; radio show host; artivist, and curator, based in Toronto, with Nova Scotian Roots. Her live music and poetry have been performed across Turtle Island and Internationally in places such as Ireland, Trinidad & Tobago and New Mexico. Mahlikah is also a founding member of Red Slam Collective Indigenous Hip Hop Movement, 2013 nominees of the inaugural TD Diversity Arts Award. In 2011, Awe:ri released the spoken word EP Serpents Skin; currently published in four literary anthologies, she was nominated for the KM Hunter OAC Literary Arts Award in 2013. During the 2014-2015 academic year, she will be delivering The Web Of Life Arts Education Project in partnership with the OAC, will be one of four Poetry Slam Coaches for the Toronto Public Libraries Poetry Saved Our Lives 2015 Pan-AM Poetry Slam City for youth ages 13-19 years, and is a lead artist for the Expressing Native Culture Through the Arts in partnership with the TDSB Aboriginal Education Centre, and the AGO. Mahlikah Awe:ri is the first Canadian poet to be featured in the American Sistah Of Vizions 12 month Poet Calendar published annually by SpokenVizions Magazine for 2015. She made history by becoming the first indigenous artist selected to the Toronto Arts Council's Inaugural 2015 Cultural Leaders Lab Fellow.

 

Interview

by Literary Arts Editor Sheniz Janmohamed

 

S: How did you get into spoken word and hip hop, and what was it about these art forms that resonated with you? 

M: I'm pretty sure I was born into spoken word. My mother, my grandparents and grand uncles were all great storytellers. Listening to stories, sharing stories and reading stories were a part of my childhood. I started writing my own poetry in Grade 5 after doing a unit on Shell Silverstein. It was around that time that I also got into drama and writing plays and performing in plays for school. My first exposure to Hip Hop culture was in the early 80's. When my older cousins would come to visit they would try and teach me how to B-Girl. It was hard. Then in 1984 I moved to Scarborough and HipHop hit me full force. Everyone was into at least one of the four elements and if you weren’t, you were considered lame. I started listening to rap music on the radio and a lot of my new friends had older siblings who were into DJ’ing so I was able to get a lot of bootlegged mix tapes. With a boom box and walkman I began memorizing my favourite rap joints and practising my flow. By the time I was in Grade 7 I was writing my own rhymes and freestylin'; mostly with my girlfriends because the boys still didn't rate girls in any kind of rap cipher. So my attention shifted between athletics and Speech Arts competitions until I transitioned to High School. In High School my love for HipHop and Spoken Word grew and matured. I began being mentored by established poets and emcees. Attending the same High School as the Canadian HipHop legend Maestro Fresh Wes made my hood one of the hot spots in TDot for emerging HipHop talent. Soon I was performing at my high school assemblies; touring with my little drama crew at local middle schools and eventually joining Young Poets of the Revolution, Fresh Arts and Honey Jam. The 90's Spoken Word and HipHop scene in Toronto was on fiyah, and this is when myself and so many of our current leaders in both art forms broke out and began paving the way for social activism and elevated consciousness through the arts. These were the original "At Risk" Youth of Toronto who despite the label risked it all for the love of artistic expression. This was a generation who were truly saved by Poetry and HipHop; I know I would not be still breathing if I didn't have those creative outlets to release the effects of the trauma I experienced by the weight of oppression; the exposure to domestic and sexual violence and the rising drug and gang related shootings in my community at the time.

 

S: How did Red Slam come to be?

M: I was making the transition from being on the Royal Conservatory of Music's Learning Through the Arts Roster to my own independent arts projects in school's and communities. After doing a successful 12 week Red HipHop Workshop series with youth at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto the Youth Program Coordinator at the time Stacia Loft asked me to design a Poetry Slam workshop series for the Fall of 2008; which I called Red Slam. Most of the original founding members of Red Slam attended these sessions and we started moving between poetry to rap; as the workshops were nearing a close we were encouraged to apply for an Aboriginal Urban Strategy Grant and an OAC Career Development Grant so we could develop ourselves as HipHop artists; Musicians; Songwriters and Poets and build an urban indigenous cultural arts Movement. By 2009 we were being mentored by Juno Award winners Digging Roots. In 2010 we started our first tour with material we had developed during our mentorship across Ontario mainly travelling to Rez's and Cities outside of Toronto. Our tour was composed of performance and workshops in various elements of HipHop for the youth. We have tried to maintain the indigenous concept of collectivity at the heart of our movement which means we all revolve around our central mission: 

Uplift, Self-identify and promote Unity through Spoken, Lyricism which Arranges Meaning (SLAM) in order to engage children and youth; along with intergenerational native and non-native communities from coast to coast; like sweet grass we interconnect Indigenous teachings and social justice issues with the expressive activism of Hip Hop Culture;  while allowing the individuals within the collective to evolve artistically; personally and spiritually it is a very fluid concept of honouring everyone's gifts and utilizing those gifts to push the movement which is greater than the sum of all its parts. 

 

S: Can you speak to your arts education projects in schools, particularly the"Web of Life" project? 

M: Web of Life is the third OAC funded arts education project I have delivered through the Aboriginal Artists in The Schools Program. Inspired by the indigenous teachings of the “web of life”, students recognized and expressed “inter-connectedness”with their neighbourhood and local environments utilizing digital photography, rap and slam poetry.  Projects took place during the 2014-2015 school year with grades one-10 in both urban and rural settings with both native and non-native students across Ontario. This project also complemented the NAC 10 curriculum (Expressing Native Culture Through The Arts) which is a visual arts credit offered to all Grade 9 students in Ontario Secondary Schools.


S: You work with youth in many contexts and communities. In your experience, how can we, as educators and artists, empower and support youth? What has worked for you, and what doesn't work?

M: The notion of empowerment is somewhat of a falsehood. Empowerment begins with self...if you are not self-aware and lack a healthy sense of self-identity and self-love, you will not recognize the power in you. You want to support the next generation integrated the 5L's in your practice: Listen. Unlearn. Love. Lead by example. Let go of your positions of privilege.


S: In your biography, you refer to your African/Mohawk and Mi'kmaw heritage. What are some of the challenges you face when expressing/honouring your mixed roots/heritage, particularly in institutionalized spaces?

M: I don't think the complexities of my DNA are at the heart of my everyday challenges in institutionalized spaces...no one is looking at me on a molecular level. It's the immediate labelling which I’m battling on a daily basis this includes my skin colour; my First Nations self-identification;  my gender; my affiliations to urban priority neighbourhoods and HipHop Culture. The challenges are a combination of accessing these spaces both as an artist-educator and opening these spaces up to youth and marginalized groups in the city. This is why at the core of my arts practice is Decolonizing and Indigenizing spaces. It’s not enough to receive an invitation to deliver workshops or perform at the Art Gallery of Ontario or a Toronto Public Library. I should be seen, heard and respected while creating, teaching or presenting in these spaces. I should not be made to feel unwelcome, a token “Indian”or a threat to systems of systemic oppression, which are making our youth unwell.

 
S: What are your thoughts about a designating one month for acknowledging/celebrating  National Aboriginal History Month  (NAHM) in Canada? 

M: Firstly I wish we could lose the “Aboriginal”in NAHM. Let’s call it National Indigenous Heritage Month. Aboriginal means to be abhorrent to your originality. Not something I’m celebrating. Like all the designated heritage months throughout the year, I feel like we do need a time to remind Settlers that we are still here, surviving and thriving despite the struggles we continue to face as a people. It also gives newcomers an opportunity to engage with the community in an authentic way beyond the Citizenship Test. On the flip side celebrating who you are should be 365 days of the year and particularly re-educating “Canadians”about the true history of colonization and its generational trauma on our people should be a mandatory part of the entire Countries curriculum.


S: Who are some of your biggest influences/ inspirations in the hip hop & spoken word world?

M: First and foremost my grandparents and my mom. In the world of Hip Hop I’d say Lauryn Hill, Eve, Bahamadia,  NAS, The Roots, Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, Tribe Called Quest, War Party, Ostwelve,  SupaMan;, Biggie, Tupac, Wu-Tang Clan, Mary J Blige, TLC, Missy Elliot, Mos Def, Alicia Keys.

Spoken Word: Zaccheus Jackson (RIP); Maya Angelou (RIP); Nina Simone (RIP); Billie Holiday (RIP) Janet Rogers, Duke Redbird, Janette Armstrong, John Trudell, Climbing Poetree, Shauntay Grant, Saul Williams, Noor Hasan, Poetic Pilgrimage.


S: Can you speak to the importance of and the philosophy behind decolonizing education and indigenizing hip hop? How have schools (staff, students, or teachers) received and responded to these concepts? 

M: First one must ask the question is Hip Hop Indigenous? HipHop as a culture is composed of the indigeneity of many people's and their artistic gifts. Movements in breakin' can be traced to a variety of indigenous groups in Africa and the Americas, ie. The Apache. Graf is connected to ancient civilizations around the world who told their people's stories through pictographs and rock paintings. The DJ is the contemporary Drum Call, the drum is the original beat only second to our own hearts, which is the first rhythm which moves us, while we await birth in our mother's womb. As our people say, the drum is the heart beat of our people. And finally the MC, the storyteller, we come from a community of storytellers, a rich tapestry of oral literature. Yes, HipHop has historical roots in the South Bronx, but as a culture it is a living, transformative, evolving global force; where self-expression is cultivated and empowered. Decolonizing through HipHop creates a learning cipher with the youth at the centre that enables participants to engage meaningfully and take ownership over their own learning journey and personal narrative. This helps young people to discover and understand their interconnectedness to one another as co-existing Indigenous and non-Indigenous beings; paying homage to the common Indigenous understanding that we are all related and to the 7 principles of HipHop: Peace, Love, Unity, Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding.  I try to incorporate the 4 Directions of Indigenizing HipHop which I utilize for the schools; communities; juvenile detention centres and University Programs:

1.      Integration of Indigenous Teachings and Principles of HipHop

2.      Identity and the Fifth Element of HipHop Knowledge of Self

3.      Interconnectedness of the Indigenous Sharing Circle and the HipHop Cipher

4.      Invoking Idle No More; No More Silence in the development of 7Gen Leadership through Social Artivism.

With the launch of Rhymes to Re-education last year and the first ever HipHop Symposium at the TDSB for grades 7-11 this year, it is clear that someone in the education system is finally in tune to the richness of holistic learning. Of course the fears are that if you take a culture which came from the streets and the stories of marginalized struggles, will bringing Hip Hop education into the classroom lead to diluting the culture and appropriating the culture?  On the other hand, some educators think this kind of learning will have students rebelling against the system and that their traditional way of teaching will soon become obsolete. From first-hand experience most students even if they aren’t into rap music, they have some connection to HipHop and they really respond to be given the opportunity to have critical analysis over global issues, real talk, self-reflection and creative exploration through the elements of HipHop. Most teachers are thrilled with the level of student engagement and participation; and how much they are learning about indigenous peoples through HipHop elemental activities.

 

S: Tell us about some of the projects you are currently working on, and where we can catch your upcoming performances/workshops?

M: I am always manifesting new creative initiatives. In the coming months I will be in Montreal the week of July 6th. I will be doing some radio on CKUT’s Native Solidarity Radio July 7th 6pm and then I’ll be dropping a set with Kalmunity around 9:45pm. Then I’ll be back in at 6 for the Toronto People’s Social Forum headlining with Red Slam Collective on July 11th at Beit Zatoun. July 17-19 I will be one of four workshop facilitators for the Water is Our Womb Retreat at Gibraltar Point. And during the month of July I will be one of the fierce femmes cast to workshop a new play by Catherine Hernandez called I cannot Lie to the Stars that Made Me, being workshopped at Buddies and Badtimes.


To read and hear more about Mahlikah, visit:

Red Slam, Right Level:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ro_fYcYvSoI

Instagram: https://instagram.com/mahlikah_aweri/

Twitter: @redslam

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/RedSlamCollective

 

 

Sheniz Janmohamed                     
LaVaLab Literary Arts Editor
literaryarts@lavalab.ca


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