How hip-hop helped this Ojibwe/Chicano Detroiter define himself
As part of Michigan Radio’s Songs from Studio East series, this year we are exploring music that combines both contemporary and traditional music from around the world.
Today, we meet Sacramento Knoxx from southwest Detroit.
Knoxx is a hip hop artist who blends Mexican and indigenous music into some of his songs.
Knoxx’s father is Ojibwe. He came to Detroit from Walpole Island, a reservation on the Canadian side of Lake St. Clair. Knoxx’s mother’s family came from Mexico. Both his parents came to Detroit because of the many industrial jobs that were available at the time.
“That’s how I got here. Through the mixing and blending of Detroit’s industrialism. Bringing people over here to work in the steel factories and the mills and the car companies,” he says.
Knoxx says he struggled with his identity when he was growing up in southwest Detroit. He felt like he wasn’t “Mexican enough for the Mexican kids” and not “native enough for the native kids.”
Knoxx says it was hip-hop that allowed him to create a new identity for himself.
“What was monumental was the hip-hop culture, going into the hip-hop culture and understanding that as the new indigeneity of urban cities," he says.
Knoxx says hip-hop isn’t just a new kind of music. It’s also a lifestyle.
“Hip-hop is just the struggle in the city, the struggle from where you’re coming from,” Knoxx says. “For example, hip-hop to me is taking the extension cord from grandma’s house and running that boy over to our house because we couldn’t pay the electricity bill.... And I think growing out of poverty and violence, you really learn how to make something out of nothing. And that’s like the root of hip-hop culture, making something out of nothing.”
In recent years, Knoxx has used hip-hop to connect to his cultural roots. Five years ago he dropped an album called #TheSelenaTape. It was inspired by the music of the Chicana singer, Selena Quintanilla-Perez.
“'The Selena Tape' was birthed out of respect and love for women, especially such as a great woman as Selena: A singer, a role model, culture creator. Being a hip-hop artist, to mix and sample and flip beats in music, that was like a piece of me sharing who I am and what I like to do with Selena.”
Knoxx is also tapping in to his indigenous roots. Recently the Canadian electronic group A Tribe Called Red reached out to him and asked if he wanted to collaborate on a single.
A Tribe Called Red is known for combining dance beats with indigenous music.
The song Knoxx and a Tribe Called Red collaborated on inspired by the #DearNativeYouth campaign. It’s meant to uplift young indigenous people and let them know they are loved and valued.
“I work a lot with young men in the neighborhood. It was a message based with them and based off a lot of native kids around the country,” Knoxx says. “Because we have to deal with mental health problems like suicide issues and feeling like we aren’t a human being or gone from existence. That message of ... you are worth something, you’re valued, you’re a beautiful human being and you’re the next generation.”
This kind of work comes after decades of federal policies meant to strip indigenous people of their culture. Things like boarding schools where kids were taken away from their families, beaten if they spoke their native language, and kind of taught how to "be white." And here in the U.S., there was actually a law that made it illegal for Native Americans to practice their ceremonies.
Knoxx says there was a time in his life when he didn’t embrace being indigenous.
“I remember being young, it was never cool to be Indian, it was like I don’t want people to see that I’m reconnecting with this culture because colonialism tried to make native people nonexistent in the world. So there’s that stigma, there’s still that colonial ideology around that,” Knoxx says.
But he says music has helped him reconnect to his indigenous roots.
He says it’s his duty as an indigenous person and a hip-hop artist to help bring native culture back in a new form.
“There’s a lot of those messages that come with being indigenous. Uplift those back stories and those things of who you are. Uplift those things and part of the revitalization comes with that, relearning ourselves, and de-colonizing our mind and just restoring our culture,” Knoxx says.
Knoxx and A Tribe Called Red will release their single in the coming months.
“I’ve been making music that’s been helping movements, that’s been helping education and workshops, so they’ve been specifically written a type of way. This is how I define it: ‘we art’ and ‘me art.’ And ‘me art’ is just talking about my life and my self-centered goals and emotions as opposed to ‘we art,’ which tells our history as people, our togetherness as a collective and humanity,” Knoxx says.
But Knoxx says he is going to start focusing on music that takes more of a personal narrative form. He’s working on an album about his life in Southwest Detroit.
“It’s being vulnerable. It’s letting everybody know about my mental health issues I have, my struggles with addiction, my attempted suicides and being violent to other people,” he says” “To give that narrative to help show people that you can turn into a butterfly. You can transform. You can fly beautifully. You ain’t gotta walk on the lowest plain of existence and get stepped on or smashed, just be a slow caterpillar,” Knoxx says.
Knoxx’s new album about Southwest Detroit is scheduled for release this fall.
Songs from Studio East is supported in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.