Honesty is always the best policy

Winnipeg rapper Wab Kinew stays true to himself on Live By The Drum

Local rapper Wab Kinew rocks the mic. “I think because I’m aware of what other musicians are doing it makes me want to push my own music in the same ways,” he says. Brad Crowfoot

However cliché it may be, it’s rare to see musicians who stay true to themselves. Winnipeg rapper Wab Kinew makes it look easy and, most importantly, makes it sound refreshing, urgent and original.

Kinew’s water-tight blend of modern hip-hop and Aboriginal tradition is not merely an artistic avenue – he’s a walking example of the harmony between Aboriginal and Canadian life. Kinew grew up on Onigaming reserve in Ontario as a young child before moving to Winnipeg to attend elementary school. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics, has studied Aboriginal medicine and currently works for CBC as a radio host.

Kinew said he was 12-years-old when he first became obsessed with rap music, and that he began rapping seriously roughly four years ago as a member of Dead Indians.

“I used to listen to everything, all sorts of music, so I’d be listening to Nirvana, Too Short, MC Hammer even… and then I heard this song ‘Pass Me By’ by The Pharcyde and I thought ‘This is the greatest song in the world, this is it, hip hop is it,’” he said.

Kinew’s new record, Live By The Drum, illustrates his passion not only for hip hop but for other genres of music as well. Several tracks feature live instrumentation and even guitar and trumpet solos, giving his music a more varied and organic sound. Kinew said that the decision to have live instruments on his album comes from his diverse taste in music.

“I think because I’m aware of what other musicians are doing it makes me want to push my own music in the same ways that they do theirs,” he said.

Electric guitars and horns aside, on Live By The Drum, Kinew expresses his Anishinaabe heritage in his lyrical content and on the lead-off track, “Once Again,” a traditional Anishinaabe song he composed. Kinew said that the song comes from the tradition of the Forty-Nine. He said that Forty-Nine songs typically reflect contemporary native life while at once affirming history.

He added that blending Aboriginal culture with contemporary hip-hop can be challenging at times, especially when it comes to subject matter.

“I want to represent who I am as a native person in Canada facing some issues – political, social – but at the same time I don’t want to alienate people. I want to present who I am in a way that people from a different background can understand.”

Kinew’s lyrics exude confidence and positivity – two sentiments often missing in mainstream rap. That’s because his lyrics are a product of simply trying to represent himself honestly while having a good time doing it.

“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, I don’t need to pretend to be a gangster or a drug dealer. I feel like I have enough to say just based on who I am,” Kinew said.

See Wab Kinew Saturday, Jan. 24 at The Pyramid Cabaret.  Advance tickets are $10 at House of Bands (812 Wall St.), Hood Hop’rz (1316 Main St.) and Urban Bakery (398 Portage Ave.) Cost at the door: $15.  Free copy of Live By The Drum with every ticket purchase.

Published in Volume 63, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 22, 2009)

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