Winnipeg Jules: Reflections on Leaving Peg City


Guest contributor Julie Lafreniere reflects on leaving her hometown and the rise of Indigenous hip-hop in Winnipeg.

It’s no secret that I am in love with Winnipeg.

The frigid winters where at least one person you know gets frostbite, combined with the likely chance of being stabbed every time you walk through downtown at night, mixed with the business-minded mayor who ignores marginalized sectors of his city’s population, might lead you to believe that Winnipeg is a poor choice, among Canada’s expanding urban centres, in which to live.

You, however, would be incorrect.

You would also be turning a blind-eye to Winnipeg’s rapidly growing and ever-diversifying underground music scene.

Back in the good old days I had a radio show. My “radio name” was Winnipeg Jules and I was constantly asked, “What happens if you move away from Winnipeg?” I’d scoff and proclaim, “Don’t be silly. I’m never leaving Winnipeg.” Fast forward one year. Now I’m living in Ottawa.

Living away from Winnipeg, where I’ve lived my entire life, has meant that certain adjustments have to be made. In Winnipeg, I knew all of the great live music venues and could usually get in without waiting in line. Here in Ottawa, I’m lucky if I can find my way home. Sober.

Being brand-spankin’ new to a city is exciting and I’m eager to discover the music scene here in the nation’s capital. But back in my hometown, Winnipeg’s music Indigenous music culture has been blowing up.

Winnipeg began making national noise in 2010, when a writer from MacLean’s attended a rap show in the West end and wrote a colorful piece about Winnipeg’s Most and Lorenzo, two of the Indigenous hip-hop performers that night. Then Native Communications Inc. launched StreetzFM, Canada’s only radio station playing hip-hop 24/7, the only station that is Indigenous-operated and the only one whose on-air personalities are all Native youth. The talent pool runs deep in Winnipeg.

And the Indigenous talent pool runs even deeper.

But what makes the Native music scene in Winnipeg unique from that in, Toronto, or say Vancouver?

First, Winnipeg has remained ‘off the grid’ from mainstream Canadian music for years, so the recent Indigenous noise being made in Manitoba is being amplified and making people take notice.

Second, you just can’t ignore the fact that there are TONS of Indians in Winnipeg. One day my sister and I were in Edmonton at the West Edmonton Mall and we started counting all of the Indians we saw. We counted four. And that was including ourselves. In Ottawa, I have yet to see an Aboriginal person (other than my coworkers), and I’ve been here for three weeks.

But in Winnipeg, there are Indians on every corner.

You can buy bannock in restaurants, most people can jig, and you can probably hear powwow music coming from every second car on Portage Avenue during rush hour. And with so many Indigenous artists in one urban setting, some of us were bound to get noticed.

But many of Winnipeg’s rappers who are currently getting radio play grew up without having any urban Indigenous musicians to look up to. Even though Native people were making hip-hop music, Much Music and radio stations were uncomfortable playing it. Rap and hip-hop was still considered an African-American phenomenon.

Today, all of that has changed. Young Native kids now have tons of Indigenous musicians to look up to—and hip-hop is the music that speaks to them.

Just as hip-hop was a culture born at society’s margins, now our own young Native people are identifying with it, indigenizing and transforming it. Hip-hop allows for expressions of anger, frustration, and emotions that aren’t otherwise being heard in healthy ways. I mean, how many times have you heard rappers say that if it wasn’t for making music, they’d be dead or in jail?

Once young people took hold of the culture and made it their own, Indigenous hip-hop in Winnipeg took off. And it is flourishing.

Native artists don’t make cultural distinctions about who to work with. If someone is good at making beats, that’s all that matters. If someone is the best at mastering tracks, then they’re the one for the job.

Although Winnipeg is a physically segregated city, the music scene is the one place where no lines are drawn based on the colour of your skin. That’s what makes it so refreshing.

Hip-hop is fast becoming the genre among young Indigenous people in Winnipeg.  It is not only crossing colour lines, but also incorporating other genres of music. Wab Kinew, an MC and former member of Slangblossom and the Dead Indians, now raps over powwow music and occasionally incorporates rhymes in Ojibway. Up-and-comer Lorenzo is also making a name for himself by rapping over soulful acoustic music, while Boogey the Beat moonlights as a DJ with the Juno award-winning funk rock group, Burnt Project 1.

Hip-hop is mainstream and, with the number of Indigenous artists making hip-hop music, soon Native musicians will find themselves as part of Canada’s mainstream music scene. But is this a place they want to be? Is this even their ultimate goal?

Winnipeg has been known as the murder capital of Canada, the arson capital, and it is notorious for being the most racist city in Canada, but none of these negative stereotypes are reflected in the Indigenous music coming from the streets. So you have to ask: where does all this negativity come from if it’s not coming from the big, bad, scary Native rappers? (hint hint: City Hall).

Winnipeg’s Indigenous hip-hop scene is successful and it is flourishing because the artists making noise come from the same place the fan base does and they speak directly to issues that kids are familiar with.

So, based on this theory, I guess Ottawa’s music scene will be a bunch of bureaucrats making music about jaywalking… and… public transit wait times…?

Wow, I can hardly wait to get into this scene!

5 Songs to Represent Winnipeg in All Its Grimy Glory

1. P-Nut featuring Kenny G - "Bad Taste" [VIDEO] 2. Winnipeg's Most - "All That I Know" [VIDEO] 3. Wab Kinew - "Heroes" [VIDEO] 4. Young Kidd - "Hometown" [VIDEO] 5. Pip Skid - "Tens of Dollars" [VIDEO]

Julie Lafreniere is an award-winning writer, communications professional, hip-hop head, masters student, yogi and mamabear who's dad is an Indian and mom is a cowboy. Follow her @WinnipegJules.