International recognition seemed far-fetched, to say the least, for rap duo Violent Ground when they first formed in the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach in the northern borderlands of Quebec and Labrador. Yet, their International Indigenous Hip Hop Awards Show (IIHHAS) nomination for Album of the Year proves just how far the brothers Allan and Christian Nabinacaboo have come from their far-flung homeland.
The awards will help Indigenous, reservation-dwelling up-and-comers “to not feel so secluded. When we were younger, we had very slow Internet, so it was hard to learn online, meet people out of the rez, and showcase your craft,” the duo told Complex ahead of the inaugural IIHHAS, which will be livestreamed from Winnipeg May 22-23. Violent Ground (who are also featured performers at the ceremony) add: “With these awards, you can prove that you got a voice and skill. We hope it brings out the talent that we know is on the reservations.”
They went on to shout out fellow nominee David Strickland, a veteran producer and engineer that has worked with Drake, EPMD, Method Man and Redman and more, and is up for both Producer and Single of the Year at the IIHHAS. Violent Ground credit Strickland with discovering and mentoring them. During a phone interview, the esteemed beatsmith recalls first visiting his cousin in Kawawachikamach in 2011, and being introduced to Violent Ground: “I’d been to reservations, but this was different. It was fly-in country. I’d never been that far north.” Despite the isolation, Strickland was impressed by the duo’s already formidable lyrics and production. He says it’s been a pleasure to remain in touch with Violent Ground, DJ their live sets, teach them engineering, and see them grow. The song that he produced during that first visit to Kawawachikamach, “Rez Life,” appeared on Violent Ground’s self-titled 2014 debut. The subsequent remix evoked Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and was featured on Strickland’s 2020 album Spirit of Hip Hop.
It’s an LP that dovetails with the IIHHAS. Chalk that up to not only Strickland’s eclectic production, but also his deft drafting of an Indigenous MC dream team. Many of those collaborators are nominated for their own work, from Snotty Nose Rez Kids to HellnBack, at the IIHHAS. Strickland says the May 22-23 ceremony “ties into what my album is about, which is showing the similarities in [Indigenous and hip-hop] cultures, and getting more of the artists to think on a bigger scale.” He is also looking forward to hosting a beat tutorial as one of the awards show’s events, and then giving that on-the-spot finished music to the winner of an IIHHAS contest.
“With these awards, you can prove that you got a voice and skill. We hope it brings out the talent that we know is on the reservations.”
Ceremony hosts Lil Mike and Funny Bone say they are eager to support the IIHHAS because they “give an outlet for Indigenous artists to develop their talents, and something to strive for. Also, it opens the door for all the artists to network.”
Such bridgebuilding is crucial, says event co-founder and marketing director Chris Sharpe (who is an artist in his own right under the alias C Sharpe). “Artists from all over world will be able to connect using this platform,” he says, before describing opportunities to sell merch, consult on branding, meet and plan future collaborations and post-pandemic tours, along with tapping into fresh markets via the new bonds forged through the ceremony.
Sharpe began working on the IIHHAS after being approached by Paul Sawan, a.k.a. award-winning B.C. hip-hop artist K.A.S.P, who is also an event planner and motivational speaker. Sawan was impressed by Sharpe’s work on the Canadian Urban Television Hip Hop Awards. They reached out to Indigenous artists in their networks and, along with activist and artist Christie Charles (a.k.a. Vancouver poet laureate MissChristie Lee and Billy Pierson (a.k.a. Jon C of Winnipeg’s Most fame), they began “building the IIHHAS as a platform that will give voice to Indigenous artists who wouldn’t necessarily get exposure otherwise,” says Sharpe.
The artists involved aren’t the only ones benefitting from those efforts. Sharpe sees clear parallels between “today’s Indigenous rappers, and rappers in the ’80’s living in ghettos and speaking on social justice issues.” Be it Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, environmental issues, or the importance of respecting elders, Sharpe says the IIHHAS’ nominees have no shortage of crucial messages to share. That’s why he and his fellow coordinators want the awards ceremony to push the broader music industry to begin recognizing and “investing in these Indigenous arts communities, in order to help them grow.”