Arts and Entertainment

Anchorage Museum’s ‘We Up’ exhibit highlights northern indigenous hip-hop

There's a northern hip-hop party going on at the Anchorage Museum, and it won't stop until the end of the month.

The "We Up" exhibit showcases video of indigenous northern hip-hop artists in three adjoining rooms on the first floor.

In the first room, Ailu Valle raps in the Sami language in a Finnish forest. In the next, Athabascan rapper Samuel Johns delivers rapid-fire rhymes in sunglasses and headphones about issues facing his people. And in the third, dancer Brianna (McMillen) Pritchard, who has Tlingit heritage and dances by the name Bgirl Snap One, spins and flips.

Each room has a bench where viewers can sit and chill while taking in the sights and sounds.

The videos are part of the raw footage of an upcoming documentary about indigenous northern hip-hop artists by Anchorage Museum Curator of Public Engagement David Holthouse. He said he plans to complete the documentary in a year or so. Graffiti artists, dancers and DJs, some of whom graft tribal music and moves onto their work, are also highlighted in Holthouse's project.

"This music-based subculture that started in the south Bronx is now being reinterpreted by these Native people from rural Alaska" and other northern regions, Holthouse said. "They're rapping about a very close emotional and spiritual connection to their place. They're referencing rivers and trails and forests instead of subway lines" and urban neighborhoods.

He said hip-hop is a style that's always ripe for reinvention, and that's part of why it has become so popular in far-flung places.

Johns, who grew up in Copper Center and raps in English, started recording tracks when he was 18.

"When I started writing, I really wanted to tell my story and tell the story of what my people are going through," said Johns, 31. "I like to use hip-hop as a platform to be heard and tell my story."

Inspired by the storytelling styles of Tupac Shakur and Eminem, Johns has composed tracks about domestic violence, homelessness and the loss of identity in his culture.

He gleans a lot of material from his interaction with the homeless. Johns runs a nonprofit called Forget Me Not, which reunites homeless people with their families.

His latest track, "Rise," is "the story of rising from losing everything. It's a song straight from the heart," Johns said. "My people have gone through a lot. Colonization is still fresh in the air. I see a lot of historical trauma. I can tell there was a point in time where they lost faith and hope because they didn't really have their true identity."

Unlike Johns, break dancer Pritchard doesn't directly reference her Tlingit heritage in her work. But she considers the style itself an extension of traditional northern dance.

"Many indigenous cultures treasure the art of movement," Pritchard said in promotional materials for "We Up." "They have tribal dances and movements, and a lot of break dancing moves stem from that sense of a tribal beat and tribal movement."

Pritchard, a competitive break dancer who also teaches dance, does blend other cultures into her routines. She mixes in Russian kicks, martial arts and African-inspired moves, and sometimes lands in a lotus-like position adapted from yoga.

It's hard to believe when you see her moves in the "We Up" video, but Pritchard said she wasn't very good at other forms of dancing when she was a teenager.

"When I discovered break dancing I discovered it was very athletic and I could do these crazy moves because I was athletic and very strong," she said. "I figured it was the only way I'd be able to dance … My dad break danced in high school. He taught me a few things, then I took it and ran with it and took it to a whole new level."

Pritchard says she wants to use her role as an ambassador for the northern hip-hop world to motivate others.

"I like to show people what you can do with your passion and how you can carry it to others," she said.

"We Up"

When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. every day through Thursday, Aug. 31

Where: Anchorage Museum, 625 C St.

Tickets: Free with museum admission (anchoragemuseum.org)

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