JUNEAU — The crowd clamored and inched toward the stage as Byron Nicholai took the handoff from Arias Hoyle.
Like the anchor in a relay race, Nicholai took the performance down the home stretch, rapping in Yup’ik over a beat put down by Nehiyaw DJ Matthew Creeasian.
The rap cypher — essentially a hip-hop freestyle gathering where emcees trade verses — is a standard form in the genre.
But the performance at Áak’w Rock, with five Indigenous hip-hop artists, was virtually unprecedented. Claiming to be the only Indigenous music festival in the United States, Áak’w Rock featured three venues, more than 25 bands and performers and, perhaps most importantly, dozens of moments of connection and collaboration.
“It’s the future,” said Hoyle, who performs as Air Jazz. “We’re all universally heard under one roof. And that is what we manifest people with, is that we put us all together.”
The three-day festival was presented by the Tlingit & Haida tribal government and Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. While it launched with a virtual event in 2021, Áak’w Rock was finally able to realize its full vision and promise last weekend in Juneau. It’s a vision that creative director Qacung Blanchett has been trying to produce for decades.
A conversation between Blanchett and Tribal President Richard Peterson a few years ago put the wheels in motion. After the arts council was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the 2023 festival started to take form.
“It’s even better than I imagined,” Blanchett said. “This is an emotional roller coaster. I’ve been laughing, I’ve been crying, I’ve been freaking out.”
Áak’w Ḵwáan is the traditional Tlingit territory in and around Juneau. The festival included a strong contingent of Alaska Native performers, joined by national and international Indigenous musicians.
There was plenty of hip-hop, from headliners The Halluci Nation and Snotty Nose Rez Kids to Navajo artist Def-i, who hosted the rap cypher. He said participating in a festival that was run and coordinated by Indigenous people put a much-needed spotlight on the performers.
“It’s unique, one of its kind,” he said. “We’re here. We all have amazing skills and abilities. Sometimes we don’t have the platform to share our skill and abilities. Many of us feel like we’ve hit a ceiling at times, but places like this give us a chance to feel like we’re free again.”
The cypher featured three Alaska Native artists. Nicholai, who performs as I Sing. You Dance., is from Toksook Bay. Inupiaq rapper Allison Warden performs as Aku-Matu. Hoyle, who is Tlingit and from Juneau, did a solo Air Jazz show and is also a member of Khu.éex’, a funky collective of Pacific Northwest Indigenous creators.
“You feed off the energy of the other rappers and you get inspired by what just happened,” Warden said. “It’s very in-the-moment and organic. The energy just kept building on itself.”
Another opportunity for organic creation came in the nightly open jams held in the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. The jams featured everything from traditional songs performed in Native languages to jam classics like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Anchorage songwriter Witty Youngman, whose music integrates jazz, soul and blues, hosted the first night’s jam. By the end of the night, a dozen musicians had joined her on stage playing a variety of instruments. She said her conversations with the other musicians reinforced how unique the atmosphere was.
“This is a different place for them as well,” she said. “The festivals they’ve been to before are nothing like this. They’re surrounded by people that look like them, people that sound like them. When they say representation matters, this is what we mean.”
Youngman, who is King Island Iñupiaq, participated in the 2021 Áak’w Rock. She said being able to rekindle old friendships for the in-person version made it much more impactful. Quinn Christopherson, the 2019 NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner who performed at the festival, was an old friend from Anchorage open mic stages.
“I haven’t seen Quinn Christopherson in a long time,” she said. “Him and I, even before we knew what it was to take performance seriously, we were doing open mics together. It’s fun to take a step back and be like ‘Yo, we made it. We’re here and it’s so cool to see you. I’m so glad you’re here.’ ”
There was an undeniable energy of homecoming throughout the various venues with performers, attendees and organizers exchanging hugs, smiles and stories.
“The ancestors are smiling seeing us together, lifting one another up, taking up space,” Anchorage songwriter Ashley Young said. “Nothing beats a room full of our boisterous laughter, languages and traditional cries.”
While the jams were fertile grounds for collaboration, the main stage performances were showcases for both lesser-known and established musicians.
“There are festivals that create space for us, but they’re like, afterthoughts,” Blanchett said. “Everybody here is a headliner.”
Katherine Paul, who performs as Black Belt Eagle Scout, grew up in the Pacific Northwest as a member of the Swinomish tribe. She performed at powwows as a jingle dress dancer and as part of her family’s drum group. She said the festival offered not only a unique opportunity, but unique hospitality. As a sign of gratitude, all of the performers were given a gift: a traditional handmade Tlingit necklace called a Tináa.
“It’s so cool to be here,” she said. “There’s a lot of really nice thought put into things because of our connected backgrounds, or just sort of getting one another. This gift that I got, it’s something Indigenous that you do. I wouldn’t see that at another festival. There seems like a lot of care has been put into this festival.”
While the festival featured notable hip-hop acts, both from Alaska and Outside, there were also singer-songwriters, blues, jazz, soul, funk, folk and rock all infused with Indigenous language, traditions and style.
Some performers, such as Nicholai or Inuit soul group Pamyua, incorporate Native language heavily into their work. Charly Lowry sang “Keep My Memory,” a song dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“There’s Indigenous excellence in every single genre (of) music and they bring something more,” said Neilga Koogéi Revels, the festival’s project director. “There’s a larger mission for them too, when they’re playing. They want to represent. They want to bring other Indigenous people to the table and to listen to music with such meaning and message is really powerful.”
The festival was also a showcase for Native fashion designs, modeled by both the performers and attendees. From seal skin vests to fur-covered Xtratufs to dozens of pairs of unique earring designs, elevated craftsmanship was on display. During her performance, Young wore pants designed by Indigenous artist K̲aachgóon Rochelle Smallwood that were painted with bleach and include formline design and elements from Tlingít stories.
McKeel Martin, 18, was one of many younger attendees at the festival. He said he was excited to see Sitka-based artist Nicholas Galanin’s Ya Tseen and Snotty Nose Rez Kids. But he also enjoyed Chantil Dukart, a jazz pianist based in Colorado who grew up in Alaska.
“It’s a cool thing,” he said. “I hope to see more of this in the future. More artists from around the world.”
On Friday, Ya Tseen was joined on stage by Choctaw songwriter Samantha Crain, who stunned the crowd with her Thursday performance. They performed the song “Look at What the Light Did Now,” which they recorded last year and was featured on the hit TV show “Reservation Dogs,” in the second season’s fourth episode.
McKeel’s sister Michaela Martin, 26, had initially planned on buying a ticket to the festival, but decided to volunteer instead.
“It’s really great to be surrounded by Indigenous music,” she said.
While the crowed generally skewed younger, there were music fans of all ages in attendance. Juneau’s Norman Sarabia will turn 70 next year. A traditional dancer himself, Sarabia realized he had acquaintances and even relatives performing.
“That band (Ya Tseen) from Sitka took me by surprise,” he said. “They played blues and rock ’n’ roll. That was a pretty good way to kick it off. I even got out there and danced too. It’s been a long time since I just regular danced and it was a lot of fun.”
What was a modest crowd on the opening day Thursday afternoon grew steadily as the weekend progressed. By Saturday, the Centennial Hall Convention Center concert area was brimming and the lobby was hopping with activity as festival-goers perused tables with artists’ merchandise and Indigenous arts and crafts.
The festival included international artists and was originally scheduled to host even more. The rap cypher was a last-minute addition to fill in for vaunted New Zealand artist Rob Ruha, who fell ill before the festival.
Blanchett said organizers have a long and growing list of performers for future Áak’w Rock festivals. The festival is biennial, so they’ll have plenty of time to consider the options for 2025.
“I haven’t even scratched the surface of the artists I want to bring here,” he said. “The thing about Indigenous music, the complexities of the genres — we have music for everybody, for anybody.”
ADN photojournalist Emily Mesner contributed to this story.