So Precious: On The Hip Hop of Kunu Bearchum

By Steven Jackson

Before this assignment for basalt, I was unfamiliar with Kunu Beachum (Stryk-9) or the other So Precious performers, Jordan Wheeler, and Adrienne Fainman. Nevertheless, as an unabashed hip-hop head who grew up watching shows like Yo MTV Raps, Rap City, and BET Uncut, I appreciate the opportunity to critique their hip-hop video. Stryker-9 has talent, and though I was not aware Native-American hip-hop was a genre of hip-hop, like Mumble, Boom Bap, Gangsta, Back Pack, Drill, Grime, or Trip Hop, after watching, So Precious, Stryker-9 is the best place to begin.

I am assuming the director, Laronn Katchiua, and Stryker-9 would categorize So Precious as a hip-hop song, but So Precious is not a stereotypical hip hop video. Katchiua resisted regurgitating tired rap clichés. The viewer does not see scantily-dressed women flaunt and twerk what God and the plastic surgeon gave them. Furthermore, Stryker-9 and Jordan Wheeler are not flossing in mansions and luxury cars they borrowed for the day or bragging about sexual escapades, wielding guns, and dealing drugs.

My first impression of the hip-hop video is, you do not see any African-Americans or anyone who looks remotely close to black in the video. The performers in the video are predominantly Native American; however, there are people in several scenes who appear to be white. To see a hip-hop video that is devoid of a single African American face, the originators of hip-hop culture and rap music brings with it closer scrutiny. Think about it, Aerosmith had Run-DMC, most of the cast of Hamilton is black, Eminem had Dre and D-12, even Action Bronson has Mayhem Lauren.

Hip-Hop stemmed from inner city life, and is a cultural phenomenon that since it’s birth in 1973 paints a musical portrait of what it is like to live and survive in a black world.

Nevertheless, the fresh and edgy music, clothes, language, art, even hairstyles that Hip-Hop culture brings with it have been co-opted, ripped off, abused and commoditized by cultural appropriators who personify none of those attributes. The woman at the Denver powwow probably personified few if any of the attributes of the Native Americans she was viewing. Regardless, perhaps she thought that by paying for her ticket, she was woke, and down with the Native American culture. Just like the powwow woman, as well as So Precious, cultural shoppers visit hip-hop culture believing they are “down” and “woke” and can purchase cultural soul by the pound.

So Precious is much more than merely the music. The video presents numerous tropes and symbols throughout the video that highlight Native American and hip-hop culture. Katchiua utilizes the linguistic tool Code-Switching in the So Precious video. Code-Switching is also called code-mixing and style-shifting and refers to mixing languages and speech patterns in conversation. Katchiua expands the concept of code-switching in So Precious to maneuver back and forth between the cultures and symbols of the Indigenous people in the video and hip-hop.

Code-switching was once common in black culture, especially with any black person who desired to work or live in a predominately white environment. Blacks felt pressure to conform with white culture, to speak “King’s English,” cut your afro or braids and discard your cultural identity. This form of racial code-switching is satirically on display in the movies like Bamboozled, BlacKkKlansman, Green Book and Sorry to Bother You, Putney Swope, Soul Man, and the classic 1970’s movie, Watermelon Man.

Katchiua, the director of So Precious, crafted a simple storyline, yet the video is complex on several levels. So Precious opens with a voice-over introduction that offers an esoteric explanation of the “evolution of time, purification of time, and the renewal of time.” Time that has been both difficult and rewarding, that drops you to your knees, lifts you to your feet, and ultimately makes you whole. So Precious’ opening scene highlights a makeshift shrine to Stryker-9’s deceased Father, Byron “Yellow Bear” Bearchum. Alongside Bearchum’s picture is a print of tiny feet from Stryker-9‘s newborn child, as well as a photograph of Stryker-9 and the baby. The scene cuts to Stryker-9 waking up and climbing out of bed to commence his grind. The next shot is a dog-eared copy of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States on the nightstand next to his bed. The significance of the book is that it offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and challenges the founding myth of the United States. Beside the book, Stryker-9′s cell phone rests on the nightstand with the sticker, Inspired Natives, Not Native Inspired affixed to the back of the phone case. The inspired native is a renewed native, ready to fight and resist, one who wakes early, washes up, braids up, kisses his previously mentioned seed, and goes about his grind.

Katchiua’s subsequent scene places Stryker-9 at The Bison Coffee House, in Portland. The location is significant because it is the city’s sole Native American owned coffee shop. So Precious’ Bison Coffee House scene represents the Bison’s deep symbolic significance for Indigenous peoples of the plains and beyond. In the scene, Stryker-9 is doing what rappers do, putting pen to pad across the table from his partner, who is probably his DJ, making beats on an electronic drum machine. This is a scene that everyone in hip-hop culture can recognize and appreciate. Every true-to-the-game rapper and emcee must put in the work, grinding and hustling, resisting compromise and shortcuts, creating their beats and spitting bars. Moreover, the two men grinding away, making beats and writing bars are indicative of their lyrical authenticity, which is the objective of any true hip-hop artist. With anyone true to their culture, they can spot visitors, who lack authenticity, like the powwow woman.

Katchiua juxtaposed the Bison Coffee House scene with one at a tattoo parlor. Several of Stryker-9’s people have gathered around while one of his boys gets a tattoo. In the background, a young man is watching a television showing a Native American “warrior” wearing traditional Native American regalia. He is beating a hand drum and dancing, similar to the Denver March Powwow. The young man watching the television is sporting a backward baseball cap adorned with the Nike Jumpman logo on the front.

The backward ball cap and Jumpman logo are additional appropriation examples utilized by the video director. The backward fitted ball cap is something Ken Griffey Jr., the Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder for the Seattle Mariners made popular back in his 1989 rookie year. In the early 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr. was arguably the most famous athlete on the planet, followed by Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Andre Agassi. The backward ball cap was Griffey’s trademark look, and he even wore a backward ball cap during his Hall of Fame induction. Griffey loved hip-hop music, he has been named checked in several songs and even had a rap song out, The Way I Swing, with the rapper Kid Sensation. Whenever Griffey came up to bat his walkout music was Naughty by Nature’s song, Hip-Hop Hurrah.

At the time, I lived in Seattle and saw numerous black kids wearing a backward ball cap. Soon every white kid, men, and some women were wearing the backward cap. Griffey wore a backward baseball cap when he won the home run derby in 1998 and 1999, and the backward cap became a cultural phenomenon around the country. Nike’s Jumpman is Michael Jordan’s trademarked logo. Michael Jordan did not win an NBA Championship until 1991; nevertheless, Nike Jordans were introduced in 1985 (Original Air Jordan 1 Black/Red) and immediately embraced as urban street wear. Check out Spike Lee (Mars Blackmon from his 1986 movie, She’s Gotta Have It) and his Nike commercials back in 1987. The movie and Blackmon were popular in the hip-hop community, and Jordan could walk on water. If you watched She’s Gotta Have It, or another Spike Lee joint, Do the Right Thing, where the white guy steps on his Jordans, you will get a better understanding regarding the cultural significance of Nike Jordans and the Jumpman logo and the symbolism of stepping on others feet. You’ll hear echoes of this as far back as James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” in which stepping on someone’s toes precipitates a riot.

Again, the viewer sees the symbols of hip-hop culture in a rap video; however, they do not see any black people. The hip-hop term “finessing” comes to mind at this point in the video. In hip-hop culture the term is used to describe someone running game, hustling, or getting over on someone else. Katchiua finesses back and forth between the codes and symbols of street/black culture with the young boy wearing the fitted brim with the Jumpman logo and Indigenous culture, showing the warrior in full regalia.

So Precious’ final scene is a gathering at what looks to be the house of Stryker-9’s mother. Stryker-9 daps up one of his homies sitting on the porch, and even this minor occurrence has cultural significance. Giving “Dap” is a bump of the fist, a clasp of the hands, and possibly accompanied by a hug when greeting. Giving “Dap,” the acronym for “Dignity and Pride” was developed in the 1970s, as a symbol of solidarity that originated amongst African-American soldiers during the Vietnam War soldiers. Giving “Dap” is another hip-hop symbol that has been co-opted by every other culture. Few men use the traditional handshake outside of the workplace. If they Dap each other up upon greeting, like in the So Precious video, it originated from hip-hop culture. I could probably name numerous other hip-hop videos with this same house party/gathering concept: This scene reminds me of the Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre video, Nuthin But A G Thang.  Ice Cube-It Was a Good Day, Snoop Dogg-Gin & Juice, E-40 Tell Me When to Go, The Clipse-Grindin’, Kendrick Lamar-King Kunta and Swimming Pools (Drank), Mac Miller-Knock Knock, and Kid ‘N Play’s Gittin’ Funky.

There is an irony in this final scene. Rap music was founded at a back to school house party during August 1973, in Brooklyn. It was a thrown by Clive Campbell, AKA, Kool Herc, for his little sister. They charged 25 cents for women and 50 cents for guys. Kool Herc was the first to set up two turntables and use a bumping stereo system that rocked the booming bass and dub sound. Stryker-9’s mother greets him with a hug. Someone brings in a case of beer, food is being prepared, Stryker-9 sparks up a joint, and everyone is partying. Another person spits bars in this section, and I assume this is Jordan Wheeler. He mentions mobbing in the streets, going hard or get going, cars, bars, and suicide. Wheeler reps the Rez where the feds, meth, and bottle collide, and sounds like rappers referencing the hood and its similar ills, going back to the 1983 classic song White Lines, by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. Wheeler has a nice flow, and his lyrics ring sincere. He deserves more time on the cut. Stryker-9 possesses a butter smooth flow combined with effortless lyrical style.

Nevertheless, the audience can see and hear in So Precious that Stryker-9 enjoys an unflustered sense of rhythm and skill. You can find several different Stryker-9 performances on YouTube, as well as the Facebook page for Burial Ground Sound. You can catch the name on a t-shirt worn by one of the men in the tattoo shop scene. As a listener, it’s refreshing to find a woke artist who is aware of the power and authenticity of their lyrical content. Stryker-9 appears to be the Inspired Native, who understands the sense of his Indigenous cultural importance. Furthermore, he resists selling out their culture for commerce.

The influence of other cultures is unavoidable; however, there is a difference between the subconscious influence of another culture and blatant cultural appropriation for your benefit. One’s culture is so precious, and those who wish to be a part of a culture should always be woke others, and treat other cultures with respect and dignity. If you want to wear the regalia, get up and dance to the music, or give and receive dap, please understand that the culture of others is just as precious to them as your culture is to you.

Work Cited Lotus, Jean.”Disrespectful’ Woman Grabbed Native Regalia At Denver Pow Wow.” Patch.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May. 2019 https://www.denver.org/things-to-do/spring-summer/powwow/.