Hip Hop in Climbing: Part XI

This article also available as a podcast here.

Meet the Talent: Dakota Camacho

Dakota Camacho (guiya/yóña)

Tell us about yourself: “I try to share who I am and who my people are in everything that I do cuz I think that that matters. I’m Matao which is an Indigeneous way to think about the people from the island of Låguas which is momentarily known as the Marianas islands. We are culturally one people that have been politically separated into two different kinds of territories by the United States government. The island that my family is most recently from is Guåhan, which is the biggest island in the chain and there’s 15 of them. And I grew up here in Dxʷdəwʔabš, Duwamish territory in the place momentarily known as Seattle and also in Tscha-kole-chy which is the way I that I know to refer to what’s momentarily called Whidbey Island which is Schwdab and Swinomish territory. I grew up between there and here. Being connected in the South end where I spent my teenage years in particular was a big part of what brought me into being in relationship with Hip Hop in the way that I am today.”

What brought you to Hip Hop? Dakota grew up in a Pacific Island cultural dance group in a Catholic household as a queer individual. In time guiya became increasingly interested in “ancestral traditions that existed before colonization.” The start of a journey was born. “…finding out that my ancestors had another way of relating to life that maybe didn’t exclude me or demonize me or make me feel bad about myself [was huge].  At that time I was really struggling with depression and suicide ideation and that drew me in to the arms of my ancestors. And I wanted to get closer to them because I knew that there was something else: there was another world, another understanding in which I belonged. It also helped me make sense of why my family was so hard on me. Because colonization got to them, that was the most compassionate way I could put it back then.”

And what did you find in regards to your ancestral traditions? “…Mali’e’ and it’s a form of poetry that is done in community. It’s improvisational. You can be very good at it by being skilled in wordplay, rhyme, rhythm, by knowing a lot about your people’s history, and also by being able to spin the story that somebody else is telling on its head. You can be really good at it by teasing somebody in an interesting, metaphorical, allegorical kind of way. And I said, ‘this sounds like what I’m doing at lunch with my friends’…one of the things that one of the Europeans wrote about us is that we believed that words were magic…we could create wonders with our words. I want to tap into that. I want to honor those ancestors and ask those ancestors to come and guide me. And when I did that, I discovered this relationship that I had with poetry, which was powerful to me because it was a combination of healing and making sense of my experience and what I have come to understand as a recording of my interaction with my ancestors.”

How did this lead to Hip Hop? “It all started with youth poetry slams in Seattle and later a full ride scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for Rap. “The big thing that made a difference in my life were these youth poetry slams and I went to one and I did pieces about the colonization of my peoples, about experiencing domestic violence as a young person, and about being queer and trying to piece all of these pieces together of my liberation and my liberation story and again, trying to fill, feel into the beauty of my life and the meaning of it. I was met by a community of people who were doing the same thing for each other. And so I started building connections and relationships with people and I became mentored by these two beautiful black men: Gabriel Teodros and Khalil Equiano (he goes by Khingz). They had this rap group called Abyssinian Creole. They were rapping about freedom and liberation for their peoples. They were rapping about their personal stories and experiences and they became my teachers.”

Why Hip Hop? “…part of the reason why I was drawn into Hip Hop and spoken word was because I wanted to connect with an art form that was taken away from me, that I didn’t have access to because of the systems of oppression.”

Do Matao people have any former cultural practices left? “I always joke that our national dance is the Cha-Cha which is of course a Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean art form that I found out later came to our island actually through the US Navy band. This chant group that I’m in developed a form of dance which they are putting forward as a traditional style form of chant. Now, this is a very small group of people. The other history that is interesting is that the 70’s was the first time the CHamoru [Matao] people met other Indigeneous peoples in the context of Indigeneous cultural exchange. And people thought we were bizarre: because people were wearing their regalia, they had their feathers, they had their shells, they had their skirts and we were wearing all white track suits and singing country music; country and rock music in our language. And they were like ‘What is wrong with these people?’ And we were like ‘What’s wrong with us, what are you talking about?’ not realizing that at some level that was incredibly innovative but it opened up this identity crisis.

   So the way that got filled is one choreographer who had experience on this continent and in Hawaii with Polynesian dance basically just started to make up a dance form by pulling from Polynesian elements and making an interpretation of what our Indigeneous dance would have been like. Now, that has been highly contested (because unfortunately those leaders have not been very rigorous in their research and their approach) and have perpetuated a lot of misnomers: Hawaiians have been really upset about people from our culture using their sacred instruments and their dance forms and that debate is continuing until today.

   I tell this story to say my family did a very similar thing in the ’90’s: disconnected from that other group I was talking about but my aunties learned Hula and were like ‘Well, we need to tell our story, so how are we going to do that?’ which is not too dissimilar to what I did…there is an art form in a community of people I am connected to and I’m learning this form and it’s helping me make sense of who I am.”

How do you envision merging the two cultural practices? “Which brings me to my current research project which is Mali’e. Which is that art form that I mentioned that I found that uses similar technologies that Hip Hop uses: rhyme, cadence, rhythm, word play, call and response, community together. That’s my current research project and in some ways it’s also a way for me to answer the questions that I have for myself about my own perpetuation of cultural appropriation. And what is an ethical way for me to engage with Hip Hop in this moment.

   I feel personally in my own life, of course, my life story I feel is an example of the cultural work that black people have done and are doing that my people and my family have benefited from and I don’t think that we’re anywhere near reciprocating that work and that labor. So for me that’s part of my current investigation: how do I move my people’s liberation forward.

   I’m not convinced that it’s not cultural appropriation and that it’s not potentially having a negative impact. And I’m still thinking about it, meditating on that and part of that is the Mali’e’ Project.”

Do you consider the music you are doing now Hip Hop? “I don’t know about the ethics of calling my music Hip Hop because I consider Hip Hop to belong to black people. My partner gave me some really good language for this which is ‘I engage in Hip Hop.’ If I had learned a Native form of dance, and then I infused my culture into it and then call it my Native form of dance, I don’t think that would be appropriate. So why do I think that is ok to do with Hip Hop? I don’t want to be dishonest and say that it’s not engaging with Hip Hop because I think that’s another form or erasure. But I believe that it is an art form that belongs to black people and black people get to decide for themselves in the cultural circle and I understand that everybody is going to have a different perspective of it…I believe in respecting boundaries. And then the question comes then who has the authority to set what kind of boundaries?…Part of the conversation around appropriation and cultural theft is people negotiating their understanding of those boundaries based off of their world views and frameworks and their understandings in this realm.”

Last thoughts? “…the power of black music: Black music all has history, culture deeply embedded in it. And so that’s what makes me ask that question for me: what’s the predecessor in my culture? How do we, without devaluing the contributions that have been made by black people, add to our liberation, how do we come to value our knowledge systems knowing that there are vibrations of our land and our experiences that are unique that we can also add to the continuum? We have this value Tåno’ Uchan and that’s the piece that I am trying to get to and it’s what can we offer back that’s not taking; knowing that non-black CHamoru people (because there are black CHamoru people) are in a position of power in the current society. How are we using our cultural work in service of collective liberation rather than erasing and taking?”

Visit Dakota Camacho’s website here.

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