Marginalized peoples and social activists have for generations turned to music to articulate grievances, express identities, revive cultures, start movements and, ultimately, affect real change. From anti-war musicians like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, who praised peace with words in the ’60s, to rappers like Run DMC and N.W.A., who verbalized the difficulties of life in the inner city in the ’80s and ’90s, artists have long blurred the line between art and activism.
MTV’s docu-series Rebel Music takes a look at populations around the world who are currently using music to voice messages that the world needs to hear. The premiere episode focuses on young Native North Americans using rap and pop to empower their generation to fight for their people and their land.
The issues facing Native American reservations are many, including the decimation of their land, loss of their culture, rampant drug and alcohol abuse—and, most troublingly, alarmingly high rates of sexual violence, suicide and murder. The population’s suicide rate is four times that of the national average; rates of reported domestic abuse and rapes are 2.5 times greater. And, according to the documentary, there are thousands of missing or murdered indigenous women whose disappearances or deaths were never investigated. “If this situation was happening in the non-indigenous community, there would be a large public outcry,” says activist Michael Redhead Champagne.
Rebel Music: Native America brings these crucial issues to light—but equally important is how change-makers in the community are addressing these problems with music and activism. “Instead of dwelling on victimization, it was so exciting to focus instead on young voices singing out, busy being the change that we all want to see happen,” says co-director Billy Luther, himself a Native American filmmaker.
“What I talk about in my music is a lot of the social issues we face as young American Indians in the 21st century,” says one such young voice: Nataanii Means, an ambitious hip-hop artist who hopes to prevent suicide by reaching the Natives on his reservation who feel alone in their struggles. Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln is trying to protect his environment and cultural heritage, both of which are threatened by the modern world. “The music is my shield and my weapon,” he explains, “and I think that’s why I’m able to be vulnerable.” Meanwhile, pop singer Inez Jasper uses her powerful voice to shed light on Native women’s issues, and inspire girls to reclaim their sexual identities in the midst of so much violence.
Though these extraordinary individuals are indeed rebels, they’re looking forward to a day when their beliefs and dreams are more in line with reality. “I have to be a rebel just to be myself,” explains Jasper. Adds Waln, “If wanting health, happiness and respect for ourselves and our families and our people makes us rebels, then what are we saying about society? We’re just trying to see a day when that doesn’t make us rebels.” He believes that day will come soon. “There’s a spirit of resistance… It’s a great time to be alive as an indigenous person.”
Rebel Music: Native America is the first of six episodes in the series, created by Nusrat Durrani and music-directed by Laura Jane Grace—the Against Me! frontwoman and LGBTQ activist whom Time magazine recently called “the most visible transgender woman in music today.” Future episodes will spotlight youth protesting the status quo in places like Caracas and Istanbul.
Watch the trailer below, or head over to Rebel Music’s official site for more sneak peeks at the episode—including a playlist of songs by the artists featured in the doc. And head over to MTV’s Facebook page to catch the premiere at 4 p.m. EST. The premiere will also air on MTV2 and mtvU and be streamed on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon.