In the September/October 2012 issue’s Media & the Arts essay (“Ice Ice Baby”), Justin Nobel tells of the surprising musical revolution heating up the Canadian Arctic, including the story of Nelson Tagoona (pictured above), a Nunavut native whose unique style of hip-hop reflects the land around him. We asked Justin about his experience in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory.
I first arrived in the Canadian Arctic in July of 2008. An icy rain was falling in Kuujjuaq, a gritty town on the tree line in an Inuit region of far northern Quebec called Nunavik. From there, I boarded an old Russian cruise ship called the Lyubov Orlova, which was then being operated by the Inuit. We headed north through Ungava Bay, which was choked with sea ice, and veered west up the stormy Hudson Strait. In the Inuit community of Ivujivik I met a young hip-hop artist named Lukasi, who was part of a group called North Coast Rappers, or NCR. He was wearing a Tupac t-shirt lined with fake diamonds, listening to an iPod and smoking a cigarette. When I asked Lukasi what he rapped about, he took a drag on his cigarette, then coolly replied: “Bitches and hoes, mostly.”
I didn’t write anything on Inuit rap then but the image of Lukasi sitting there in his Tupac shirt in a tiny town on the Hudson Strait stuck with me. In the summer of 2011, I returned to the Canadian Arctic on a story for another magazine. This time I traveled to Nunavut, an Inuit territory that stretches across the northern top of Canada. As a freelancer, when you go somewhere as remote and strange as Nunavut, it pays to try to dig up as many stories as possible, so I ran the Inuit music story by Orion. My other story, which was about Inuit death practices, was very heavy; music was a much sunnier topic. I got to meet some very talented Inuit musicians, including people like Lucie Idlout, who wasn’t in the story but is described in the sidebar.
The Arctic is especially beautiful: the land is treeless, craggy, never-ending, and exploding with life. In late August the tundra actually changes color, all the lichens and tiny shrubs turn red, yellow and gold, and you get this amazing ankle-high autumn. I have experienced incredible kindness in the Arctic, where the first time around I stayed for two and a half months, living entirely with locals. I got to see Inuit culture up close, which meant eating things like seal brain and beluga jerky, and participating in a bowhead whale hunt.
But I have also seen great sadness there, too. It’s practically impossible to meet a Canadian Inuit who doesn’t know at least a handful of people who have committed suicide. During the summer of 2011, in just one week in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital and heart of the Canadian Inuit hip-hop scene, there were four teenage suicides. The numbers are straight up scary—Iqaluit’s population is a mere 7,000 people—and hip-hop is a way out of the madness. Many musicians have songs that explicitly address suicide, alcohol abuse, and other issues of the North. Artists like Nelson Tagoona are inspiring youth across the territory to make music, to do something productive with their lives. And although Tagoona is a funky dresser, he doesn’t promote a gangsta rap image, as Lukasi back in Ivujivik did. His songs are much more complex than, well, “bitches and hoes.”
My biggest regret with this story was not driving to Ottawa last year to see Tagoona play live. He is one of the most talented and interesting people I’ve ever interviewed, and he is eighteen. If you ever see him come up on the bill at an event near you, go.
Justin Nobel is at work on his first book, Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle. He lives in New Orleans.