THERE’S A YOUTUBE VIDEO of an Inuit rapper you got to check out. Two Inuit women wearing miniskirts and sealskin fur vests are throat singing on a stage lit with sherbet-colored light. From the darkness emerges an Inuit teenager in a flashy red coat and a black top hat. At first we only see his back, then he spins around, a large mic to his lips, and produces the craziest string of beats you’ve ever heard. Not words, just sounds, a quick catchy rap riff, like you might hear at a dance club, overlaid by a dim growl, like a man rapping with a monster stuck in his throat. His name is Nelson Tagoona, and the video he stars in was shot at Toonik Tyme, a spring music festival in the Canadian Arctic.
You may not know it, but the Arctic has developed something of a rap scene. Head north to Nunavut, Canada’s vast Inuit territory, and you can hear the likes of DJ Mad Eskimo, who mixes rap with traditional beats; Tumivut, a hip-hop/rock ensemble fronted by throat singers; or Eskimocentricity, whose feverish beats call to mind Eminem, although his lyrics are more likely to involve harpoons than guns. But the hottest new Nunavut rapper of all is Tagoona, who is eighteen years old and hails from a small community in the central Arctic called Baker Lake. The music in the Toonik Tyme video is known as “throat boxing,” a style Tagoona invented. It’s a mix between traditional Inuit throat singing and beatboxing, a U.S.-born form of vocal percussion in which rappers use their voices to generate beats and musical sounds. When I saw the video, I knew I needed to talk to Tagoona, but Baker Lake was a $2,000 plane ride from Iqaluit, the Nunavut community where I spent much of last summer. When we finally spoke over the phone, Tagoona was preparing for his first big southern show, at Ottawa’s Winterlude Festival, and feeling a bit anxious.
“The South is different from up north,” said Tagoona. “It’s crowded, and I like to be alone, I don’t know why, but for some reason I am always the one standing out of the crowd.” In the Canadian Arctic, “The South” refers to pretty much anything below the tree line. Not only is it hot and noisy, but the horizons are clipped, the landscape cluttered, and, most distressing of all to a people who grew up on the land, things like hunting geese in public parks are frowned upon. It is also crowded—more people pass through Ottawa’s train station in a matter of hours than live in the entire territory of Nunavut. For Tagoona, who draws his creativity from the solitude that he finds on the rolling tundra surrounding his community, that’s a problem.
Inuit throat singing began as a game to keep women occupied while men were out hunting, and across parts of the Canadian Arctic you can still see it performed in this manner. Two women stand face to face, as if they are about to kiss, and use the larynx to vibrate air traveling up from the lungs. One woman sets a rhythmic pattern, and when she stops to breathe her partner introduces a second pattern. The women continue, trancelike, until one cracks a smile and both break down in giggles. The result is a soul-stirring string of sounds that seems not human, but animal.
Many Inuit songs imitate the sounds of animals: the howl of the wolf, the koo koo of the walrus, the growl of the polar bear. Others mimic the sounds of the land: the impossibly soft swish of the northern lights, the roar of a blizzard, the crush of river ice breaking in spring. Throat singing songs aren’t lyric-driven narratives but more like ancient codes, written in a language no longer discernable, some secret utterance that turns a primal knob deep in the core. For those not familiar with Inuit throat singing, the experience can be jolting.
I experienced this jolt one steamy August evening on the lawn at New York City’s Lincoln Center, hemmed in between the towers of midtown Manhattan. On stage was a barefoot thirty-four-year-old named Tanya Tagaq in a black dress that revealed most of her back. “I’m melting,” she told the crowd with a smile. “Can someone build me an igloo?” Backed by a drummer and a violist, Tagaq unleashed a torrent of bizarre sounds. During the fifty-minute performance, she howled like a wolf, barked like a dog, cried like a baby, shrieked like a siren, whispered inaudibly, grunted like a caveman, and groaned like someone in the throes of an orgasm. It was music born of the boundless Arctic land, belted out in the hot crowded city, and New Yorkers didn’t know what to make of it. Some in the audience were starry-eyed, others were aghast, and I noticed more than one person get up to leave. By the end, Tagaq was panting and exhausted, her black dress sopped in sweat.
That Tanya Tagaq performed at Lincoln Center at all is a sign of just how far Inuit music has come. She grew up in Cambridge Bay, one of the most northerly communities on earth, a tiny dot on a large island at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Like most Inuit children, she spent her summers out on the land, hunting and fishing. Tagaq didn’t start throat singing until her mid-twenties, when she went south for school. Her mother, determined she not forget her heritage, sent her Inuit throat singing tapes in the mail. Tagaq began performing, first alone in the shower, then for crowds at concerts and festivals across Canada. In the summer of 2000, two men saw her sing at the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and passed tapes of the performance on to Björk. The following year, Tagaq joined the Icelandic rock star on her Vespertine tour and took throat singing, or at least her brand of it, to the world. Inuit throat singing traditionalists were livid. Not only was this not throat singing, they claimed—which inherently requires two women—it was pornography. One Cambridge Bay woman called Tagaq a “devil singer.”
Despite her critics, Tagaq injected hope into a place where often there is none. The Inuit have a suicide rate eleven times higher than the rest of Canada. She inspired a new generation of musicians and showed them that making music was something serious—a way to make a living and travel the world and follow your dreams. The new generation has taken throat singing even further from its roots, dropping not just the paired-female aspect, but the female entirely, and mixing it with rock, rap, and electronica. Not everyone has responded favorably to the new music. Local leaders in several Inuit communities, worried about what they see as the erosion of traditional values, have gathered up rock and rap CDs and torched them in massive bonfires.
But just because Inuit are listening to rap, does it mean their traditions are dying? A story an Arctic anthropologist told me conveys a more nuanced view. In Quaqtaq, the tiny community where he did his doctoral work in 1968, the Inuit would take snowmobiles to a certain headland and hunt beluga whales with rifles. The rite was regarded as traditional, even though the Inuit once took dog sleds and used harpoons. When the anthropologist returned to Quaqtaq in 2005, SUVs had arrived in the north and a road had been blazed to the headland. Hunters now drove Ford Explorers to the hunting spot, their rifles packed in the trunk. Some would surely call this a travesty, but he regarded it as evidence that Inuit culture was strong. It had adapted. It was surviving. The Inuit were taking the objects they wanted from the modern world and using them to reinforce their own traditional worldview.
Which is the same thing Tagoona is doing with music. While he often needs the solitude of the land to tease out an idea, it’s the hot, noisy, cluttered world we southerners know so well that has been behind his recent inspirations. Our modern industrial society actually produces a lot of interesting sounds, some harsh and grating, others surprisingly melodic. For Tagoona, it’s all material. “I prefer organic sounds, but lately I have been getting into technology,” he told me. “Like imitating the siren, or dub step sounds, or bass guitar, or wah-wah sounds.”
Before getting off the phone, I asked Tagoona to bust some beats. To my surprise, he said no. Throat boxing over the phone just wouldn’t do his music justice. “If you watch my performance, it’s like a boom,” said Tagoona. “I go out on the stage and nine times out of ten it is an explosion.”
In the Toonik Tyme video, after Tagoona goes through a variety of beats, sounding like a broken robot, a machine gun spitting bullets, a copy machine spitting copies, wind through a gorge, and a starship traveling through space, he pulls a slender silver object from his pocket. “Now,” Tagoona tells the crowd, “mixing beat boxing and the harmonica.”