The video for Supaman’s 2015 song “Why” opens with the stunning image of blue and white ribbons swaying in the wind. Adorned in traditional Native American regalia, the rapper—who was born Christian Parrish Takes the Gun and raised on a reservation near Billings, Montana—performs the men’s fancy dance alongside world champion jingle dress dancer and Umatilla tribe member Acosia Red Elk.
As the two move together in the countryside, Supaman layers his signature drum loops against a prayer melody from the Native American Church (NAC), then begins rapping about economic inequality and the struggles of parenting. Over the phone, Supaman tells me his grandfather was once president of NAC and played a key role in regaining religious rights for the church.
A member of the Apsáalooke (or Crow) Nation, Supaman is energized by the movement for indigenous unity. He’s also passionate about another culture: hip-hop. Drawn to parallels in the genre’s stories of systematic oppression, Supaman was inspired by B-boying and the Rock City Crew, and began DJing in the ’90s.
While he frequently inserts Native instrumentation into his beats now, it hasn’t always been easy to blend those traditions with hip-hop. Throughout our conversation, Supaman reminds me that he’s “old school” and has witnessed decades of change within his community.
“I was raised in the church culture, and so everything that I was saying early on was always geared towards them,” he explains. “There were times that I didn’t want to offend them, and I wanted to make sure this [music] was accepted, so I wasn’t really being an expressive artist.”
It’s a delicate balancing act: “It was almost taboo to put [hip-hop and Native melodies] together,” he says. “You knew you’d definitely catch heck from some people.”
Little by little, Supaman began incorporating lyrics about rez life. And over time, elders came to embrace his music, which he says is a response to the vital need for cultural preservation.
“The elders are realizing the culture is dying,” he says, “and we gotta do everything we can, you know. Anything to empower our youth and say, ‘Hey, it’s a good thing to be proud of who you are and learn the songs.’ We’re in a state of emergency.”
Supaman’s work—both in uplifting Native culture and his knack for melodic ingenuity—has earned him numerous accolades, including an Aboriginal Peoples Music Choice Award, Native American Music Award, and seven Tuney Awards. The well-decorated artist encourages others to learn about their history, no matter their background.
“When I’m invited to a nonnative school, it’s an amazing opportunity to share music and culture with them,” he says. “I feel like I have a responsibility to educate about Native people, and the history of the United States, and basic things like breaking stereotypes of Native people. Like, ‘Hey, I’m drug- and alcohol-free, believe it.’ I invite all of them to my reservation because they’ve been taught not to go to the rez, [or they’ll] get killed.”
“When it’s all-Native it’s great too,” Supaman continues, “because you get to share your accomplishments with them. You get to say, ‘Hey, I’m a fancy dancer. I embrace the culture and I embrace this other culture, which is hip-hop.’ We have the opportunity to share our heart and tell them that it’s good to stand up for these rights; it’s good to be drug- and alcohol-free, and embrace culture... I want to show Native youth that it’s okay to embrace other cultures, so long as you don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”