Indigenous & Indigenius: Native hip-hop took the Bagley Wright stage at the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center Sunday night; concert review by Andrew Matson.

Share story

Concert Review |

Bouncing around the whole stage with mic in hand, the rapper appeared joyful. His chant went like this:

“I’m from Tu-LAY-lip! And I’m proud of it! Very few, very few get out of it!”

Sure, his music sounds like party music. That’s what hip-hop is. But the raps of 19-year-old Tulalip Tribes member Komplex Kai are more — a rez-centric reality that registers profound unease. And those raps resonated at the Northwest Folklife Festival at Sunday night’s Native hip-hop concert at Bagley Wright Theatre.

For 40 minutes, Kai rapped with a mix of compassion and anger, revealing his allegiance to another tribe that could use a revival: ’90s gangsta rappers of emotional substance.

Grim rez snapshots of “kids having kids” and “kids smoking pop” — or crack — came backed with Tulalip pride (“I’m throwin’ my Tribe up!”), a move that’s pure Tupac Shakur. Kai even did a dead-ringer for Tupac’s wistful reconciliation track “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” a ballad that mashed head-shaking love into sad truths (“drunk is how we cope”). Like ‘Pac, Kai sounded much older than his age.

Indoor sunglasses, a wool hat with a bandanna tied underneath, baggy jeans and Timberland boots made him look flashy and rugged. His people received him like any other appreciative rap crowd, with hands in the air, miscellaneous whooping, and shouts of “Respect!”.

Later, over a blanket of hypnotic minor-key piano, there was a keening string here, a detached trumpet there, and a booming death march of a beat. It sounded exactly like Mobb Deep, a New York City group that, in the ’90s, invented the “spiritually devastated” hip-hop style.

“I lost a lot of friends,” Kai rapped, “but was they really friends?”

Swirling beat behind him, Kai crouched at the front of the stage and deadpanned, “This is paranoia at its peak.”

Addressing alcoholism, poverty, and the support/negligence/harm that comes from a fractured, chronically underestimated people, Kai’s brilliance was in not talking down to his young audience. His swear words and allusions to sex and drugs would only add up to “adult content” for Tipper Gore. Loudly applauding every track, the mostly native and almost-full Bagley Wright audience wasn’t offended.

Kai was preceded by local native theater youth group Red Eagle Soaring, doing an anti-smoking play, and followed by Oklahoma City’s Culture Shock Camp, an abstract blend of Indian and hip-hop sounds.

Komplex Kai’s hip-hop from the heart was refreshing, as was witnessing a crowd soak up the night’s theme, the Urban Indian. For once, Northwest Folklife’s “cultural focus” wasn’t a boring venture, a theme removed from why we come to Folklife in the first place.

Andrew Matson contributes to and Reach him at