Voice for the Voiceless: Rap and Hip Hop in the Kootenays

Strange 2ruth and RaytheNihilist host major hip-hop event Dec. 29

Two young hip-hop performers and recording artists are set to bring the movement out from underground, with an unprecedented musical concert later this month in Cranbrook.

Sean Selden — aka Strange 2ruth — and Raistlin Morning Owl — Ray the Nihilist — are hosting an evening of Rap music and Hip Hop at the Studio Stage Door on December 29.

“We want to put something together that Cranbrook hasn’t really seen yet,” says Sean. “Not just the precedent of the show, but showing that there is talent within the art.”

Indeed, the evening will feature an extensive line-up of local hip-hop artists coming out to spread the word, the vibe and the music — with its pulsing, moody motif and beats and intense lyrical ponderings on the state of the self, the community and the world.

Musical expression is one aim of the show. Growing the hip-hop community and giving it voice is another.

Sean is originally from Rocky Mountain House, and moved to Cranbrook with his family about 20 years ago. He’s been writing and performing hip hop all his life.

“It can definitely be a challenge,” Sean said. “I’ve been in the area, doing it for over 10 years. There is a lot of times where I was playing a lot of free gigs. From about 2012 to 2016 I was always playing for free, because no one knew how to put a value on it. Sometimes the value of me performing was like, ‘well, here’s your chance.’

“But sometimes I got to open for pretty decent names — Canadian names or people coming through the area.”

Concert and show promotion is not always very forgiving, Sean said. “A lot of people sometimes tiptoe around it. Especially when you’re bringing in hip-hop music, which might only pertain to a narrower demographic.”

Be that as it may, rap and hip hop are top-of-the-charts, global music — charged with poetry and universal accessibility. There are reasons for its enduring popularity.

That both Strange 2ruth and Ray the Nihilist are Indigenous gives the music they perform a special resonance. In many ways, rap and hip hop, coming out of the urban Black experience, is a natural fit for modern Indigenous musical expression. It’s like the Blues, a voice of the Black experience that grew beyond cultural borders to become a music for everyone.

“There are similarities between today’s Indigenous Hip Hop movement and the rap music of the ’80s and ’90s, which were built off Black Culture — I feel a lot of it is built off of oppression and somewhat of a resistance in a way, but always, just trying to be heard and advocate for something,” said Ray, who is Blackfoot.

But at the same time, the increasing knowledge of the Indigenous experience, and the cultural expression of it, is finding a voice in Rap.

“As the Indigenous culture has grown, there has been such an influence of the traditional culture put out there,” Ray said.

“The way I’ve always heard it expressed, this music comes from disadvantaged, poorer people — ‘Voice of the Voiceless,’” Sean said. “People that don’t regularly get heard at all have an outlet now, especially with the Internet, platforms like YouTube, Soundcloud, now you have the DPSs [digital service providers] … anybody can record something and put it on Spotify now — for a decent fee it can get out there.

“It’s good and it’s bad. But at the same time, I feel like Art has a way of regulating itself. It’s art, and it’s feeling. And people can detect authenticity.”

Raistlin Morning Owl — Ray — knows Canada well, having done three Independent Western Canadian Tours. On top of all this Ray was born in Toronto (three months premature). His family moved to Lethbridge when he was an infant. He spent the majority of his life growing up in Saskatoon. However, he’s lived up north, back to Saskatoon, most recently resides to Cranbrook with his wife and kids and also has roots in Alberta’s Blood 148 Reserve.

“I’ve been just about everywhere, but I think It’s everyone’s 10-year plan to move to B.C.,” Ray joked.

RaytheNihilist has produced three EPs of his musical and several singles. He does his own production, including his own beats, and all his recording/editing. The lyrical content — its rhyme, meter and vocabulary — are especially important in Rap and Hip Hop. Ray has found a place where that muse can happen.

“A lot of the times, the lyrics will come from the feeling of the beat that I’m making — I’ll hear one word, and I try and let that happen. I found that when I first started writing, it was always needing substance, everything always has to have meaning. Which in Hip Hop isn’t necessarily always the case. Some songs are just feel-good songs.

“That learning experience of just letting something come, doesn’t matter what it is. I’ve had situations where it’s led to a lot of deeper intellectual songs. I try to sit down and let it come out.”

For Sean — Strange 2ruth — his music is very much a personal outlet — “something I do myself just to feel good.

“We’re really good at getting into our imaginations. Much as that can be a gift, it’s all in how you use it.

“Sometimes a lot of what we deal with, the darker side of our minds, the unfortunate side of mental health — we need something to reflect and relay something more positive.

“But at the moment we may be in a dark place, in turmoil. Writing can help open the door for other people see. We all deal with that, at the end of the day, creative or not. The energy has to go somewhere. Otherwise it will sit and stew in you.

“Part of my creative expression has always been very personal. I’ve always been self-reliant.”

Sean’s background — Cree and Métis — has also been a big influence on his Art.

“It’s always been at the forefront. It’s my personal identity, like knowing my own name.

His family was attuned to that cultural background, as well as his father working with Social Services, and being involved in Metis governance issues as well, which gave Sean access to cultural awareness.

“But I’m taking in influence everywhere. A good portion of my songwriting comes from folk, or rock, like John Prine or someone.”

“Nowadays, it’s like genre bending. It’s not a box we put ourselves into,” Ray said.

“I’ll do the rap stuff, and then on the album I’m working on now, it sounds more acoustic folk. The younger generation doesn’t have a distinct stamp on them.”

RaytheNihilist (Raistlin Morning Owl, at left) and Strange 2ruth (Sean Selden). Barry Coulter photo

RaytheNihilist (Raistlin Morning Owl, at left) and Strange 2ruth (Sean Selden). Barry Coulter photo

Which brings us to Cranbrook, the East Kootenay, and the challenges Rap and hip-hop artists can face, playing what’s often considered “urban music” in a small town environment. Ray has found the resistance to be fuelling and says it has led to branching outside of the Cranbrook area to do his own touring, which has helped with his career development.

“It’s an uphill battle, trying to prove yourself, in a way,” Ray said.

Theres a certain stigma that surrounds hip hop already that is hard to get past. A lot of times you hear that word, ‘Urban,’ and it’s associated with a lot of negativity and grittiness but I believe we’re trying to showcase something different than that. Something that is built out of culture and creativity. It’s all art.

“There is a lot of potential to branch out musically here in the area, without a lot of the resources and backing.”

“Even in terms of audience and demographic, I’ve heard people in town listening to Canadian hip-hop artists that I am friends with, so it has nothing to do with prominence and more so acceptance.”

“Strange 2ruth & Friends” is the first of many to kick off the upcoming hip-hop Events for Cranbrook and will take place on Friday, December 29, with the show starting at 7 p.m at The Studio & Stage Door.

Strange 2ruth will be headlining, with RaytheNihilist appearing as Special Guest of the night. Other artists on the roster are local hip-hop acts Catalyst Loa, 12th House and ItzJustBenzo. DJ Newman is also on the bill.

Early Bird Ticket’s have sold out but General Admissions are still available and can be purchased online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/strange-truth-friends-w-special-guest-raythenihilist-tickets-768711154757

RaytheNihilist (Raistlin Morning Owl, at left) and Strange 2ruth (Sean Selden). Barry Coulter photo