Healing Through Hip Hop W/ Diné Emcee Def-i

When I think of Hip Hop, environmental activism isn’t typically the first thing that comes to mind, until I came across Def-i years ago. Def-i made headlines when he helped to raise more than 1.8 million dollars beside artists like Taboo of ‘Black Eyed Peas’ for the legal defense of the Water Protectors during the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Hip Hop has always been a conduit for the marginalized to protest while also publicizing the conditions of their circumstances. Def-i, a proud representative of the Diné Nation, recognized the importance of protests at Standing Rock and utilized his platform and his prowess behind the mic to make an impact. 

This is just one example of the great work that Def-i has done. As a man of many passions, his work as a Hip Hop Practitioner (as he calls it) has taken him as far as Nigeria to collaborate and coalesce with the practitioners of every element of hip hop there.

Next Level USA (NLUSA) was a great opportunity,” Def-i told me.

Next Level USA’s residency program chose hip hop artists educators, Ami Kim (Beatmaker), JustSole (Dancer), Nosey42 (Graffiti/Aerosol Artist), and Def-i (MC), along with site manager Junious Brickhouse to travel to Abuja, Nigeria to partner with nationally recognized Nigerian hip hop artists and “build global community through hip hop culture” according to NLUSA.

“We immediately started working right away. We created a song based around our cultural heritage on the first day with like six different languages,” Def-i explained. “It came out really dope. Eventually, we did a music video. Got to learn a lot about each other, and we got to see a lot of the connections between the tribes out there and our tribes out here. Really I learned as much as I felt like I was sharing,” Def-i continued.

As a youth advocate and educator, Def-i also shares his knowledge and expertise at Indigenous schools and on reservations. “I got started because I got mad love for the people on the rez.”  Def-i explained. “It’s amazing. Sometimes in the most rural areas of reservations, audiences there haven’t had a rapper or MC perform in front of them live before. It’s something to think about. In 2020 you could still be a hip-hop pioneer in the U.S..”

For Def-i, bringing Hip Hop to the reservations and the youth who wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to be exposed to the culture, is about breaking stereotypes and moving past or addressing generational trauma.

“Working with youth and helping them express themselves in a positive way through Hip-Hop or poetry I think is definitely helpful in breaking cycles of feeling powerlessness, or loss, or just dealing with whatever adversity they are faced with — especially on the rez,” Def-i explained. 

Photo by Justin Bixler

The merging of Def-i’s Diné roots and Hip Hop was effortless for him. The fundamental philosophies in Hip Hop reflected that of the Diné Nation to Def-i at a young age. “As a youth I tried to find some way to fit in because I wasn’t really fitting into the groups I was around. When I first discovered Hip Hop music what was so inviting about the culture was, the connection between Hip Hop and Diné philosophy. Hip Hop has four main elements to it. In Diné philosophy the number four has a lot of significance. Being surrounded by four sacred mountains, having four sacred directions. Each Direction has a lot of symbolism, as well as the mountains, and it all relates.” Def-i explained. 

When relating Hip Hop’s four elements to Diné culture, “I feel like our ancestors have also been practicing these art forms, so to speak, through ancient storytelling or even today through ceremonial practices. There are people in the ceremonies who provide drums and provide a beat for the people who are providing ceremonies there as healers in a way but also praying over the drums,” Def-i explained reflecting on the parallels of the DJ. “The ancient storytellers would be modern MCs. A lot of the dancing that happens during the ceremonies also happens in a circle, like life itself,” Def-i pointed out, while also illustrating the parallel of the breakdancer. “A lot of the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs where our ancestors were writing on the wall, share that connection with aerosol art,” Def-i continued. 

The Diné creation story even correlates with that of Hip Hop’s roots. “We believe that we travel to four worlds. The first world came from darkness and some people say that Hip Hop also started from when the blackout happened in New York,” Def-i explained. “All these little connections really sparked an interest for me and that’s how I fell in love with the culture of Hip Hop itself.” he continued. 

In the beginning, Def-i thought he would give dancing a shot. “I tried to be a dancer at first and I wasn’t as good as my peers. I found a connection with poetry and rap music,” Def-i revealed. It was poetry and rap that lead him to battle rapping where he thrived for a long time. Later, with the advice of a college professor and a fellow artist and mentor, Evidence of Dilated People’s, he realized he didn’t want to be remembered as a battle rapper and that his music could be a conduit for social and environmental change. During this same time, there was more hydraulic fracking that was getting closer to where Def-i’s grandparents grew up, near beautiful mountains in a rural area of New Mexico, about 30 miles south of Shiprock. 

“My grandfather would say, a long time ago when he would stand on that mountain he would be able to see the Sandia Mountains hundreds of miles away,” Def-i recounted.

Now, the pollution from coal power plants, among others, have created a smog that keeps the air thick and the scenery lost. This was one of the many things that inspired Def-i to write music in defiance of big industry and supporting the rights and livelihoods of tribal nations.

“At the time I felt like not many people were raising up these kinds of issues in music, especially from the southwest,” Def-i explained. “I wrote, The Land of Enfrackment at that time. The song just raises more awareness about these atrocities happening on our reservations that people in Albuquerque may not see because they never come out to our reservation. I wanted to bring some awareness to it and expose what’s going on. It was just time to grow up and become more than a battle rapper,” Def-i continued. 

Around the time Def-i started battle rapping he met a fellow rapper, Andrew Martinez, also known as Wake Self, who devastatingly, passed away in a car crash in November of last year. “This was around the time I was discovering Hip Hop and becoming more influenced by the culture. I met Andrew at a battle that Foundations of Freedom would put together every second Saturday,” Def-i told me. “When I first met him and I first heard him rap, I felt like he was going to do some amazing things and was destined for greatness. He really shined. I was really impressed by his freestyle abilities and how he was very knowledgeable of not only MCs in general but also knowledge about life. He was very young but very wise for his age. We grew from that point on to be good friends.”

Photo by Justin Bixler

Together they ended up becoming part of Foundation of Freedom, an Indigenous-based Hip Hop crew out in the Southwest. Later they stepped out of their comfort zones and moved to Albuquerque to start their music journey.

“I am just so thankful that I was able to cross paths with him,” Def-i explained. “We became best friends through decades together touring, working on music and just traveling as much as possible. His music lives on and I am here to help carry the legacy of our crew name Definition Rare. Def-i itself is short for Definition Rare, so he’s always been a part of me since day one. I realized I can’t stop. I just want to honor him and his family — our family — and just continue to carry on with the musical journey that we started together.” Def-i continued somberly. 

Instead of plugging his own music Def-i ended our conversation by promoting his best friend’s album, Ready To Live.

Go cop that and while you’re at it support Def-i’s latest album, Dream Trails, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.     

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna (she/ella) is the founder of RIZE Entertainment. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering and amplifying the work and voices of systematically excluded within the arts. She believes that art is vital for revolutionary practice and movements and hopes that RIZE can be an instrument for amplifying art that expresses the conditions of an unjust society and facilitates healing.