His stoic demeanor makes him look like a turn-of-the-century Edward S. Curtis photo subject come to life — albeit in a flat-brimmed Timberwolves hat. But Tall Paul couldn’t help but laugh about where he wound up doing his interview.
“Just my size,” the 6-foot-3 Ojibwe rapper dryly cracked, taking a seat at a knee-high table in the only unquiet corner of the East Lake Library in south Minneapolis: the kids area.
Sober five years now, the 26-year-old South Sider did not want to meet at one of the many bars near his Lake Street apartment. Lake Street was one of the few constants in his childhood, when he and his four siblings bounced north and south of it between foster homes and their grandmother’s house while their mom succumbed to addictions.
A couple weeks later at a coffee shop near Lake Nokomis, Paul’s fellow American Indian rapper, Chase Manhattan, talked about a better childhood spent mostly in Eagan. But he, too, has firsthand knowledge of the dire social issues faced by native communities and puts them into song.
It was his older brother Jiman who convinced him to incorporate his indigenous roots into his rap music. That was just a year or two before Jiman’s 2010 death of a prescription drug overdose, a tragedy that Chase blames in part on mistreatment from Indian Health Services.
“He told me all the South Side natives and other native communities would get behind me if I started to write about being a native,” Chase said, smiling at the memory. “He was right.”
With a strong rap scene and one of the biggest urban American Indian communities in America, the Twin Cities seems as likely a place as any for the genre known as native hip-hop. While it’s not exactly a booming scene, Tall Paul and Chase Manhattan are making names for themselves nationally on the Native American arts circuit.
They’re gaining momentum in non-native hip-hop circles, too. Most prominently, Tall Paul came to the attention of rap-loving comedian Dave Chappelle during his 10-show Minneapolis run in November: “If he really can rap, I’ll sign him up for a million dollars,” Chappelle quipped. “But he’d better be more than 5-foot-7 … and he’d better have better rhymes than just ‘Tall’ and ‘Paul.’ ”
He can, he is, and he does. But it wasn’t until the real-life Paul Wenell Jr. started studying his ancestral Ojibwe language at the University of Minnesota that he thought of channeling his heritage into his music, most conspicuously in “Prayers in a Song,” a track half-rapped in Anishinaabemowin.
“It got a big reaction within the [Native American] community, and not all good,” Paul remembered, “Some people thought I was desecrating something sacred.”
Chase, real name Chase Monchamp, has wrestled with his identity in song, too. His song “What Can I Say to You” relates his pain over his brother’s death to the wounds Native Americans suffer.
Both rappers cite advantages and disadvantages to being designated as native rappers. On the plus side, they naturally stand out from the crowd. But there’s also a certain lack of respect from mainstream rap crowds, who see them as something of a novelty. They also have been shunned at times by other Amerian Indians, especially elder leaders.
“I’ve had some elders say to me, ‘Why are you trying to act black?’ ” Chase said, shaking his head. “That’s them being racist.”
Neither wants to be pigeonholed as a Native American rapper, and both have more songs that don’t refer to their heritage than ones that do. They are as likely to take gigs in clubs — including small-town bars near rural American Indian populations — as they are to play native events.