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Teens Rap About Dark Side of Rural Alaska Life

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  • Teens Rap About Dark Side of Rural Alaska Life

    Teens from Scammon Bay rap about dark side of rural Alaska life
    Material isn't standard hip-hop fare of cars, cash and women

    Anchorage Daily News

    (Published: December 27, 2004)

    Jimmy Walker and Jaye Ulak were rappers stuck in a hip-hop no man's land.

    Known as Blood Family, the duo sat in the corner of a sterile conference hall in downtown Anchorage. The crowd of 30 middle-aged health workers were more likely to think of "rap" as slang for "talk." No one clapped when Walker (known as "G") and Ulak ("Blood") were introduced.

    The two performers moved to the front of the room. Someone pushed "play" on a boombox, and Ulak launched the blunt opening verse -- without aid of a microphone -- of the song "Village Issues":

    "I'm a survivor of drug addiction ..."

    The audience sat up. Mostly rural residents, these adults were witnessing something new: two Native teens from Scammon Bay rapping like urban kids and baring their souls about the dark side of village life.

    " 'How long will the pain last?' is what I asked when I tried to blast myself," Ulak continued. "... Dear Lord, please help me ease my pain."

    When the song was over, a few in the room stood and applauded. Hands shot into the air, everyone waiting to compliment and comment.

    "Your rap is very powerful," said one attendee at the Rural Behavioral Health Conference. "People say you need to get the information from the source. You guys are the source."

    The pair said they're growing more accustomed to this kind of attention from elders. People are suddenly interested and really want to know what they think. "It's getting through, even to the adults," Walker said.

    But they once felt no one really cared. Troubled 19-year-olds, each had attempted suicide as recently as this fall. Both have friends who have taken their own lives. Drug and alcohol abuse, aimless children and oblivious adults surround their daily lives in Scammon Bay, they said. Hopelessness led to depression; depression turned to suicidal thoughts.

    But learning to write rhyme helped them cope.

    "Whenever I feel alone," Ulak said, "I just take out my journal and start writing."

    They say they feel as if they're speaking for village youths all over the state, and they openly share their pain like their rap idol, Tupac Shakur, once did. They follow the hip-hop credo to "rap about what you know." Their material isn't the standard fare of cars, cash and women. Instead, Walker and Ulak rap about their village, suicide, and elders being disrespected.

    "I started writing about my life and about other peoples' lives," Ulak said, and he has more than 100 songs in his catalog.

    Blood Family performed for the first time this May, at Scammon Bay High's senior prom, unveiling a then-unfinished version of "Village Issues" to a crowd more accustomed to traditional Native dance and song performances.

    "Everybody loved us!" Ulak said. "Kids and adults were all saying, 'Again! Again! Pamyua!' Pamyua!' We ended up doing it, like, four times."

    "We stole the night from the graduating seniors," Walker added with a smile.

    Their first performance outside Scammon Bay came in early December at a training conference in Seattle for Indian child welfare workers. There, they talked openly about their lives, about hunting and fishing, about their village and about depression.

    Sandy Kleven, a licensed clinical social worker from Anchorage, organized their conference visits to Seattle and Anchorage. She met Walker and Ulak individually this fall when she was an emergency clinician for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel. Ulak was contemplating suicide. Walker had attempted suicide, trying to overdose on a handful of Tylenol.

    Through counseling, she learned they rapped. She asked each to prove his skills and rap in front of her. Each passed the impromptu audition.

    Kleven quickly developed a plan that would let the boys express their feelings to a crowd that needed to hear it. The state Division of Behavioral Health donated $500 to get the boys from Scammon Bay to Bethel, and two donors offered airline miles to get the pair from Bethel to Seattle and back. The Seattle conference provided room and meals.

    "It was just amazing, the way it came together," Kleven said.

    Both boys say the experience has changed their lives. Walker says he doesn't want to die anymore. His attempted suicide scared his family and him. He didn't realize how many people really cared about him.

    "I feel pretty good about life right now," Walker said. "It was awful for my family and friends, what I put them through."

    Ulak is less hopeful about his future. "I think I'm doing OK," Ulak said. "But Seattle was great. I wasn't depressed or sad the whole time."

    Ulak says he has found hope in rap. He wants to share his lyrics and his story. He wants to be the voice of Native youths and a role model for them.

    The two have been invited to Fairbanks. They also hope to earn a spot in the Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel this spring.

    They don't have a CD, but they make demo tapes to share with friends and drop occasional freestyle rhymes for the youngsters of Scammon Bay.

    "Kids always ask me to rap for them, and that feels good," Ulak said. "So I give them a verse or two and then tell them that's all they're getting from me today."

    What they really dream of is recording a CD, complete with original beats to rap over. Right now they use instrumentals from songs by Coolio and Bounty Killer as background music for "Village Issues" and their other song, "A Story of a Young Native."

    Ulak knows new beats will help their rhymes stand out and a CD would help spread their work. But he also admits the members of Blood Family are unknowns and star producers like Dr. Dre won't be calling anytime soon.

    "Not until we end up getting a record deal," Ulak said, smiling.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

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