‘Inner City Native’ Mixes Hip Hop, Ojibwe Language

Raised in south Minneapolis, Paul Wenell Jr. soaked in the Hip Hop music that flooded the air around him, absorbing the artists of the age alongside his brothers and cousins.

His Native American heritage, not so much. 

For young Wenell, identity with Anishinaabe and Oneida nations was a mystery even to himself.

It was college that helped him tap into his roots, and Hip Hop that helped him grow to reach audiences he only dreamed of.

Wenell, now a Native American Hip Hop artist widely known as Tall Paul, spoke to Brunswick Middle Schoolers in a virtual assembly on Dec. 8.

Paul, who earned his name during an adolescent growth spurt, told the boys he attended 35 different schools as a child as he was shuffled around in foster care. There was little to no hint at that point that his future lay onstage.

“I was one of the quieter kids in my high school,” he told the boys. “Oftentimes I wasn’t even at school. I became introverted.”

His goal, however, was to be the first in his family to attend college. He went to summer school, stayed late at school throughout his senior year, enrolled in a double-credit program, and managed to graduate on time.

Still, it took two tries for the artist now known as Tall Paul to gain acceptance to the University of Minnesota, where he found himself enrolled in a class that changed his life. The university requires two years of language for graduation, and Tall Paul opted for Ojibwe, his native tongue.

“It was a hole within myself that needed to be filled,” he said. “It was very powerful.”

An open-mic night at college offered another opportunity to develop skills.

“I forced myself to do it,” he told the boys, offering them some advice: “Face your fears. You’ll surprise yourself.”

A senior project resulted in "Prayers in a Song," which blends English rhyme with a chorus rapped in Ojibwe. The song, which launched his career after being viewed by hundreds of thousands online, explores the links between language, identity, and geography. It begins this way:

                        I feel the latent effects of assimilation
                        Inner city Native raised by bright lights, sky scrapers
                        Born with dim prospects, little peace in living

Emmanuel Saldana, Brunswick's associate director of diversity, equity & inclusion, introduced Tall Paul to the boys, including fourth graders at the Lower School, and cited the artist for “creating a voice not only for himself, but for other indigenous people, to give strength and power to his community.”

 

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