By Talon Ducheneaux
Without music, I don’t think I would have made it this far in life. That’s a bit dramatic and cliché isn’t it? Allow me to explain.
My name is Talon Bazille Ducheneaux. I am 21 years old, studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (in Philadelphia). I am a proud Lakota and a proud Dakota. There are three reservations in which I call home. The Crow Creek Sioux Reservation where my mom’s side of the family is from, the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation where my father’s side of the family is from, and lastly, the Rosebud Sioux Reservation where I ended up graduating high school from.
Currently, I am hoping to do work within adolescent counseling and guidance counseling. On the side, I write spoken word and I also try my hand at making free music. My involvement in this hip hop medium, and within music in general is one that I can honestly attribute to my well-being, be it mental, spiritual, or emotional. Through it, I have been able to do anything from study, to survive a night of trauma, to withstanding a 7 hour drive on an unknown bus, to writing this piece that I am right now. Of course, I have other mentors, leaders, idols, and role-models who’ve helped bring me up to the man that I am today, but without music I would have not endured the moments I had to go through alone.
For as long as I can remember, I was a geeky kid. Music was an extreme obsession in my life. I couldn’t just know what songs I liked, I had to have them studied. Song origins, band origins, complete discography, sample origins, lyric meaning, metaphor usage, and so much more were a must to me. So much so that I remember an uncle teasing me once, “What’re you gonna do when you meet a girl you like, huh? Go up to her and say, ‘Hey baby, come here. Let me tell you a lyric.’”
Part of my initial love for music and recorded audio came from my parents. My father, one of the first in his family to go off and earn a PhD, showed me his head-banging material from his younger days when I was still a toddler. By the time I was 8 years old, I knew the controversies surrounding songs like “Stairway to Heaven” and “One”. I learned what the lyrics hinted at, what messages they portrayed, and what messages people thought they portrayed. “You ever listen to Led Zeppelin backwards, man?”
My mother was a little more slick. Her preference of music was smoother. From her, I had tapes of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” and Ginuwine’s “My Pony”. I recall nodding my tiny head to the beats in songs like LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity feat. Dr. Dre”. This is how we did it, because we just had to come on and slam when we wanted to jam.
My older cousins presented me with what I think ignited the deep desire in me to know every song possible. Sometimes I’d get to cruise around the rez with them, making mental notes in hopes of finding played songs by Method Man, Tupac, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Triple 6 Mafia, Da Brat, Richie Rich, Too Short, Luniz, Dru Down, Tech N9ne, Scarface, MC Eiht, Redman, Nas, Celly Cel, Knoc-turn’al, Sugawolf, Wu-Tang, and whoever else they had on at the time. As I put the burned CDs in my small booklet, I felt like I was that much closer to becoming as cool as they seemed to me.
After a while, though, the music I was being presented with just didn’t cut it anymore. The metal that my dad had introduced to me was too “weak” now, and overall, I just needed something more. I needed something that was my own. I ended up listening to Cannibal Corpse, Behemoth, Mayhem, Slipknot, Rob Zombie, Atreyu, Cradle of Filth, and others. On top of that, I needed more hip hop, now becoming a fan of Rza’s pre-Wu work, like Gravediggaz. MF Doom, Madlib, Immortal Technique, Necro, ICP, Jedi Mind Tricks, Brotha Lynch Hung, 9th Wonder, Pete Rock, A Tribe Called Quest, Killa C, Freeway, Eminem, Mr. Doctor, and so many others became artists that I was obsessing over at my own finding.
Where most kids spent their time playing outside, being social, I was mostly just thinking about music. An all-around geek, it was even the soundtracks of video games that initially sold my heart for whatever game I placed nostalgia and love behind. Bomberman Hero on the N64 will forever be my favorite video game of all time, in large part due to its soundtrack. When June Chikuma (the artist behind the Bomberman soundtracks) followed me on Soundcloud, I nearly fainted. Soundtracks of certain movies became what I remembered most from certain flicks, particularly horror. Anything I could stick in my ears was for the taking whilst growing up.
Part of me truly fears falsely perpetuating stereotypically negative aspects of life on the reservation, but the following has been my experience and is in part what has made me into the person that I am today, thus I must speak the entire truth. While my father was successful in receiving his PhD in clinical psychology, working with mental health at home in whatever way that he could, something happened that changed everything. As the distancing between him and my mother increased, their divorce eventually ensued. Following the divorce came the downward spiraling and sudden changes within the parents/superheroes whom I had once known.
I will never forget the sight I saw one day in the living room of an old I.H.S. house, a house which would change drastically in the months to come. At the couch sat my father, a bottle of liquor in his hand along with a sunken head. In his ear was my grandmother, speaking of the woman who had just left for good, “I told you that bitch was a whore!” Kids ran around the house, aunties vultured over the belongings that my mom had left behind, some on the computer taking whatever music they couldn’t find elsewhere, and there I stood watching it all chaotically play out in slow motion. ‘Last time, dad got in a car accident and I didn’t see him or mom for a good day or two’ I thought to myself. I couldn’t be inside any longer. I stood outside waiting for what would come next.
What came next involved violence from the man I once looked up to, a physically busted up home, fear and trembling on school nights, becoming a master at counseling my younger brother, making up reasons explaining that ‘mom and dad do still care about us, little brother.’ Inside I grew hatred for my youth, wanting to be independent and free away from the horrors I knew at every home I took part in, every floor that I slept on, every hammy-down that I settled for and then eventually was embarrassed about. Every time alcohol was chosen before me or my brother. Every time I had to be a parent, cook, do laundry, clean up party messes, budget borrowed money for cosmetics, and whatever else I had to learn to do and do well, or else.
Accompanying my struggle was music. I’d listen to Tupac’s “Do for Love” every time I walked down Rapid City’s downtown area, pretending that I could one day have enough money of my own to take a woman to one of the restaurants that I window-shopped at. I’d blast South Central Cartel’s CD “Random Violence”, a CD that I found on the ground when walking home in Eagle Butte one day, pretending that the thumps heard from the other room weren’t from yet another fight, just the bass from my speakers. I’d walk down Bad Nation Road jamming out to MF Doom’s “Rhymes like Dimes” pretending that I had a few myself. Music became the therapeutic soundtrack for life’s problems. My journey into making music and writing lyrics of my own would only further the therapy I didn’t get.
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a lyricist of some sort. Me and my cousin would pretend we were in a band together, and I was the singer/songwriter. I’d write ABC-level rhymes and together we’d take apart CD jewel cases, putting them back together with our own drawn and cut out labels. It wasn’t until I entered the 4th grade that I actually started writing lyrics to rap. I practiced and practiced, but the possibility of it going anywhere never came to mind. It was always just something I did.
Two major events in my life that sparked my hope and aspiration towards recording music came from my cousin Zane Azure, and a hip hop artist known as Maniac: The Siouxpernatural. I remember sitting in a room with my mother and her sisters, each gasping, “Ayes!” and “Wurr johns!” when talking about the apparent lyrics that Zane had used in a song that he released. I never knew my cousin did that. I grew excitement as they continued to gasp over his explicit language.
Before his untimely death, I sat inspired by him as we’d try our bests to plug earbuds into microphone jacks, seeing if we could record that way. He showed me what persistence was, what it meant to just keep trying and to keep dreaming about something that was so fun to do. When I finally had music of my own put out, I placed the CDs into the ground that he lay rested in, hoping he’d like what he heard. “Rest in peace, cuz.” Rest in peace.
This same feeling washed over me when I heard about Maniac: The Siouxpernatural. As I listened to his “Nightmerika” album, I thought to myself, “This really is a possibility.” I was so happy that voices from places that I was familiar with were on a beat like that, messages that I could directly relate to. The expressions and tonalities that were natural to me in the place that I grew up and knew the most. Receiving inspiration from both Zane and Maniac, I began to write more, to try more, and to push more towards music. Within the context of the struggles that I was enduring in my life, I finally had something better to hope for, something positive and reflective that I could reside in.
As I began to make songs, I noticed that each high school mixtape involved a distancing going away from the real me. I wasn’t being myself, and I wasn’t saying what I really wanted to say. It was amazing for me to now be passing out CDs, but the artists and messages that I grew up learning about made me realize that portraying a true and personal message meant more than simply passing out a CD to someone in hopes that they’d like it. I had to take a break, so after three years and around ten 20-track mixtapes, I took a break mid-junior year in high school. I had to find myself and understand who I really was. Something told me I needed an awakening of some sort.
A few years after taking a break from releasing music, I found myself beginning my freshman year as an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania. It was here that I started to finish this process getting to know myself, and through the inspiration of the artists that I came across while conducting a hip hop show on the school’s student radio station, I went back into releasing music. Through artists like Frank Waln and Nake Nula Waun, Illmaculate, Def-I, Supaman, Asharri the Vagabond, NightShield, and so many more, I received a final push to get back into the swing of doing what I love.
Music became my addiction. I am not a party-goer. I don’t go out too often. My Friday nights usually include me writing or listening to music at some point in time. Thus, I found refuge in the radio show that I had and the music that I was constantly working on. Since freshman year, I have now released 20 various projects onto my bandcamp page online.
Through the radio show, I managed to work with the indigenous group Natives At Penn and the Greenfield Intercultural Center on campus to make one of my dreams come true. As we went on to host the 2013 Spring All Ivy Native Conference, we flew out indigenous hip hop artists whom I have come to idolize and look up to over the years. Frank Waln & Sam Sampson, NightShield, Def-I, and DJ Garronteed came through to discuss and perform their music for the attendees of the event. It was that night of the performance that a childhood dream of mine came to life. While daydreaming of flying away from the situations I had encountered on and around the reservations where I grew up, I had pictured and envisioned performing alongside the same local and rising artists around me. Countless hours were spent on YouTube and other sites listening to and watching these idols around me. That night after the performance, I sat on the stage as the room cleared and began to tear up. I never thought that something like that would actually happen, that I’d get to open up for these guys at a venue in Philadelphia, let alone to even be a college student in Philadelphia in the first place! Music continued to fill my life with joy.
Simply going to college far away did not resolve the problems that I faced at home. As time went on, I found myself worrying of what my younger brother was now enduring alone without me. Guilt constantly swept over me, as I could only be an ear and send whatever little money I had at the most. My appearance was now gone, and I almost constantly beat myself up for it. I was free, and yet I wasn’t.
On top of stressors from home, I also found myself undergoing post-traumatic stress, if you will. Any thump that I heard while sleeping in my dorm room resulted in me jumping myself awake. I had nightmares, recurring memories and flashbacks of what was. I couldn’t seem to get over what I now had the space to think about. I began to despise the mirrors I looked into, as I felt I could slowly start to see the people who didn’t care about me for so many years at a time. On the phone, and in public, I tried my best to repress and mask any feelings that I felt while alone. I found myself damaged and depressed; I was in a lower slump than I have ever been in before.
It was hip hop that I used for therapy, because experiences with actual therapy seemed to only result in shocked expressions by whatever person I was signed off to. Sometimes, my problems and issues were just waved off with immediate responses of, “How are your grades?” Music, on the other hand, did not express shock when I spoke the truth. It didn’t disregard my problems. It was just there, so with it I exhaled every issue I had in my life past and present.
I grew to be a bit of recluse in college, and a summer spent alone didn’t help anything. I found myself mostly alone, not wanting to go out much anymore (not that I really did in the first place) after a recent 4-year breakup with my ex-girlfriend. On top of that, I had begun to realize that I would not be able to venture home for a visit for some time, and this brought more depression. My schedule now became wake up, mope to the shower, go to class, go to work, take the bus back home, eat something terrible, and go to bed. It began to become a chore to even write anymore. It became a chore just to wake up in the morning, to even have my eyes open anymore.
Things changed that summer when I bought myself a record player. It was a bit of a hefty price, but I felt it was worth it. I began to understand and become more fascinated with samples and music from past technologies in which I could discover. Suddenly, I found myself going to the flea markets and record stores in Philadelphia every weekend. At home, I’d have a stack of dollar-records ready for me to listen to, sample, and study. I became a late night viber. This went onto maintaining the projects that I had been working on. I wasn’t necessarily happy, but I was definitely getting by. The vinyl and I went onto having many conversations alone in that summer studio apartment. It all told me that things were going to be okay, conversations that I truly believed in.
Towards the end of that summer, I began to get a little desperate in the music that I was releasing. As a low-budget, internet-based, unknown rapper, I found myself getting little to no reception, as per usual. Depression increased in me, until I remembered something very important on the release day of the end-summer project that I put out.
The messages of Zane, my older cousins, and just life-mentors in general resonated in my memory. “All that matters is you’re out there and putting yourself out there. Everything else is secondary and not necessary.” The night of the release, I chose to stop moping for one night and instead headed down to South Street. I bought a few comics, ate pizza, enjoyed being out and around people. I found myself stopping at a park in Philly plopped down on a bench. Something told me to just look up, so I did. In the sky I counted 7 of my ancestors. Usually, I could only see one or two stars in the sky at one time. I smiled to myself and began to head to the bus. “I’m alive, and I’m doing this. Everything else IS secondary, isn’t it?”
At the beginning of the next summer, I found myself in the same park finishing up writing for a short mixtape. The breeze of that day felt amazing. Clouds began to roll in, and so I went back to South Street to find a place to eat out at by myself. For some reason, while walking down the street I couldn’t make up my mind. The rain began to pour heavy, and I just went in the first place to the right. I found myself at a bar table next to an old Irish man, who almost immediately began talking to me. I didn’t want to talk, but just acted friendly and as nice as I could be.
Suddenly, he said to me, “You know, that Keystone thing they’re trying to do is wrong, man. People who don’t realize that are idiots. They don’t even realize it goes over indigenous lands, man. Indigenous lands!”
I sat in shock. He knew? He cared? I responded, “I actually just went to a protest about it in DC a month or so ago. A big idol of mine performed there and everything.”
“Lakota?” he asked me.
“Yeah, and Dakota too.”
“From South Dakota?”
“Man… that is a beautiful place over there isn’t it?”
“It sure is….”
We went onto talking and sharing, culturally exchanging with one another for at least an hour. As I left, still amazed that I met someone so knowledgeable, open, and respectable for once, he said to me, “I hope to see you again, my friend.”
“Me too, sir. I’ll see you again.”
I went home and wrote one last song that night. Maybe another solo summer wouldn’t be so bad, especially with the life lessons and openness that hip hop and music had taught me.
One minute, you’re just another kid from the rez. The next minute, you’re the spokesman for an entire continent of indigeneity. In college, I have faced almost every question about native peoples, each with a response of, “I can’t speak for everyone, because we are all different, but in the way that I was raised…” I felt like a douche. How could I even try to speak for a whole people?
I chose to instead wrap this frustration in my music and into an art form that I never really tried before: spoken word. Slowly, I began to express my frustrations, be them social, political, about class, about poverty, about the kids who I fought for, about the brother I fought for, about everything that I myself fought for. I took refuge in being able to speak loud and proud about my own experiences, trying my best to prevent anyone from generalizing things about the people I came from, about the communities I came from. Music helped me do this. I remembered Chuck D’s words, Immortal Technique’s words, Asharri the Vagabond’s words, Tupac’s words. The teachers I had while growing up helped me see how to react to all of this in a positive and appropriate way. I found my voice on my own terms.
With the frustrations that came from moving to such a different area on the east coast, something positive came from it as well. I was forced to understand and hash out my own identity further. Who was I, really? How do I walk in this world?
I am myself. That is what hip hop told me. It didn’t tell me to “pop nines” or “fuck b#%$@#$” like so many said it did. I learned from the best to be myself, even if it meant I had to do it by myself. I refused, then, to perpetuate any stereotype around me. I refused to allow the fear of any stereotype to control my behavior either. I went in, no braid or long hair (my choice), no buckskin or feather, no fake costume that I didn’t wear before, no suit that I had to use to impress a “more sophisticated” crowd. Hip hop and music gave me the confidence to do that.
I began to love myself for who I was. I knew who I was. I was a rez kid from South Dakota, born into a beautiful, yet active and loud family. I was a kid who loved music, video games, and comic books, and who wasn’t afraid to lose attraction from girls because of it. I knew a woman would love me for all of it one day, and that that would be more worth it. I would rather walk away with nothing but my integrity than leave with everything but. Hip hop and music helped me keep that integrity close to heart. This didn’t restrict change either, rather, it helped facilitate it.
And so, there is just some of the journey that I have went through so far. My life wasn’t the best, but I know it wasn’t the worst, either. I am a Lakota. I am a Dakota. I am a human. I am a being. A true geek at heart, with a sense of humor that only those who I love can handle.
I pay respect where respect is due. Without my family, my tiospaye, my oyate, my extended relations everywhere, I would not be here. Without the endurance of the ancestors before me, I would not be here. Without the guidance of those by me, I would not be here. But also, without music, I would not be here either. Through experiencing it, ingesting it, and living it, I have kept sanity, spirituality, peace, and endurance within myself. Hip hop is more to me than just breakbeats and egoism. It’s everything to me, and without the works of other indigenous artists around me, other independent artists around me, and other artists in general, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have held my morals in place as I do today. I wouldn’t have stayed myself through every life change and transformation as I do today.