This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
The breakthrough moment of Joey Stylez’s career happened in his home city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 2004, when the Cree-Métis rapper opened for 50 Cent. That night not only set Stylez on the course to becoming a respected Canadian emcee, it also motivated him to emerge as an industry mogul. He set out to produce hits and create a Canadian brand, but his dreams of grandeur were set against a backdrop of personal struggles.
Only a few days before the 50 Cent concert, Stylez’s uncle, Isho Hana, was shot and killed in a drug-related incident. His friend, Kevin Moccasin, was stabbed to death in a gang altercation the year prior. Addictions issues and violence were all around Stylez. Despite these hardships, he went on to release a number of critically-acclaimed albums and hit songs like “Indian Outlaw,” “Kool Runnin,” and “Sugar Cane.” However, the rap empire he wanted eluded him, or, at least, the empire he’d envisioned.
The 34-year-old now lives in Toronto. When he’s not making music, he’s also a painter and entrepreneur with a clothing line and coffee company. More importantly, Stylez has changed his outlook on what it means to be a successful artist. I spoke to him over the phone while he was in Thunder Bay on the tail end of a summer tour, which included shows on First Nations reserves. Stylez offered insights on his musical direction, the problems gripping Indigenous populations, and his drive to inspire his people.
Noisey: Tell me about the single “Pride of Lions” on the new Grey Magic EP.
Joey Stylez: The EP is a continuation of what I did on my last project, the Medicine Man mixtape. On that one, I was trying to recreate the brand I started many years ago–the Indian outlaw brand. I was putting Native spirituality into my music. I also had to represent the streets and struggle we came up in. I was trying to find a balance with a commercial sound. I wanted to go back to the core of my fan base on the streets. Now, I’m trying to empower my people–First Nations people. Warriors. I’m making warrior music. Grey Magic has a lot of different writing techniques. I’m not trying to have number 1 hits anymore. That was the boy in me. My focus is to represent my people.
What nation do you represent?
I’m a Cree-Métis. I was raised by both sides. I’m well rounded. I’m into making art, but I grew up hustling in the streets trying to make money to pay rent. I went from that to living in a mansion paying thousands of dollars a month in rent and having three cars. I graduated. The Cree side, that’s the catholic side. The Métis side is the feather.
Is that where the title of your Feather + Rosary album comes from?
Yeah. Some people got the wrong message about that. Everyone battles demons and that [album] was a way for me to kill those demons.
Can you be specific about the demons you’ve been fighting?
A lot of Métis people and First Nations people in Canada have been plagued with the aftermath of residential schools. The abuse has trickled into the homes and streets … I think about a lot of things my dad went through, like his addictions issues. I don’t face them the same way he does, but I saw him go through that. I didn’t want to walk down that path. My mom had her own issues. I inherited those issues. I took the chance to eliminate those.
What kinds of addictions do you mean?
My dad–it’s not really a secret–struggles with alcohol addictions. Other people in my family have drug issues. It’s new to our systems–it’s not for our people. A lot of this stuff came to our world in 1492. Prior to that, it wasn’t around. It hits us different. Alcohol has been around for thousands of years, but over here it’s new to us.
You’re no stranger to violence as well. I’m referring to an incident that happened in Saskatoon in 2013. You’ve said you won’t play Saskatoon anymore after a brawl broke out during your show at a nightclub. One of your relatives was injured in that fight.
Yeah, my brother. A crew of guys rolled in. It’s not the first time that’s happened at my shows. It gets tiring with hip-hop and violence at shows. Hip-hop artists want to have a good time. They want to celebrate and share their new songs. Guys want to meet girls; girls want to meet guys. Sometimes people get carried away. There’s been weapons pulled at my shows; there [were weapons] at that  show. I’m desensitized to that. I grew up around that. I vowed not to do a show in Saskatoon, but that’s my home. You can’t chase me out of my home. That’s the warrior spirit–the warrior trap music. That’s the Indian outlaw.
I have to follow up by asking: Are you aware the sentencing for the people involved in that fight occurred on July 22, 2015?
I heard about it. My dad was incarcerated. I grew up basically thinking the cops are the bad guys. I’ve seen so many friends and family get taken away. My dad wrongly did a jail sentence when he was a teenager and went to jail [tried] as an adult. He wouldn’t lie to me. He’ll tell me straight up when he drinks, “Yo, I did time for someone else, but I’m not a snitch.” Once when I was 14 or 15-years-old and I got in trouble, my dad drove me to school and he was dead quiet all the way from home. I thought he was going to fuck me up… My dad’s a big Cree guy. He’s stern. He said to me in a chief kind of voice, “Whatever you do, don’t fucking rat.” I live with those words. If you’re not willing to have someone come back at you or face jail time, don’t do that stuff.
You’re OK talking about this?
Yeah. I’m not trying to hype up the situation. This is how it is. I have family members I haven’t seen in 10 or more years. I have friends who will probably never get out of prison. I’ve buried friends. I just buried my elder two weeks ago. He’s gone back to the ancestors. You know how much that hurt me? It hurt because I realized I have to pick up that slack. Who’s going to learn the language and ceremonies? It’s going to die. We can’t have that. That’s called cultural genocide. As long as I’m here and my brothers are here, we’re putting out for our people.
Do you think you’re a role model?
I think I’m a role model in some ways, but also not. My life is a grey area—my Indian name is Grey Owl. My mom is an educated, polished woman. She’s been the leader of the Métis Nation in Saskatchewan. My dad, same things: he’s charming and was involved in politics. I grew up in a good area. On paper it looks great, but we never had a lot of money. We had eight kids, addictions issues, and whatever. What do you think I was going to do? I was running in the streets to keep up with the rich kids. I wanted the bike, the clothes and videogames. I had to steal and sell joints. I’m not proud of it and don’t support that now, but my message is this: survival. That’s what Native Americans are–survivalists. They tried to kill us, but we’re still here.
You make a special effort to play shows on reserves.
My brother, Big Apple, said it best: “We got fans in the inner cities; we got fans in the suburbs; we got fans in the hoods; and we got fans in the woods.” That’s the real shit. I’ve been around the world … Now I know my cause. I wanted to be No. 1 on the radio and go platinum, but fuck that. I want my people to be proud. I’m not trying to be Lil Wayne or Jay Z anymore. I want to be like Geronimo. I want to be like Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Louis Riel, and Gabriel Dumont. We have our own identity.
Devin Pacholik is a writer living in Saskatchewan. Follow him on Twitter.