Meet the Militant Indigenous Rap Group Promoting Extreme Resistance
Tonight on VICELAND, RISE follows Savage Family and the polarized reactions to their music.
Savage Family's music video for "Walking with the Dead" shows Native American kids clad in fatigues brandishing shotguns and bolt-action rifles. At the end of the track, "You know which people got to die" is softly sung while an upside-down American flag is cast into a fire.
The target audience of the militant hip-hop collective is youth, according to Anthony Hunter Savington (or "Ant Loc"), a rapper and spokesperson for the group.
"Realistically, our movement is all about the kids," he told VICE.
Savage Family is predicated on disseminating messages of resistance and decolonization—that it's honourable for the next generation to stand up for themselves and their rights, even if it involves weapons. Savington said the children seen in the aforementioned video are his.
The group's unabashed militancy is tied to Indigenous protest organizations, namely the American Indian Movement. Scores of members in the group, including Savington, have relatives who were part of the uprising to maintain Native American sovereignty and rights in 60s and 70s. The AIM fizzled out after Leonard Peltier, a prominent member of the organization, was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1975, an issue that has been shrouded in controversy ever since (He is still in prison after former President Barack Obama denied him clemency.) The no-holds-barred attitude of groups like AIM being is carried forward by Savage Family, it seems.
"If you have access to a weapon and someone is harming you, why wouldn't you stop it?" said Savington. "We're being taught to turn the other cheek, to accept the position we're given, but that's a Christian view of the world. We have to protect our children from colonized society."
The group was established in 2001 in Kansas before relocating to the west coast. Members fluctuate between 25 to 100 people, said Savington.
Savage Family has several songs on YouTube—some have upwards of 50,000 views—and aggregate websites. An artist biography on a site called Reverbnation compares Savington to Immortal Technique and Dead Prez. It also hints that he hasn't been able to reach a wider audience.
"Ant Loc is mostly unheard of as of yet outside of Indigenous/Native communities," the post reads, "but is now prepared to share the music that fulfills the prophecies of his people that will make the cities crumble."
Savage Family, along with its tenet of dissidence, is the focal point of this week's episode of RISE, VICELAND's documentary series about Indigenous affairs in the Americas.
In the episode, host Sarain Fox accompanies the group to Native American tribes—communities grappling with drug problems and suicide. Savage Family performed their songs uncensored, which caused uneasiness in some people, given that the group was there to play in front of kids. During one set, members were called out for using expletives; in another instance, Savington is shown rapping about "squaw bags," a form of mutilation used against Indigenous women where breasts are removed and sewn into bags, as explained in the film.
When asked if he thinks Savage Family's music could be misinterpreted or considered too violent for young, impressionable minds, Savington said he was willing to take the risk.
"I'd rather have my children die fighting for the land than killing themselves or ending up dope fiends," he said. "If we begin an open and honest dialogue, I think the misinterpretation can be avoided, as well. Maybe someone could see me as wrong, and that's cool, but maybe they'd want to create a dialogue with me."
In the video for their song "Hatred," a priest is stopped from cutting the hair of an Indigenous youth after individuals gripping machetes and pistols rush him. They proceed to tie him up and beat him bloody. "I'll slit your neck with a slice. My machete through your bible, are you ready to die?" is one of the lyrics. The sequence climaxes with the priest being shot in the head.
I asked Savington about the contents of the video and he said it's an example of metaphors the group employs to drive home their messages.
"We terrorize him [the priest], so to speak, to destroy the idea that somehow Christianity supersedes us and who we are," he said. "Those things are there to breakdown the history of our people in a real gritty manner. I'm not advocating that our people pick up guns. I believe we have the right and the responsibility to defend ourselves and our homelands anyway we see fit."
Dr. Melissa Leal, who teaches ethnic studies at Sierra College in Rocklin, California, worked with Cizko Gower—an original member of Savage Family—during one of the group's hip-hop workshops. She has used their music and videos to illustrate Indigenous activism in lectures.
"It's absolutely necessary," she said of group's approach. "We need music that informs and music that heals. Savage Family from day one has created activism music and most of the artists are activists. It can be seen as militant, but it is actually just truthful. It is important to understand history and colonization so that we can move forward in a positive and revolutionary way. We are not creating violence, only diagnosing it."
Kyle Mays, a postdoctoral fellow of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uses the term "atmospheric violence" to account for Savage Family's music.
"The colonizer and the colonized, both in the very beginning, the encounter is violent," he said. "The colonized, in an attempt to rid themselves of such violence, they're constantly engaging in ways to shift the colonial order. The whole system in which they live is inherently violent."
Because of this, Mays believes Savage Family's music and messages are warranted.
"Context is particularly important when understanding hip-hop. Things could be metaphoric or otherwise. Colonialism is a systematic structure, and this is what Savage Family is going against."
Comments on Savage Family's music videos, however, are indicative of polarized views. "fuck Canada,Fuck America (sic)," is one comment attached to the "Walking with the Dead" music video, which is the group's most popular. Another person, identified as Travis Jones, posted, "It's this type of attitude and finger pointing that gets MANKIND in an uproar," referring to the flag burning scene.
Despite the extremes seen in their content, Savage Family ultimately fosters youth talent by working with kids to develop, or discover, their skills, according to Savington.
"When we do our work with the youngsters, we don't sit there passing out our videos," he said. "We help them amplify their voices, whether that be music or spoken word. That's the biggest part of our work."
Fundamentally, Savage Family wants Indigenous kids to know they have a place in the world, that they're cared for and should be proud of who they are to the extent they are empowered to reclaim it.
"We want them to know they're loved, cherished and beautiful," said Savington. "Our music is a reminder that our culture has truly amazing things, but we have to be willing to protect them at all costs, by any means."
RISE airs Fridays at 9 PM on VICELAND.