IshKote Nene, AKA Sacramento Knoxx, sees his work as part of “an Indigenous resurgence.” An Anishinaabe/Chicanx artist from Southwest Detroit, Knoxx’s music and cultural work draw from these roots to build a new world on old traditions. “My work is ancestral technology mixed with like ways of being,” he explains. That means drawing strength, guidance, and inspiration from the knowledge systems and practices of indigenous people to envision and create a different world. “Indigenous resurgence requires a lot of relationships with land, water, people, education, arts, culture, value, economics, things like that.” For Knoxx, art and culture play vital roles in deconstructing oppressive systems to make space for an Indigenous resurgence to spring forth.
Knoxx describes his background as part of “a very long, long story of displacement” with “a lot of reconnections and disconnections.” His father’s side is Ojibwe and came to Detroit in the 1940s from a reservation in present-day Canada called Walpole Island. His grandmother was forced to go to a boarding school, which white settlers used to force Indigenous people to conform to Eurocentric standards and norms. His mother’s side came from Mexico in the wake of the revolution. Both sides were “driven here because of the cars and the jobs and things like that, and that’s just as of recent history of displacement and moving.”
Growing up Anishinaabe and Chicano in Southwest Detroit was challenging as a kid. Knoxx felt like he wasn’t “Mexican enough for the Mexican kids” and not “native enough for the native kids.” But hip hop allowed him to find his voice and claim his identities. “What was monumental was the hip-hop culture, going into the hip-hop culture and understanding that as the new indigeneity of urban cities,” he explains. “And I think growing out of poverty and violence, you really learn how to make something out of nothing. And that’s like the root of hip-hop culture, making something out of nothing” (Michigan Radio, 2016).
Knoxx blends these identities, experiences, and the soul of the city into his unique sound as an artist. “I’m bringing to the table like this Native sound…of everything that’s here and that’s been here and keeps going,” he explains. “The sound of grit, the sound of beauty, like it’s just an experience of the city really kinda informs those things.” In addition to reflecting the cultures of Southwest, he also uses his sound to build community power and challenge oppressive systems.
To build community power through art and culture, Knoxx co-founded a hip hop collective called the Raiz Up in 2012. At weekly gatherings in parks in Southwest, the Raiz Up used “hip hop as a tool for creating critical community consciousness” as they brought people together for workshops on community organizing, beat making, knowledge and music sharing, performances, and MC cyphers (The Raiz Up, 2012).
When emergency management was imposed on Detroit, Knoxx understood it as a manifestation of old histories of settler colonialism. “It’s a new expression within the settler colonialism toolbox of living,” he explains. “It’s like, damn, like some more shit’s popping off in the history of colonialism and…and displacement on Turtle Island.” In many ways, it just added to issues around gentrification, housing, immigration, jobs, safety, and pollution many communities were already confronting.
For many people in his community, the problems caused by emergency management were nothing new. “Maybe a lot of our family and community didn’t have time to break what was going down. They’re just like ‘same shit, same things popping off, just have to adjust.” He likens life within settler colonial projects to “apocalypse training” through which people learn to survive, grow stronger, and create new visions for a better world. “When those things happen, you have different things that are born from that, from different struggles that make a new thing…like this beauty out of disaster.”
The Raiz Up created beauty out of disaster during their weekly gatherings while also making space for critical conversations about what was happening with emergency management. Through teach-ins with community experts and decolonization block parties, the Raiz Up used hip hop and art to connect local people with organizers challenging emergency management. “We really wanted to create an actual, like, soundtrack for…the emergency management resisting work, and we tried to begin organizing it,” Raiz Up member Antonio Cosme explains, “but…we were chasing so many different areas it just didn’t get prioritized enough.”
The Raiz Up’s focus on showcasing local talent and building community power demonstrates some of the influences on Knoxx’s music and organizing. “My influence is people, the strength of the people…seeing people thrive and be incredible and great,” he explains. Knoxx draws strength and inspiration from “all the amazingness in the hood” that many people may not recognize. He specifically credits his mother and the women in his family and people in his neighborhood as the sources of his strength and teachers of “this process of what I call just making beauty out of disaster.”
Knoxx channels those influences into his work with the Aadizookaan, a collective of artists and cultural workers in Southwest Detroit that uses multimedia art to build connections between people and create change. The name comes from an Anishinaabe word that means “the sacred spirit of the story” or the stories of the people. “It is storytelling practice that belongs to the people and acknowledges a sort of magic or energy that positively comes through the storytelling,” Knoxx explains. “This energy is important to us as we build with contemporary tools of music, film, and design to bring a positive impact to our collective wellness and communities” (Barbed, 2018-19).
Knoxx describes the Aadizookaan as a home for Native people to lead in social change work. “We built that home…and it’s more or less just fulfilling our destinies as Native people,” he explains. “And in particular, we’re gravitating and following our life of being these modern-day storytellers that use music, rap, beats, film…all these current technologies to continue to tell that sacred spirit.”
The Aadizookaan is also a “community network of artists where people can grow and learn skills…and build and learn these complex educational things in our history right now with each other.” This approach is influenced by the Anishinaabe philosophy of Mawadisisiwag, or visiting with community members, as a tool for building relationships and community power. A fundamental question the Aadizookaan asks is “how are we honoring those groups and those knowledge systems that are there and to uplift them because that ultimately informs land and water because it is passed down, and like there’s just certain relationships with land and water…and it’s important…to follow Indigenous knowledge systems.”
Knoxx sees his work as an artist and organizing existing across time and space. “I’m starting to call myself an ancestor-in-training,” he explains. “Like what can I do with my time that’s really fucking good and very intentional and then like be organized and like leave stories because that’s what some of the Native people didn’t get, like they didn’t get their whole vast knowledge, like infinity systems of incredible knowledge and things like that to survive. So, you know, what does that look like as I pull from the past presently for the future.”
The future of Detroit that Knoxx envisions is one without the structures and legacies of settler colonialism. “Like, alright, we’re retiring Detroit,” he imagines. “Detroit was a part of a bad project called settler colonialism, and we’re just gonna honor the treaties and restore Indigenous sovereignty and rights back to the native people, and they’re gonna take us to the new wave of things.” That means retiring the city’s name and structures and “making something new, like the new shit, [laughs] the new album…and that’s what a cool future would be, like humans fucking did it, and now we’re on some other cool-ass shit, and then Detroit’s gone,” he continues. “I mean, Detroit’s still there, but just the name Detroit and the structure of what makes Detroit Detroit it’s…it’s…it’s done, shhhh, no…nothing. So, that would be the future of Detroit. See you later, Detroit! It was nice. It was something else. So, that would be the future.”
As an ancestor-in-training, Knoxx has a message for future generations who want to bring that vision to life: “Be a great person for you and your family and your friends and do honorable actions and make honorable things…Good things are ahead…it’s part of the journey…and it’s a beautiful life…It’s actually, Mino-Bimaadiziwin. That’s what I’d say. Mino-Bimaadiziwin because they’ll remember that, and because it’s a frequency here, Mino-Bimaadiziwin. And, it means ‘the good life’. Remember the good life.”
- Arturo Herrera, “The Aadizookaan,” Barbed Issue 07, Winter 2018-19, https://barbedmagazine.com/Southwest-Detroit-Issue-07-Winter-2018-2019
- “How hip-hop helped this Ojibwe/Chicano Detroiter define himself,” Michigan Radio, April 12, 2016, https://www.michiganradio.org/arts-culture/2016-04-12/how-hip-hop-helped-this-ojibwe-chicano-detroiter-define-himself
IshKote Nene, interviewed by Oriana Yilma and Peter Blackmer, May 25, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.