Speaking with a bigger voice: Minneapolis rapper works to amplify Native voices in the hip-hop industry

a man sits on a chair
Hip-hop artist Eldayshun Big Bear, known as Day Dayz, is one of the first artists represented by the Dream Warriors Indigenous artist collective. He is seen on Feb. 17 in Onamia.
Mercies May via Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

By Myah Goff | Sahan Journal

In the Twin Cities hip-hop music scene, Indigenous voices are making their mark. Among them shines Paul Wenell Jr., better known as Tall Paul, an Anishinabe and Oneida hip-hop artist from south Minneapolis whose music reflects his inner-city upbringing and deep-rooted Indigenous pride. 

“I started writing rhymes when I was about 14 years old, just toying around with it,” Wenell said. “It was a hobby for many years, but it gradually evolved into something more.”

Wenell’s journey in the Twin Cities music scene began in 2009, when he started performing at open mics, using his pen as a creative outlet and booking local and out-of-state shows. However, his music took a transformative turn when he discovered the story of Jim Thorpe, the first Native American athlete to win a gold medal for the United States for his feats in the 1912 Summer Olympics. Inspired by Thorpe’s accomplishments and legacy, Wenell dedicated an entire album in 2022 to honoring his memory. 

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“He had a huge impact on me as a young Native youth growing up in the ’90s,” Wenell said. “Nowadays, we see a little bit more of a positive and ample representation of our Indigenous communities, but back then, it was much more limited. If anything, it was a Western or romanticized version of us. You know, fake headdresses and buckskins and things like that.”

portrait of a man
Paul Wenell Jr., director of the Dream Warriors Indigenous artist collective, who also goes by the moniker Tall Paul, is seen on Feb. 17 in Onamia.
Mercies May via Sahan Journal

Wenell’s 10-track album not only chronicles the life and legacy of Thorpe but also highlights the history of settler colonialism, the forced displacement of Indigenous people, the assimilation efforts of the boarding school system, and Indigenous resistance. 

“Subconsciously as a youth, the effect of seeing the media not portraying us at all, and if they did it was in a negative light, like we were below others, made me think that maybe we weren’t as competent as Native people. Learning about Jim Thorpe helped me through and I saw the album as a way to pay it forward to him but also to the future of Native youth,” Wenell said. 

Beyond his music, Wenell’s impact extends to his role as the founding executive director of Dream Warriors Management, a nonprofit organization that launched in October 2023 to support Indigenous artists. 

The emergence of Dream Warriors can be traced back to 2015 when singer-songwriter and poet Tanaya Winder initiated efforts to amplify Indigenous artists nationwide. The collective consisted of Winder, Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln, and Anishinabe hip-hop artist Mic Jordan. However, the trio seemed somewhat off-kilter to Winder as the number four is considered sacred within Indigenous communities. 

When she heard of Tall Paul, the “best Native MC out there,” she said, “if I’m going to do this, let’s have the best.”

The collective gradually welcomed a diverse group of Indigenous poets, musicians, and visual artists, all embodying the “magic and heart” in their work that resonated with the Dream Warriors mission Winder was cultivating. 

“I really do believe everybody has a voice or a song or a story to share and we just need the tools or the people to help us believe that our voice is worthy and deserving of being shared,” Winder said. 

The collective has since facilitated creative writing workshops, provided scholarships to young Indigenous artists, and embarked on music tours, particularly targeting Indigenous youth.

“You share your lessons through song and writing and music as a way to teach other people and hopefully help them learn something about their path as well,” Winder said. “Sometimes the world and people try to tell us who we are and try to define us, but when you write music, poetry or stories, you get to decide the meaning of everything that has ever happened to you.”

Looking ahead, Wenell envisions supporting Indigenous artists with streamlined access to resources and opportunities through Dream Warriors.

“It was not something I had ever planned on before,” Wenell said. “It just kind of fell in my lap and Tanaya blessed me with this opportunity, and a new path in my life and career, as I’m envisioning what I want to do for the Indigenous arts community.”

By bypassing the traditional grant application process, Wenell wants to develop a more direct way for Native and Indigenous artists to connect with the organization. “If you show up, you should be supported. That’s the concept behind this project,” he said.

Wenell’s approach is rooted in a desire to uplift artists who demonstrate initiative, a strong work ethic, and a clear vision for their craft. His first project under Dream Warriors involves collaborating with emerging 22-year-old Indigenous hip-hop artist Eldayshun Big Bear, better known by his stage name Day Dayz, who Wenell discovered on social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube. 

“I found this artist who had a good head on his shoulders and wants to do good things in the community,” he said of Day Dayz. “These are the kind of artists that we need to support.”

two man are part of a photoshoot
Hip-hop artist Eldayshun Big Bear, known as Day Dayz, left, and Paul Wenell Jr., director of the Dream Warriors Indigenous artist collective, are seen on Feb. 17 in Onamia.
Mercies May via Sahan Journal

‘Small-town kid’

Day Dayz, born and raised on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation in central Minnesota, found solace in hip-hop at 15, following his father’s death. Inspired by artists like rapper Montana 300, Day Dayz listened to his music about healing and resilience as a coping mechanism to “accept and go through the grieving process,” he said.

Last summer, he released his debut track “Cold Stories,” followed by “Rhythm Therapy,” prompting Wenell to contact him about the Dream Warriors project.

“It was like a regular Tuesday night and I saw ‘Tall Paul wants to send you a message’ and I was kind of like whoa,” Day Dayz said. “I’m just starting music and when I went to a real studio for the first time and told the engineer that I’m Native American, he was like, ‘You ever heard of Tall Paul? He’s this big rapper.’ It’s crazy how it all worked out because Tall Paul is like the one for Native American rap music.” 

The collaboration between Wenell, Day Dayz, and videographer Mercies May culminated in the music video for “Right Now,” a song reflecting the challenges Day Dayz faced growing up on the reservation. The video shoot, set against the backdrop of his reservation, marked a significant milestone in his artistic journey. 

“It was a really big step, not only for me music-wise but for my kids,” Day Dayz said of the players on his basketball team who were featured in the video. “Just seeing them feeling like the spotlight is truly on them, I’ve seen a jump in all their moods and their demeanor.” 

While Day Dayz has achieved acclaim within his local community, expanding his music beyond the reservation has presented difficulties. 

“Getting my music outside of the county lines that I’m in has been a challenge,” he said. “I’m a small-town kid, you know? I come from where people say the grass isn’t green, but I’m big on watering the grass where you are.”

Wenell envisions Dream Warriors as a catalyst for change, not only providing resources but also “empowering artists to create self-sustaining careers for themselves and depend on their art as a form of income,” he said. 

The initiative addresses the disparities in access to fellowships, grants, and resources faced by Indigenous artists, especially in hip-hop. Despite their significant contributions to expressing Indigenous cultures and experiences, hip-hop artists often receive less support compared to traditional or visual artists, Wenell said. 

“We get boxed into this stereotype that we can only express ourselves in a certain way and that’s part of the Catch-22,” he said. “You want to put hip-hop in a positive light because of these stereotypes but at the same time, you want to elevate Native artists to be able to express themselves in the same way that mainstream artists can.”

As Indigenous hip-hop artists navigate the challenges of being overlooked in the industry, Dream Warriors is creating a platform where they can express themselves authentically and challenge the stereotype that hip-hop clashes with Indigenous culture, Wenell said. 

“I want Indigenous hip-hop to be honest and diverse,” he said. “We should have artists of all varieties from various backgrounds expressing themselves and being platformed in the same way as non-Indigenous artists.”