The opioid epidemic has touched virtually every community by now. And one population that has been hard hit is Native American tribes. A group of Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members are fed up with funerals in their tribe and are speaking out on the issue — through music.
23-year-old Keon Jackson closes his eyes as he sings an honor song from his tribe. Jackson is a traditional Native American singer. He’s also a rapper, who goes by the name Young Sumo.
“You’re killing my people, 'cause you sell narcotics," he raps along with a drummer. "You're doing it and still broke, so basically no profit. Do you think our ancestors want to watch this? It's utter disrespect, and straight up nonsense."
This is the new song “Flippin,” by a group of Wampanoag tribal members called the Soul Poet’s Syndicate. And as you might have noticed — it’s a defiantly anti-drug song.
You can hear the full studio version here:
Jackson sits in the front pew of the tribe’s meeting house. In this room, he’s been a traditional drummer at a lot of funerals for people who died from opioid overdoses.
“Maybe, like, a dozen," he said, trying to guess the number of funerals. "I don’t know. A lot.”
That’s because the Wampanoag are being devastated by opioids. “I'm fed up with it," Jackson said. "I'm pretty sure a lot of people in our community is fed up with the deaths and funerals. It’s just unnatural, you know, for people – there’s parents losing their children. You know, that's unnatural.”
The idea for the song came from music producer, University of Massachusetts professor and tribal member Morgan James Peters.
“I was sitting right here," Peters said, as he looked around the tribal meeting house. "And I'm looking at this young man's parents on the front row. And I'm looking at his children, and I'm looking at his wife. You know, the backs of their heads, and I'm looking at his family, and I'm looking at somebody who, I was there when he learned to ride a bicycle, and we're saying goodbye to him.”
He wanted to do something. And he decided to do what he knows best. Peters is a musician and a producer. And as a Wampanoag, he said it’s part of their tradition to share songs.
“We wanted to come up with a song that we could share with the rest of Indian country, [and that] we can share with everybody,” he said.
Peters reached out to some of the young rappers he knew in the tribe, including his 14-year-old son Morgan, who goes by the rap name Zyg, or the Z-Y-G. Zyg said when his dad first talked to him about the project, he wasn’t so sure. But he took it on because he trusted his dad would do it right.
“You see all these raps out there that are trying ... the purpose is to try to reach kids," he said. "But the thing that they're missing is it's just, like, they're being corny about it.”
“The opioid crisis has been devastating to my people," said Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell. "Nineteen deaths within 21 months. And that's staggering.”
When asked why the tribe has been hit so hard by opioids, his response was immediate. “Historical trauma," he said. "Historical trauma that has happened to Native American people for many years.”
Cromwell said the impact of colonialism is still felt. “And then oppression kicks in, depression kicks in, all these social impacts kick in. And then people look for vices. They look for vices, and what is the next hot thing out there that's going to make you feel better.”
The percentage of people identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native who report misusing opioids is similar to the general population, according to federal statistics. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in 2015, one in 100 deaths of native people were from opioid overdoses, compared to one in 125 for the rest of the population.
Cromwell said he’d like more support from state government – including being involved in the Baker Administration’s opioid addiction working group. “Governor Baker has declared, you know, the opioid crisis," Cromwell said. "It doesn't help our people, because we're forgotten.”
In a statement, a Department of Public Health spokesperson pointed to a number of substance abuse initiatives the state and Tribe are involved in together.
The federal government recently awarded the tribe a $170,000 grant to support intervention services like the overdose-reversal drug Narcan and training for peer recovery coaches.
The lyrics of the Soul Poet’s Syndicate song are aimed not at opioid users, but at those who are selling the drugs to the tribe. And the young musicians say they hope they can reach that targeted audience, and maybe make them think twice.