“As Navajo people, we consider the eastern direction as the start of something—either a project, an idea, a plan,” explains Gabriel Yaiva.
The local Hopi and Navajo hip-hop artist chose to use a photo of Mount Blanca as the cover art for his newest album as a symbol for this idea. Sisnaajini, as the mountain is called in Diné Bizaad, is one of the four sacred Navajo mountains and represents the eastern boundary of the Navajo homeland, making it a fitting symbol for the album which was five years in the making.
Released in March of this year, Vision is an ambitious continuation of Yaiva’s impressive music career which spans decades.
“We’re starting a whole new process as far as developing music and being in the community and just being a human being out here,” he says. “There’s a lot that has happened personally since the last album.”
His hard work paid off with the album getting nominated as best hip-hop album for the national Native American Music Awards, but things weren’t always easy.
“I recorded my first couple songs in a bedroom of my friend’s house with just a tape deck and a 20-dollar mic,” he says with a laugh.
He has traveled a long road, chasing inspiration and building a community around music and all that it offers since he first fell in love with the art when he was in seventh grade. By the time he was 19 years old, he had signed to the now-defunct Digg Down Records and was recording his professional debut EP in the Pacific Northwest, half of which was produced by some of the same producers who had a hand in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s seminal 1992 song “Baby Got Back.”
“We recorded and toured on the west coast and I was young, so I was just happy to be on a record label,” he recalls. “As I started to learn the business though I was like, ‘You know, this is not conducive to me becoming the artist that I want to be,’ and I left.”
Inspiration and the right circumstances eventually led him to start his own record label, 4th World Entertainment, as a creative outlet both for himself and the other talented musicians he records.
“I make the type of music that I like to listen to,” he says. “I believe it’s as authentic as it can be.”
Yaiva begins Vision with a song titled “Go,” which features police sirens throughout and calls out some of the social and racial issues that recent news stories have brought into the light.
“Never would I have thought/I'd see the day where we had a black pres/but still gotta my eye on the feds,” he spits, taking a cue from Chuck D and the politically-tinged music he wrote for Public Enemy that broke down barriers.
Across the 17-track album, Yaiva plays with different structures and musical styles, pulling inspiration from some of his favorite hip-hop and rap groups and collaborating with other Flagstaff artists.
“Sick Pubbies,” “Heart, Mind, Body and Soul,” “Fresh” and “It’s ‘Bout to go Down” feature old school hip-hop scratching from Andrew Baker, also known as dj SOE, who plays with Summit Dub Squad and Tha ‘Yoties. Baker also recorded, mixed and mastered the album at Pine Del Phonic Studio in town.
When Yaiva was recording his first album on 4th World Entertainment, he says he didn’t know anything about how to write verses or count bars, leading to songs with verses over 100 bars long. He embraced this style, dubbing it “straight heat” and would just let the words flow. He continues this theme with “Flat NDN Butt (Straight Heat IX),” where he raps for three minutes straight, ending the song with the tongue-in-cheek “I rhyme my ass off but that’s just my excuse for having a flat Indian butt.”
The 6th track on the album, “Home,” features a soulful chorus by Lynn Renkin and lyrics that explore themes of overpopulation and yearning for a place of peace.
“For me, that’s at my dad’s house out of Hopi reservation,” he explains. “When I say ‘home’ I don’t consider the house that I have in Kachina home, I consider that home. I think as humankind we’re not in a place where we can call [the world] home anymore; it’s not comfortable, it’s not peaceful.”
Family plays a large role in his creative process—his wife is supportive of his music, their four children are listed as executive producers on the album and his six-year-old daughter is already singing and learning how to count beats in common time.
The cover art of Mount Blanca is also representative of his connection to his late mother, who passed in June 2014 due to renal disease. His first time visiting the sacred area, he says he felt her spirit and broke down in tears. She had always been a fan of his, asking him how the recording was going for Vision while she was alive and when it would be ready for her to hear.
“This is my way of saying, ‘hey mom, it’s done,’” he says.
Vision can be purchased on Amazon, iTunes or www.yaivavision.com. Follow Yaiva on Facebook for information about future shows.