Samuel Johns grew up in the community of Copper Center surrounded by drugs and alcohol. After years of struggling with alcoholism, he is now sober and trying to make it as a musician who blends Athabascan culture with modern hip hop.
Johns is traveling to villages across the state to perform and talk about living a drug free life. And it’s a message that seems to be resonating with kids in Dillingham.
Students in Dillingham are squeezed into the plastic blenches in the high school gym on a recent Thursday afternoon as Samuel Johns plays his skin drum. He warns the students that he can get pretty loud singing traditional songs but its all part of the show.
“When I preform for some of the kids they look scared, especially some of the white kids, I’ll just be like, aahhh, and they’re like is he going on a war path right now? What is he doing?” he said.
Johns is trying to inspire kids to preserve traditional culture. But also close to his heart is a mission to convince rural kids to avoid addiction and curb domestic violence.
Johns spent years drinking, growing up in the Copper Center. He says he regrets the time he lost just parting away his days. He never graduated from high school.
“That’s what I am trying to talk to the kids about, not wasting that time and get going right now,” Johns said.
He speaks to the students about his personal experience with substance abuse and drug dealing.
“I am ashamed of selling weed because I could have lost my daughter. I could have lost my home,” Johns said. “Luckily, that never happened with me. And I feel like now I have the platform to tell my story, to tell people, hey this is what I went through.”
The kids are intrigued by the traditional singing but as soon as Johns begins to rap they get out their phones to record and take photos.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of a rapping native,” Sophomore Dorothy Bavilla said. “It’s very surprising and very cool and I think he really got the message out there.”
Johns’ message also resonated with 8th grader Kate Gomez.
“Him rapping about culture and domestic violence, just standing up for things really inspires me to help other people,” she said.
Johns frequently raps about his native heritage. He sees himself as a link to where the kids are today and where the elders used to be.
“When I talk about traditional music, I try to tell them, this right here, our traditional culture, our traditional values, it’s survived for thousands of years for a reason, not for it to end right now,” Johns said. “And now, I feel like I am in a position to build that bridge to have our kids see that our culture is cool.”
Johns sees the problem of addiction as a threat to native culture. He says his ancestors used to be like superman, they were strong and pure.
“But alcohol, drugs, food, unhealthy food. It’s crippling our way of life. It’s crippling what our ancestors past down for so many years,” Johns said. “Alcoholism, drug addiction, any type of addiction is really our kryptonite for the way we used to be.”
Johns hopes his music, in at least some small way, will help to change that.
Johns doesn’t want kids to simply become a fan of his music, he hopes to inspire them to become leaders in their own communities. Johns believes his music allows him to connect with Alaska students in a meaningful way.
“I see the kid with hides on,” he said. “Who else has hides on? Just you? Alright, he knows style.”