By Jim Walsh, Photo by Mark Luinenburg
When Minneapolis-based rapper Tall Paul started making music a few years ago, he decided to keep his lyrics positive because he wanted to change the world for the better. But Tall Paul, whose name is Paul Wenell Jr., soon learned that “keeping it positive” isn’t always what the soul requires.
“I don’t want people to just see one side of me. I’m just trying be myself, wholly,” says Wenell (B.A. ’10), whose 6-foot-3-inch frame earned him his nickname in high school. “I’ve come up with a slogan, a saying, an ideology for myself: ‘a no-good good guy.’ Like, I’m a good guy but sometimes I can be no good and make mistakes. I’m just trying to be myself and let people see the whole me—the good side, the bad side, and just be human.”
Wenell, 26, attributes his self-awareness to his upbringing. An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota, Wenell grew up in Minneapolis. He bounced around a lot, attending between 25 and 30 different schools from kindergarten to 12th grade while living alternately with family and in foster homes. “All the moving made me more reflective, more introverted,” he explains. “I became more of a thinker than a socializer, I guess, and I feel like it definitely helps my art, my writing.”
One of the things he was most curious about was his history. Though he is Ojibwe and had studied the language in school, he was not fluent and knew little about his culture. Eager to learn more, he studied Ojibwe at the University of Minnesota while earning his degree in American Indian Studies. Though he still doesn’t consider himself fluent, Wenell wrote “Prayers in a Song,” one of only a few rap songs anywhere in Ojibwe. In it, he raps about his struggle to learn his indigenous language and his journey toward a deeper understanding of his Native identity.
With several new recording projects slated for release this summer, Wenell hopes eventually to pursue music full time. For now, though, he enjoys teaching literacy and mathematics at Anishinabe Academy, a Native American magnet school in Minneapolis. “My childhood motivated me to work with youth, and I feel like I can make a difference and give them an example of what they can be when they’re older,” he says. “I mean, I’m not Superman or nothing, I can’t do too much, but I can do what I can and be there and be supportive of them while they’re at school.”