Q & A with Frank Waln and Raye Zaragoza
Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln and singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza. Photos by Leslie Frempong and Cultivate Consulting
In October, two young musicians are scheduled to perform in an intimate concert in the Bing Studio celebrating Indigenous identity. Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln and singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza share their thoughts on their role as musicians, their new projects, and more.
How did you discover your music genre? What were your early influences?
RZ: I discovered folk music in the backseat of my parents’ 1989 Saab. My dad would play James Taylor and Harry Chapin on repeat when we were kids. I hated car rides, but whenever he put folk tunes on, I was super happy. I loved how folk music told stories. Fast-forward to middle school—I fell in love with a boy in my class who had great taste in music. He made me a mix CD that had Joni Mitchell; King Crimson; the Beatles; Elliott Smith; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and so many other artists who became some of my earliest influences.
FW: Growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in the 1990s and early 2000s, all my cousins were listening to hip-hop, much like [kids in] many other poor communities of color at the time. I was also exposed to musical influences of our parents—hip-hop, classic rock, Motown, country. When it came to hip-hop, I was drawn to the storytelling and the way the beats made me feel powerful. To me, the way hip-hop as a culture centers communal song and dance (ciphers), storytelling, and powerful drums is Indigenous. Hip-hop as a culture was created by Black people who were cut off from their indigeneity through slavery and colonialism, and I believe they were drawing on those roots. I think this is why Indigenous people relate to and gravitate toward hip-hop. Some of my early musical influences were Nas, Outkast, Gorillaz, Lil Wayne, and Linkin Park. I’m a music producer as well, so I was also inspired by Dr. Dre, Organized Noize, the Neptunes, and Hi-Tek.
Waln released his first Native flute album in May called Olówaŋ Wétu (Spring Songs). Photo by Brian Adams
You’re both often referred to as activists, and your music is sometimes categorized as protest songs. What is your relationship to this categorization, and how does it affect your process as a musician
RZ: Sometimes I chuckle when folks call my music protest music. I’m really just telling the story of my life and elaborating on the experience of a woman of color in the United States. Being a minority in America is inherently a politicized experience, so I guess it makes sense that I write political music. I definitely try to embrace the categorization since the tradition of social justice music is so important. But I also hope the day will come that my “protest songs” will be considered mainstream.
FW: I use my gifts (music, artistry) to help the people I love and to speak on the issues that are important to me because I’m Lakota. My ancestors used their gifts to provide for and help the community. That’s why I use my music to speak about social issues and injustices affecting my community. I often point out that if doing that makes me an activist, what are we saying about our society? I don’t reject the term, but I point out that what I’m doing is older than activism. The way I approach my creative process and share my work with the world is older than the term activist.
Through your roles in the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, many know you as advocates for Indigenous rights. Raye’s song “In the River” supported that movement, and Indigenous history is at the core of Frank’s work. Four years later, there’s still energy around national conversations on Indigenous rights. What shifts still need to happen in these conversations, and how can music serve as a platform for change
RZ: Standing Rock was a pivotal moment for the Indigenous rights movement. Through social media, Standing Rock rallied people from all over the world to learn more about the issues Indigenous people are facing. I do see more of an awareness of Indigenous rights issues in non-Natives since Standing Rock, but we still have a long way to go. Indigenous people are constantly being left out of every conversation, and that needs to change. I would love to see an Indigenous voice at every leadership table, from city councils to universities to record labels to music festivals.
FW: I think non-Native people are more exposed to our issues, realities, and struggles today because we are seeing more Native voices in non-Native spaces and mainstream media. The internet and social media gave us the ability to collectively organize and share our stories with the world directly. I still think there’s an overwhelming amount of ignorance in the United States and the world at large in regard to Indigenous communities, but now organizers and people who are involved in social justice movements are becoming more in tune with how Indigenous history and people are necessary to the equation of justice in the United States. I remember going to conferences centered around social justice and equity five years ago where I was the only Indigenous person in the room and not a word was spoken about Indigenous communities unless I said something. Now we see Indigenous presenters and Indigenous-led workshops at the same conferences. I have seen changes in how we’re included in the conversation about justice in the United States. But we still have a long way to go.
Music or any art is a powerful tool to express a truth and share a story because it contains not only information but our feelings and emotions too. I can read off ugly facts about Indigenous genocide in the United States, or I can give you the same info in the form of a story and song to show how it impacts me as a human being. I’ve found my music has been a powerful tool for creating empathy and understanding from non-Native people. That’s the power of art.
In 2016, protests took place across the country against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, courtesy of Creative Commons
Frank, you’re active in various communities—in Chicago with organizations and museums, with high school students across the country, at hospitals. Why is it important for you to carry your role as a musician offstage to help build community?
FW: For me, this goes back to the question about being an activist. Lakotas have always used their gifts, talents, and skills to help the community and build a better future before the genocide. Using music to build community is one of the ways I’m trying to get back to that as a music artist. I realized that music is a powerful tool for building community and a great way for people to relate to one another. Music is a universal language.
Raye, you moved to Long Beach, California, shortly before the shelter in place orders took effect. How has the pandemic affected how you’re acclimating to a new home and building a community?
RZ: I thank Creator every day that I moved to Long Beach before shelter in place. I was only here for about two months before shelter in place (five weeks of which I was traveling). Before I moved here, I was on the road for eight months straight without an address. Going from constant movement on tour to being forced to stay home by law was an absolutely jarring experience. On tour, I am constantly interacting with people, constantly moving from one thing to the next, constantly engaging. I hadn’t slept in the same bed for more than seven days in more than two years. Although the circumstance is awful, I am weirdly grateful to have gotten all this alone time. I’ve learned a lot about myself and have written a ton. I am also so grateful that before quarantine, I made some friends here in Long Beach.
Amid the social distancing and anxiety due to the pandemic, you both wrote, recorded, and released new albums: Isolation Anthems and Olówaŋ Wétu (Spring Songs). How did the concept for the album begin, and what was the writing process like in these unique circumstances
RZ: I am so humbly proud of the Isolation Anthems EP because it’s the first collection of music I’ve ever created 100 percent alone. Sometimes limitations are the most fertile ground for creativity. I grew up in a studio apartment with five people, and that contributed to my love for imagination and writing. I didn’t have a ton of space for toys, but I did have space for my notebooks. I have the same feeling about being quarantined in a studio apartment and creating the Isolation Anthems EP. Writing it felt like journaling. Isolation Anthems was really just my song journal of the lonely feelings of quarantine. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, so I might as well write, record, produce, and master my own EP!
FW: Olówaŋ Wétu is an idea I’ve had for a long time. These songs are deeply personal and were written during times of great spiritual and emotional need. These four songs are almost like prayers for me. Explaining the story, origin, and use of the song before I perform it is a Lakota practice and is something I do onstage. I wanted to figure out a way to translate that experience to my recorded music. By recording these songs outside and free of effects, I wanted to present these songs how they are meant to be experienced naturally, on Lakota land and the land the songs were written and played on. I also wanted to include the birds and other sounds of nature in the recording almost as its own voice in the song.
Settlers and non-Native engineers have treated Native flute music much like they treat us and all elements of our culture. They romanticize and misrepresent our music through the ways they present it, even technically. When recorded and mixed by non-Native engineers, Native flute music is usually drowned in reverb and paired with stereotypical and artificial sounds of nature like wolves howling. I wanted to reclaim our connection with land and music by showing an authentic connection rooted in tradition, healing, and creativity, like our ancestors did before us.
For the album cover, I chose a picture of me smiling and holding the flute to contrast the stereotypical image of Lakota men as stoic and incapable of any emotion other than anger. I wanted to use a colorful image to again contrast the typical sepia or black-and-white portraits of Native people that Edward S. Curtis made popular.
Olówaŋ Wétu (Spring Songs) is me as a Lakota artist, flutist, music producer, and audio engineer reclaiming recorded Lakota flute music by being intentional about how it’s recorded and presented to the world.
During shelter in place, Zaragoza wrote and recorded a new EP called Isolation Anthems. Photo by Marlenite Photography
The pandemic has exacerbated the racial and socioeconomic inequities that have always existed in the United States. Recent momentum via the Black Lives Matter movement over continued policy brutality demonstrates the power of protest for social change. What is the role of the artist in this nation’s current reckoning with health and social justice issues for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC)?
RZ: The role of artists is to continue starting conversations and to inspire their audiences to rise to the occasion right now. People look to artists to be inspired, and it’s time we use that attention to shed light on the inequities that have been ignored for so long. White artists should be uplifting their BIPOC artist friends. And BIPOC artists should be lifting each other up and not competing for the spotlight. Pretty much every industry needs a major shift, but I hope the music industry is in for one. The music industry, especially folk music, lacks diversity. It’s time we all take a good look at ourselves and the industries we are a part of and start to dismantle and rebuild in a way that supports everyone.
FW: Throughout history, artists have always risen to roles as movement builders, educators, leaders, and knowledge sharers. As I said before, art is a powerful way to share a message, and sometimes our own people need the message just as much if not more. Art is a part of culture, especially Indigenous ones, and the more movements break away from colonial ways of operating and get back to healthy (Indigenous) ways of organizing, the more art plays a role in all that. This goes back to what I said about Lakotas using their talents and gifts for the betterment of the people, and we can all contribute something to social-justice-movement spaces, especially artists who are rooted in the causes and communities being addressed.
Looking ahead to your show together at Stanford Live, what do you admire about each other’s music? What artistic sensibilities and motivations do you both share?
RZ: Frank Waln is amazing! I learn so much from him. He’s got such a great balance of beautiful sound and biting truth. I think we both value bringing art and activism together. And we both want to use storytelling as a vehicle for social change. I’m so excited to be performing alongside him.
FW: One thing I really admire about Raye’s music is her songwriting. She’s able to write a catchy, beautiful song that is also powerful and packs a message. Speaking as a songwriter and music producer, I know that is not an easy feat. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always paid close attention to how songs are written and arranged, and Raye’s songs are always precise in their arrangement. This lends to her success and ability to reach a wide audience with her work.