The Miseducation of Frank Waln

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A young man walks onto an empty stage. The spotlight glares off of his white moccasins and crisp long-sleeved button-down, which billows, untucked, over dark slacks. He cuts a slight figure against the venue’s deep, black backdrop, and his clean-shaven face, framed by two long black braids, makes him look younger than his 27 years. He speaks softly into the microphone, first in his native Lakota, then in English: “Hello, relatives. My Lakota name is Walks With Young People. I also go by Frank Waln. And I welcome you with an open heart and an open handshake.”

Beyond the stage lights, in the darkened auditorium of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sit about a hundred Native American men and women from all over the country: Pueblo, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Apache. The Gathering of Nations, an annual meeting of more than 500 tribes, is taking place across town, and many have broken away from the pow-wow to attend this concert, the culmination of the Rezilience (“rez” referring to reservation) Indigenous Arts Experience. Throughout the festival, visitors have attended events centered on Native art, poetry recitals, and traditional music, most of which celebrate the Native cultures and mourn their hastening disappearance.

Waln, the headliner, is something different. After his introduction, he is joined by the Sampson Bros., Sam and Micco, performance artists whose faces are painted colorfully beneath full and uttering Native dance regalia. Waln bends to his laptop, triggering a barrage of hip-hop beats that blasts across the venue. As the Sampsons dance to the music, the diminutive Waln springs into action, grabbing the mic from its stand and spitting lyrics at the crowd. Pain and anger are palpable in his voice as he bobs and weaves and hacks at the air with his free hand, fighting some unseen onstage foe

The enemy is ignorance, which reveals itself plainly in Waln’s new song “What Makes the Red Man Red,” his send-up of the racist tune “What Made the Red Man Red” from Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan. Waln’s song samples the tune’s chorus and the film’s offhand references to Native Americans as “aborigines” and “Indians.” That is, before Waln drowns them out with a sharp verse.

Your history books (lies)
Your holidays (lies)
Thanksgiving lies and Columbus Day
Tell me why I know more than the teacher
Tell me why I know more than the preacher
Tell me why you think the red man is red
Stained with the blood from the land you bled
Tell me why you think the red man is dead

The crowd is on its feet now, some singing along, others bobbing in agreement with the beat. Waln’s frequent tours of reservations and his blunt, firebrand style have made him well-known among his people (he’s a two-time Native American Music Award winner). Recently, Waln has made a splash in the mainstream media too: He’s been featured on NPR and MTV’s Rebel Music: Native America and in Vibe and USA Today; he has performed at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, and at concerts in France and Germany. The day before his Albuquerque concert, he spoke at a Harvard University symposium on Native politics.

Waln is an ascendant member of a Native American hip-hop vanguard that is taking its message of social justice off of the reservation. What separates Waln and other socially engaged artists, like War Party, Without Rezervation, and Supaman, from older generations of Native artists, says Alan Lechusza Aquallo, a professor of American Indian studies at Palomar College, is their authenticity. Waln doesn’t play to Native stereotypes, like a preaching elder or a fierce sports mascot — his performing persona is young, charismatic, believably real. “There are a number of Native hip-hop artists who play off the kitsch of what it is to be Indian because that’s what’s going to give them notoriety,” Aquallo says. “[Waln] has his long braids, but he’s wearing street clothes. He’s not playing Indian.”

Waln’s activism is similarly more than mere posture. As Aquallo points out, Waln “walks the walk,” not only rapping passionately about depression and poverty on the reservation, but also demonstrating against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington and speaking to students in high schools and elementary schools on reservations across the country. “He’s not an ‘Indian artist’; he’s not a rapper who happens to be Native,” Aquallo says. “To him there’s no separation between his activism and his creative work.”

Waln’s overall message is plain: Americans — Native and non-Native alike — need to educate themselves about the real history and current politics of America’s indigenous people. And through his words and music, on the reservation and off, Waln plans on delivering the wake-up call.

Read the rest at psmag.com

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