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

Where Public Defenders Go to Church

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The lawyers convene behind closed conference-room doors at the back of the University of Mississippi’s Grisham Law Library. A long table has been removed, leaving only wooden chairs, a dozen of which are arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the open floor. At one end, Charles Luskin leans forward in his seat, bony right elbow propped on bony right knee, bearded chin resting in his palm. He listens intently, periodically reaching down to sip from a Coca-Cola can on the floor between his feet, almost as a nervous tick. Pen tucked behind his left ear, Luskin looks uneasy, like a guilty man about to take the witness stand — an unusual countenance for a public defender.

When it’s Luskin’s turn, he doesn’t bother introducing himself. He lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, and these people have come from Alabama, Georgia, Michigan; many of them he has only known a year and is seeing for just the third time. Others he has met just this weekend. And yet Luskin considers these men and women his kin, bonded by their experience in Gideon’s Promise, a community dedicated to “the church of public defense,” as one member calls it. The people in this room know Luskin well enough to call him by his childhood nickname, Cass. That familiarity does little to smooth the quiver in his deep voice as he launches into a confession.

“I’ve got about 160 incarcerated clients,” he says. “I was sworn into the bar in October. So I’m sitting there, looking at this stack of cases on my desk thinking: ‘Oh shit! I don’t know what to do with this one. No idea what to do with this one.’ And I get a call from my stepsister and she was like, ‘This guy I was supposed to go on a date with never called me….’ That’s not a real problem! Look at all these fucking problems. There’s a building over there with a thousand people sitting in cages. And there are buildings like that in every single parish, in every single county. But now I’m being a dickhead to my stepsister, and that’s not right. But it’s like I don’t know what to do.”

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How a thrill-seeking stuntwoman became crashed ice’s biggest star

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Jacqueline Legere is in the starting chute, breath rising into the frigid air as she stares off the edge of the earth.

The Red Bull Crashed Ice course in St. Paul starts atop three stories of scaffolding erected on the front steps of the Minnesota capital’s namesake hilltop cathedral. Twelve feet from the chute is a sheer 6-foot drop which leads abruptly into a steep, icy slope. From there, riders hit speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour on the frozen 340-meter downhill obstacle course that snakes over berms, through hairpins and into jumps that finally subside at the flat-surface finish line some 114 feet below.

From their perch, Legere and her three fellow riders can see almost none of that. They can only hear the cheers and groans of 100,000 people huddled against sub-freezing temperatures, feel the arena rock and hip-hop shake the metal, wood and ice beneath their blades, and look out onto city’s night skyline and the abyss that awaits mere inches in front of them.

Legere lives for the jump, the eyes-open leap into the arms of the unknown. Adventure is what drew the Ontario native to the extreme winter sport — basically a mashup of motocross, speed skating and roller derby — six years ago. Last year, she won the Red Bull Crashed Ice’s first-ever women’s world championship at age 24. This season started off perfectly with a win in France. But a fifth-place finish in Finland has her stuck in second place in the standings behind the U.S.’s Amanda Trunzo. With only four races in the championship, she probably needs at least a podium here to stay in striking distance for the final event in Ottawa on Saturday.

The official calls the competitors to attention over the microphone.

“Riders ready!”

Legere leans in, small muscular frame packed in hockey pads and a neon pink jersey, long blonde ponytail dripping from beneath the back of her helmet, hands on the starting blocks.

“Five-second warning!”

She is ice-sculpture still, ski goggles focused on that ledge.

The air horn sounds. Legere pushes off the blocks, digging her skates into the ice for three powerful pushes before hitting the ledge and throwing herself into to air beyond.

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Queen of cuts: Meet UFC’s only cutwoman

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After six years of approaching fighters in the locker room before their matches, Swayze Valentine can tell within a matter of seconds whether or not she’s welcome.

If she doesn’t know the combatant — which, with an ever-shifting Ultimate Fighting Championship roster of more than 400 competitors, is often the case — they are almost always initially taken aback. “I’m a woman,” says Valentine. “I get that a lot.”

Undeterred, she quickly launches into her pitch. She’s wearing the black cargo vest of a UFC cutman, so she doesn’t need to introduce herself. She just looks at the fighter and tells them that she is going to wrap their hands.

Sometimes they flat-out refuse. Other times, they’ll hem and haw and question her until their coach or cornerman steps in and politely asks if someone else, a man, is available. Valentine knows the issue isn’t always her gender. She’s a relative stranger. Her brown hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail, she looks much younger than her 30 years. And, she knows, these mixed martial artists’ hands are their livelihoods — they’re all just a bad wrap and a broken finger away from losing their jobs.

“In our sport, not only do you eat with your hands. You grab. You strike,” says Joe Stevenson, a veteran mixed martial artist and trainer, who has come to trust Valentine with his and his fighters’ most precious weapons. “And outside the Octagon, you need to pick up your kids, pick up a pencil, drive a car. Hurting them in the fight to get a win is cool and all, except you then have to live with that.”

Says veteran cutman Rudy Hernandez, who’s been working for UFC since 2005 and has mentored Valentine: “When you’re the new person, nobody wants you to wrap their hands or work their cuts. You have to earn your spot and do such a good job that next time, they’ll ask for you. And she’s earned that. It wasn’t easy. But it isn’t easy for anybody. We all went through it — it’s not just because she’s female.”

Of course, being a woman hasn’t exactly helped. But as Valentine continues to make a name for herself as the UFC’s first cutwoman, she’ll at least get the silent passive acceptance of an athlete in their zone, if not a nod or maybe even a smile, like the one she gets from lightweight Jeremy Kennedy before a recent UFC Fight Night deep below the Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

It’s Kennedy’s first fight in front of his home British Columbian crowd, and the 23-year-old is giddy and anxious. At 6 feet tall, he towers over the diminutive Valentine. But as the two sit down in folding metal chairs, they face each other on a level plane. She starts with the right hand, massaging from the wrist down each finger, loosening up the muscles and cartilage. Then she begins the wrap, again working her way up from the wrist, first with gauze, then a layer of athletic tape. All the while she’s asking his preference, if he has any injuries or areas of concern, and how this or that feels. “They’re my client,” she later says. “I talk with them the whole time.”

“Do you want the thumb wrapped?” she now says, essentially asking whether he’s a grappler who’ll need his thumb loose for grip or a puncher who’ll want more support for the opposable digit.

“Can you cut the thumb out?” Kennedy says. Valentine knows that’s not a sturdy construction. Instead, she wraps it separately in a layer of tape.

This is the part of the job Valentine dreams about, that she practices repeatedly for hours on her own hands, on those of her two young sons, and on the rough knuckles of any fighter who’ll sit across from her. To Valentine, hand-wrapping is an art. Five minutes and two rolls of 2-inch tape later, she snips the end of the tape with her scissors and lets Kennedy flex and examine her latest work.

“Wow!” he says. “That feels awesome.”

Valentine hopes the validation is sincere, that she has not only earned a repeat customer in Kennedy, but in some of the other fighters looking on too — that Kennedy’s grin will take some of the pressure off the spiel she has to deliver twice more before she’s summoned to the arena floor. There, from her cage-side seat, Valentine will get to witness the durability of some of her wraps and, if necessary, clean up and repair some of the bloody damage that those carefully packaged fists will inflict.

Read the rest at espn.com

The Hip-Hop Professor: Erik Nielson helps juries understand the difference between art and life.

hiphopGary Bradford, a.k.a. Eldorado Red, sits quietly, hands folded on the defendant’s table in courtroom 5E at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta. It’s August 2014, and he’s watching a jury of 16 men and women — black and white — shift uncomfortably in their chairs as they consider his fate. In a crisp, dark-brown suit, the bespectacled Bradford presents himself as a budding 35-year-old hip-hop entrepreneur. An artist. Meanwhile, the State of Georgia is attempting to portray Eldorado Red, the Harlem-born gangsta rapper who wears Blood red and rolls with a gun-toting posse in his music video “100 Shooters.” The prosecution played the video in court yesterday, in the hope that it would help convince the jurors that he was the kind of man capable of the charge in question: orchestrating the 2012 murder of rival rapper Lil Phat in an Atlanta parking garage.

At the moment, the state’s attorneys are protesting a defense expert called in to distinguish between Bradford’s two personas.

“What’s he an expert in?” asks the assistant district attorney, incredulous before the court.

“African-American culture, history, literature, and music,” says Bradford’s attorney Musa Ghanayem.

The assistant district attorney throws his hands up, plops down in his chair, and chuckles as the judge allows Ghanayem to summon Erik Nielson. The snickering spreads across the courtroom — particularly among the black attorneys, reporters, onlookers, and even jurors — as a slight white man in khakis and a navy blue blazer saunters to the witness stand. When Nielson introduces himself in a nasal tone as an assistant professor at the University of Richmond, the bewilderment — even among the white folks in the room — brims over into audible laughter.

From the stand, Nielson appears unshaken. When Ghanayem asks the professor to list some of his credentials, the man in glee-club attire obliges: A dissertation on the relationship between African-American culture and policing, contracts for two books about hip-hop and its use in trials and politics, and an amicus brief in a case before the Supreme Court.

What Nielson doesn’t mention is that he began his scholarship as a teenager in suburban Connecticut in the early 1990s, when he wore baggy pants and hoodies and drove a Subaru that was worth less than its custom Alpine car stereo system. He loved the beat and was drawn to the anti-establishment themes in the lyrics. As a middle-class suburbanite, the experience made him keenly aware of the separation between art and life — just because he listened to rap didn’t mean he knew anything about getting shot or being harassed by police. In fact, he knew, many of the rappers behind the rhymes about gats and crack didn’t necessarily live that way.

That realization has been a slow one for the rest of America. Listeners have never believed that Johnny Cash actually “shot a man in Reno,” but when Ice-T rapped about killing a cop, public outrage forced him to pull the song from his album. In the late 1990s, a Winona State University psychologist presented violent lyrics to two groups of people. One was told the lyrics were from a rap song, the other was told they were pulled from a country song. Far more people in the former group viewed the lyrics as threatening. Since the mid-2000s, when hip-hop truly entered the mainstream, prosecutors have been taking advantage of the public’s prejudice. A 2004 training manual for the National District Attorneys Association instructs: “Through photographs, letters, notes, and even music lyrics, prosecutors can invade and exploit the defendant’s true personality.” Since then, more and more prosecutors across the country have begun to introduce rap lyrics and videos as evidence. Nielson has emerged as one of the nation’s foremost critics of the prosecutorial tactic.

Read the rest at psmag.com

Royal Family: Leland Race Wrestles with Becoming Worthy of His Father’s Name

20160829_harleyrace_0086A small crowd has formed outside the entrance of the Harley Race Wrestling Arena, a squat warehouse on the outskirts of Troy, Missouri. When Harley’s 32-year-old son Leland Race unlocks the door at 3 p.m., about four dozen people, almost all men between ages 25 and 50 in ballcaps and T-shirts, shuffle through a hallway and past the ticket window, where each of them happily hands Leland $30 in cash on the way to the arena floor. There, at a long table in front of a wrestling ring that flirts with the low steel rafters, sit two World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famers.

Tonight’s event is billed as “The Night of the Dragon,” and at 63, guest of honor Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat still has biceps that stretch the threads of his black T-shirt; his face is smooth and youthful beneath a shock of silver hair. Steamboat welcomes the fanboys with the exuberant “How are you today?” expected from a longtime “baby-face”—pro-wrestling parlance for “good guy.” He answers questions and reminisces about matches past as he signs original-packaged action figures, magazines, replica championship belts, and even a pair of folding metal chairs, and smiles wide for smartphone snapshots.

Beside Steamboat, 73-year-old “King” Harley Race slumps in a wheelchair, the result of a 30-year career spent as a heel, or bad guy, being tossed and body-slammed onto concrete floors and long folding tables like the one upon which his steel-reinforced forearm now rests. From head to toe, his body contains at least as much metal as does the golden National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship belt he held eight times in the 1970s and 1980s, now propped up like a nameplate on the tablecloth in front of him. His strawberry-blond curls have thinned; the peacock tattoos on his once-massive arms are wrinkled, blurred, and faded to blue.

And yet his hard gaze and grimace are somehow every bit as intimidating in person as they were on TV during his prime as a tough-as-a-turnbuckle antihero. He barely speaks beyond a gruff “You’re welcome”—that is, until his Sharpie begins to run out of ink.

Jason!” he bellows in a gravelly tone that echoes around the arena.

At this moment, it seems, the only motion in the building is Leland, instantly answering his father’s summons with two new markers in hand. Jason Leland Race bears little resemblance to his father. Bald and wide-eyed, bearded, with a slight overbite, he’s smaller in stature—a lean-but-athletic 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds—than the barrel-chested 250-pound patriarch looking on from the faded fight bills on the wall. Leland does share his father’s middle name, his passion for wrestling, and his marrow-deep conviction that Harley Race was and is the greatest there ever was or will be—at everything. The son leans over his dad’s shoulder, scribbles out a few lines to ensure that the new pens work, and then slips into the background as the autograph line chugs along and the nostalgia machine keeps churning.

Leland runs to the office to oversee ticket and merchandise sales, then off to the bathroom to stock up on toilet paper and soap. One moment, he’s back in the locker room seeing that the wrestlers, his students at Harley Race Wrestling Academy, have everything they need; the next, he’s using a plastic funnel to fill ketchup bottles at the concession stand. All the while, Leland is trying to focus on his own match, tonight’s main event, against the villainous “Superstar Steve” Fender. With the legendary Steamboat guest-refereeing and his father looking on, tonight is another chance for Leland to shine. Winning the bout is important for his storyline, sure—it will set Leland up for a shot at regaining the World League Wrestling heavyweight title that he lost six months ago. But more crucial is winning the crowd—projecting his baby-face persona, Leland “The Legacy” Race, not just through words and the famous moniker but also by putting on a show. By executing the flips, dropkicks, arm bars, and body slams with the technical proficiency that old-school fans associate with the surname and a bone-rattling impact that will make even the most hardcore aficionados wonder for a moment whether it’s not real. To show that 14 years of paying dues in these cramped small-town sheds and gymnasiums and tents has made him ready for the top rope, the WWE and the worldwide stage The King conquered and has long since abdicated. To prove that he’s worthy of the name Race. That he’s not just…

Jason!”

The autograph line is spent, the arena now empty but for a skeleton crew setting up rows of metal banquet chairs. Leland grips the handles on the back of his father’s wheelchair and rolls him toward the front office. The son pops open a can of Diet Coke and sets it beside the butt-filled ashtray on Harley’s desk. Here, The King will eat a loose-meat sandwich, smoke Marlboro Lights, and wait while Leland prepares for what they hope will be a sellout crowd.

 

Read the rest at stlmag.com

‘The Hurt Locker’ Back at Home

EODThe call comes in around 8 p.m. on Richard Swann’s military-issued flip phone. (“Old school, you know?” he jokes. “The government doesn’t want to buy us any new technology.”) It typically sits silent in its charger for weeks at a time in the living room of Swann’s home in Dallas, Georgia, a small town about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta. Still, Swann is hardwired to answer it, rushing from his 7-year-old daughter’s room, where, on this Thursday night, he’s cut short a debate over bedtime. He knows every call, however infrequent, could be a matter of life or death.

When Air Force Master Sergeant Swann was deployed, as he was for tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, these calls would come in three times a day. A land mine had been hidden in the sand, or an improvised explosive device (IED) had been stashed in the trunk of an abandoned car on the side of the road. His job, and the job of his fellow explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) airmen, was to put on a protective bomb suit and delicately disarm and remove the (sometimes literally) ticking threat —like a stateside version of The Hurt Locker

Stateside, Swann and the 94th Civil Engineering Squadron from Dobbins Air Reserve Base, on the outskirts of Atlanta, face a very different threat. While they’re equipped to deal with a domestic terrorist act such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Oklahoma City bombing, the vast majority of calls stem from everyday citizens who’ve stumbled upon weapons of long-ago wars — forgotten souvenirs from a tour of duty in Europe, Vietnam or the Middle East, “cool stuff” purchased from Ebay and Craigslist or relics found on rural Southern farms and pastures that were once battlefields. A typical example: Back in 2013, construction workers breaking ground on the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta inadvertently dug up a Civil-War era cannonball, which turned out to be a live round containing gunpowder and ball bearings.

Swann grabs his government flip phone and finds a quiet corner. Opening the aged device, he hears the voice of his superior officer. A man was spotted with an ordnance on the side of Panthersville Road, a rural byway just outside Dallas, mere minutes from where Swann now sits. The rest of the information is scant and vague: A military artillery round. Potentially live

The airman gives his wife a quick hug and kiss before running out to his Corolla, where he keeps a go-bag of combat boots; basic tools, like a Leatherman, knives and screwdrivers; and a flame-retardant flight suit that he now zips over his jeans and T-shirt. Swann backs the Toyota out of his driveway and heads out into the chilly October night.

Read the rest at wearemel.com