Interview: Frank Waln

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

Before a producer from MTV’s Rebel Music contacted Frank Waln, he was just one rapper among a generation of young Lakota artists trying to get their music out there — online, at shows in high school gyms and auditoriums, any way they could. Now that the show has been seen by millions, the Sicangu Lakota artist from the Rosebud Reservation — who now lives in Chicago where he’s working on his debut album — has become something of a symbol for a burgeoning scene. His image on the poster created for the show by famed street artist Shepard Fairey projects the kind of on-the-rise swagger the series itself conveys.   

Rebel Music: Native America, which recently aired and is available online, has created a national buzz around Waln, as well as the other artists featured — including Lakota artist Mike “Witko” Cliff (from Pine Ridge), Nataanii Means and Canadian artist Inez Jasper. The program visits the artists in their respective communities, introducing them and their music, then follows them as they confront issues from the disappearances of Native women and girls in Canada to protests agains the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota.

SDPB caught up with Waln at one of his favorite spots as he prepared to headline the Black Hills Unity Concert, to ask him about his creative process, artistic influences, 90's country, and what the Hills mean to him.

SDPB: Can you talk a little about how the rebel Music’s Native American Documentary came together?

FW: Yeah, it was a long process. I was the first artist they reached out to last summer. I got an email, and I get a lot of emails from people saying they are creating a documentary about Natives and we want to feature you, and I’m pretty reluctant about it because the way people portray us — it’s just hard if they are non-Native. Because they don’t come from the place where we come from. I wrote her a long explanation of why I’m reluctant about bringing people into my home and bringing people to the rez. She said she understood and forget to tell me she was a Native woman. She said, ‘I wrote my PhD on indigenous hip-hop and I’m the lead researcher for this project.’

Many many conference calls and meetings [later], through that whole process I started to feel very comfortable with the project, because the lead researcher was a Native woman and the co-producer was a Native, and the whole production team listened to all of the Natives. It was unprecedented for a mainstream production team to listen to the Native people that are being portrayed the way that they want to be portrayed. 

For me. it was one of the first mainstream media projects that I’ve seen in my lifetime where it was true. It was real stories about real Native people and things we were facing. It wasn’t like Natives burning wagons and stealing white women or look at these alcoholics, and savages and drunks. It was like, no this is our home, we’re human beings, we survived genocide and this is what we’re going through. It was very real and very raw and I’m very proud of that project. 

We put out the trailer in November, and it was a huge success — over 4 million views in 2 days. Did better than we thought it was going to do, did better than MTV though it was going to do and it went on to reach a very wide audience and it helped me kick start my career into the next level to where I can do my art for a living. 

I never in a million years thought I would be on TV. You know I’m just a kid from the frickin’ Rose Bud Rez. I almost quit so many times — I thought there was no hope for me to do music. I thought there was no hope for me. I never thought my music would make it out of the rez, let alone South Dakota. It was a big validation for me, and a big milestone in my career. 

fwposter.jpgThis poster for MTV's Rebel Music features the image of Frank Waln.

SDPB: What does the Black Hills Unity Concert mean to you? 

FW: To me, the Black Hills Unity Concert is about just that — unifying as people across cultures, across economic borders, across all these borders that are put up to keep us separate. Coming together and realizing that ultimately this place, this home, this land, this water. —  this is ours and we need to come together to protect it, to keep it safe and stay a place that we can be proud of and that we can call beautiful and that we can call home. As a young Lakota person, to me it’s also a statement and testament to the strength and resistance and the beauty that my ancestors had. Because I’m not supposed to be here. The government tried to wipe us out. The government took the Black Hills from us. The government didn’t want me to be alive. So the fact that I’m a live Lakota person standing here in the Black Hills as an artist using my voice to speak out for the Black Hills is a beautiful thing to me and it gives me hope that one day everything is going to be ok. 

SDPB: What rappers have influenced you?

FW: My introduction to hip hop was Eminem. It was the emotion of the music that really struck a chord with me. After that I heard Nas and the song “One Mic.” That’s when I knew I wanted to be a rapper. Nas was speaking to his community in an empowering way. “All I need is one mic to change the world.” That was a profound statement for me to hear, being a kid on the rez who loved making music. 

SDPB: You shouted out Lupe Fiasco in your song “Oil for Blood.” His fans know that he has visited and shouted out Pine Ridge in one of his songs. Is he another influence? 

FW: I’ve been listening to Lupe since I was in high school. He was one of my favorite MC’s. He was so fresh and he was saying some real stuff and stuff I was feeling. He has a song named “Around My Way,” and the first line says, “peace to Pine Ridge, shame on all the damage the white man wine did.” I know for me and a lot of other Native kids that listen to Lupe, it was really cool to hear a big mainstream artist like him acknowledge our existence, even though it was a small snippet. That’s why I shouted out to Lupe and maybe one day he’ll hear it. 

SDPB: Nas is a good example of an artist who does “conscious” material like “One Mic” as well as more radio-friendly “get money” music. Do you feel as comfortable with both?

FW: I listen to Kendrick Lamar and I listen to Young Thug. For me, when I sit down I just write down whatever I’m feeling that day. Sometimes it’s conscious stuff. I’m working on an album right now and it’s about trauma and love and I guess that could be conscious and it could not. I’m gonna write about both. I’m not big on the “make money” type because I’m not living that. You know I’m still doing what I can to pay the rent so I’m not writing music about what I don’t live. 

SDPB: Who are some of the hip hop producers out there that influenced you as far as sound?

FW: Dr. Dre was a big influence on me. A lot of the music coming out of the West Coast we would listen to back on the rez. 

Organized Noise is definitely a big influence on me production-wise, and Hi-Tek. They drew from familiar influences but then they used that to create something fresh and something new. That’s what I’m striving to do. It’s always those producers that did something different. Also Rick Rubin, as a producer who just does whatever he has to do to bring the best out of the track.

And you know South Dakota is in a cool place. I realized that after I left, that it’s in the middle of the country and we get music from all over. I grew up on country because I lived in South Dakota. 

SDPB: What kind of country and other stuff were you listening to?

Definitely 90’s country. I grew up on that. Garth Brooks, George Strait, Gary Allen, Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood — I grew up listening to all of that and it’s amazing song writing. I look to that for songwriting and just  cool arrangements. The Beatles were big for me. Hearing them for the first time, I can’t even describe the feeling. Bob Dylan, just his artistry on every album. Also his backing band, The Band, their lead guitarist and singer Robbie Robertson. He’s a Native guy, Mohawk from Canada, and he’s been a big influence on me. The way he blends traditional kinds of Native music with contemporary rock is just seamless and that’s what I want to do with hip hop, or strive to do production-wise. When I moved to Chicago I was introduced to Chicago Blues. I take influence from all that. I can never get enough music. 

SDPB: Back to the Black Hills Unity Concert, and the history of the Hills you touched on — how feasible do you think it is that the Treaty will be honored?

FW: I hope that it is. It’s kind of messed up that we even have to ask this question, because the documents that founded this country — it would just make sense that the government would honor them. How can we call this the greatest country in the world and not even honor the original contracts that founded this place? Do I think it will happen in my life time? No. Will I stop fighting for that to happen? No. I think looking at this long term, this is something that the Native people do — we think about generations. Instead of just thinking about me and how much money I can make at the expense of the land, I’m thinking about what I can do to impact 7 generations down the line. I’m using my voice, my music, my art, to hopefully see a day where my nieces and nephews and children (someday, I’m not a father yet) will live in a South Dakota, live in the Black Hills, where we’re treated like first class citizens. I have hope that will happen. Not in my lifetime, but I will not stop doing what I can to make sure I see that that happens. 

Part II of this interview will be published here later this week. 

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