SDPB recently caught up with Rosebud Reservation-raised rapper Frank Waln at one of his favorite spots as he prepared to headline the Black Hills Unity Concert. Here’s part II of the interview.
SDPB: Can you talk a little about your experience growing up on a ranch?
FW: I grew up on a ranch back on the reservation that’s pretty unique. It’s a ranch run by women. Back when my great great uncle died, when I was a kid, my mom and aunts took over. Me and a lot of my cousins were all living in the same house, all being raised by single mothers. So to be in a very matriarchal environment was normal to me. To be around strong Native women, that was normal to me. I didn’t realize until I left that isn’t the norm for everyone else.
It was great. From a young age, I understood connections to the land that human beings have, because my family lives off the land. When you take care of the animals, you take care of us. So I think that’s why I’m speaking out against the things like the Keystone Pipeline, because that’s endangering things like that.
I learned how to work hard on that ranch because we had to. You know if you didn’t get out and work, our family wouldn’t have food. So it taught me a lot of qualities that I use today — the connection with the land, hard work, family connections. A lot of that comes out in the music I make today.
SDPB: Most of the world probably has no idea how beautiful that part of South Dakota is.
FW: Yeah, I took it for granted because it was the norm for me. But when I left... now I appreciate the land, the sunsets. South Dakota has some of the best sunsets in the world. I graduated from White River, so everyday I woke up and saw this… and you know we would travel places, like go to Denver and stuff, but I didn’t realize the beauty we have at home until I left. The further I traveled, the more I appreciated home.
SDPB: Do you think a lot of people take it for granted?
FW: Oh for sure. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just our normal. Our normal is just some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. But for me, it’s also a source for pride. This is my homeland, my motherland. My blood and DNA are connected to this land. My ancestors are from this land and Native People are the only ones who can say that. That’s why I talk about it and speak out and defend it.
SDPB: You mentioned a college professor that kind of changed…
FW: My life? I went out to Chicago to attend Columbia [College, an arts school] in 2011. I had a Gates Millennium scholarship, a full ride. When I first graduated from high school I used it to study pre-med at Creighton. Took a year off, came home and then decided to follow my passion in music.
I went and checked it out [Columbia] and fell in love with it. I kind of felt this attraction to Chicago ever since I went there a few years before that. I always felt like I was going to live there for some reason, even before I knew I was going to do music. So I went there and one of the first classes I took was called “Culture, Race and Media” taught by this amazing woman named Claudette Roper. We would analyze the way people who were considered other — people of color, people of disability, women, poor people — were portrayed in mainstream media and deconstruct it and analyze what message was being told to us.
That was one of the first times that I was critical of media. The same time I was taking that class I was having some pretty crazy culture shock experiences living in Chicago. I met a girl who thought Native Americans were extinct. That just kind of shook me, because that was the first time I had ever met someone like that. You know out here in South Dakota, they still know we exist and down in Nebraska where I was living. So I got to Chicago and met a girl who thought we were extinct and I was thinking how is that possible someone can think that me and everyone I love and everyone I know could be extinct?
So we did a section on Native Americans, and I learned a term — “symbolic annihilation,” which means that if people are represented in popular media or don’t have much of a voice through the media, it’s just a dead culture of the past. It doesn’t exist.
I firmly believe that Native peoples — the culture we’re creating today is just as valuable as the culture of the past. So the art that I’m creating now, the music, the art, what other Native artists are creating is just as valuable to me as the art that my ancestors created.
SDPB: Can you talk about some of the other artists you’re working with on the album?
FW: I’m working with this incredible indigenous violinist out of Canada named Melody McKiver. She’s dong string arrangements on my album. I met this artist out of Chicago, his name is Abraham Mellish. He migrated to the US when he was a teenager because his country [Liberia] was in Civil War. He has a crazy life story, just the things he had to go through just to survive. We met doing shows in Chicago and we just vibed creatively as people and as artists. Abraham is helping me out a lot on the album. I’m also working with an artist from home named Kodi Denoyer and this other artist named Gunner Krogman and another friend of mine named Kilo Trackz, because in my opinion, the artists that I knew and grew up with on the rez are just as good as the artists I’m working with in Chicago.
We just didn’t have those opportunities. There’s no music scene on the rez. We had to make a music scene. We had to make music venues. We were performing in dirt lots, in juvenile detention centers, in elementary schools, doing whatever we could. There were no opportunities for us to be music artists. I had to move to Chicago to become successful as an artist and I think that’s unfair. So now that my platform is growing, I want to use some of that to shed light on some of the artists back home that I grew up with.
I’m working with this awesome poet named Tanaya Winder, and her and I started a scholarship for Native American artists. She’s contributing some poetry to the album. I have a friend named Greg Grey Cloud who’s an incredible singer. He’s doing some traditional singing on the album. An old medicine man named Roy Stone Sr. contributed a prayer. Another great indigenous MC I’m working with is Tall Paul. I’ve done a lot of shows with him. And another MC named Mic Jordan.
SDPB: You’ve said you’re not the best hip hop artist from Rosebud. In your opinion, who is?
FW: On my rez? Oh man, I would say it’s between four people. Number one would be my little cousin, he’s like my little brother, Colin Whirlwind Soldier, he goes by Rollie Jay. Unfortunately, right now he’s in prison but he’s going to get out soon. He went in about a year and a half ago and him and I used to make music together and he is just brilliant. But he didn’t have opportunities. You know, I went off to college and he got caught up in the system and you know he wasn’t given an opportunity to showcase his greatness as an artist. I’m definitely going to make more music with him when he gets out.
SDPB: Obviously your music is politically charged. Who are some of your political influences?
FW: My grandfather. He raised a family of 11 off of an 8th grade education and I’m here because of that. But he did a lot of work with our tribe and he helped bring health care to our reservation. He had to go to DC and lobby to get that. On the speaking side, John Trudell would be a big one. His first ever album, called Tribal Voice, it can’t be found on CD or iTunes or anything. You have to get a tape or go to Youtube. It’s his poetry set to our traditional scene, so it’s traditional singers singing and his poetry recited over. It’s brilliant, it’s so powerful. And the stuff he was saying then is still applicable to what we are facing today. You know nothing’s changed, it’s crazy. So I would say definitely my grandfather and John Trudell. Also Winona LaDuke, she’s been a big influence on me on that side of things as well.
As a Native, our lives are political whether we want it to be or not. Honestly I hate politics with a passion, but my everyday experience is shaped by politics. The lives of the Native people in this country are shaped by US policy. So just by me making music about my life, it’s going to be political whether I want it to be or not. I just want myself, my mom, my family, everyone back home in South Dakota, to be happy, healthy and respected, and unfortunately there are a lot of things that are interfering that with Native People. The [Keystone] Pipeline being one of them, the state taking children away and putting them through foster care, that would be another thing. That guy pouring beer on 57 Lakota kids in front of everyone and getting away with a slap on the wrist. [Note: This interview was recorded three days before Trace O’Connell was acquitted].
It just boils down to I want me and everyone I love to be happy, healthy and respected just like everyone else.