A clean, crisp day in the Everglades, wheat colored wildness spreads out as if it is the only material the earth is made of. Enter the Seminole Reservation, a pride swells up, the home of the only unconquered tribe. I’m not even Seminole, but I feel automatically on this team. I am with the unconquered I think to myself. In this open wilderness I am with the winners, and I leave behind the chicness, the temporality of the Miami scene roughly 50 miles south for more natural pastures.
Enter, Martha Redbone, a singer of Native American and African-American heritage, the American Indian Arts Celebration headliner. She has a natural beauty that is edged with the purposefulness of a story, of a mission.
Good music is that mission and she doesn’t disappoint.
Her vocals, her introduction of “Native Soul” beckon you to remember that intrinsic synergy that make us American, a uniting of cultures that we all too often feel uncomfortable speaking about for fear of social reprisal, for fear of invoking the “self-hate” stamp of disapproval. In Cuba, there is an expression, “ y donde esta tu abuela, si no tiene de Congo, tiene de Karabali.” Translation, “and where is your grandmother, if she doesn’t have Congo blood, she has Karabali blood.” Meaning irrespective of how your genetics have played out, you are inevitably a mix. Of course, this quote easily applies to the American context, but our society is a lot less forgiving to those who admit to multiple heritages. So, in this interview we celebrate the beauty of our entwined heritage without looking for anybody’s grandmother or capitulating to society’s expectations.
Me: Can you talk a little about your background and upbringing?
Martha: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and spent some of my childhood in Appalachia, Kentucky. My mother is Cherokee/Shawnee/Choctaw and my father is African-American. I wasn’t aware of my racial heritage as a child. I was just existing and living like children do. My focus was on honoring my parents. Other people often tell you what you are, and you become aware of your differences when you reach a certain age in school . I identified myself as being a city kid .
Me: Did you feel like an anomaly growing up in NYC as Native American?
Martha: In Kentucky, my mix (Black and Indian) was pretty normal. When I was a teenager in NY I blended in with many nationalities, as Caribbean, Hispanic or African-American . But actually, over 50,000 Native Americans live in NYC.
Me: How did you get involved in music?
Martha: I went to school for fine arts and graphic art design and the worlds connected. I wrote songs after college and was embraced professionally by Walter “Junie” Morrison from The Ohio Players and Parliament Funkadelic. I learned about music production and honed my craft as a songwriter. Piano, guitar and voice lessons brought me into a professional level of music. I started singing and producing demos, getting sessions and I wrote with various producers.
Me: How do you want people to think of you?
Martha: I want people to say that from the beginning that I knew what I was doing, I wanted to be a professional singer, I tell a story, I honor where I come from, where my family comes from, and their struggle over hundreds of years. I want to musically celebrate both sides of my heritage. I have an affinity to roots and soul music, but I find a way to incorporate my mother’s heritage. I want to be seen as a musician first and foremost, a musician who just happens to be Native American and African-American.
Me: What society
Martha: Yes, in Texas people will say that Black girl, in NYC, they might say that Dominican girl. When people are mixed races, people will often see them the way that the current society sees them. Society once considered African-Americans as three-fifths of a man, so I do not agree with whatever society uses to define me. It is important that WE define ourselves, be proud of our history and who we are as individuals and as a people.
Me: What Native American elements do you incorporate into your music?
Martha: Traditional chanting, flute, hand-drum, and melodies.
Me: Where do you think you get your strongest reception?
Martha: Everywhere. Industry loves to hear something different. The live music scene is nothing like what you hear on the radio. People receive us with an open heart.
Me: Where is your favorite place to perform?
Martha: In NYC, at home base. New York City is always the best. People start and perform in coffee houses. I love performing for children and families. Children enjoy all styles of music and have an open-heartedness. I enjoy performing on reservations too. Because of the isolation of Indian reservations, Indian people sometimes feel they are forgotten or that people don’t know about them. It’s nice to let them know we are out here representing.
Me: Because most of us have little exposure to reservations, can you give us an idea of what reservation life is like since you tour so many?
Martha: Reservations are very different from each other. There are some reservations that are very progressive. The Seminoles are very progressive. Forward-thinking. There are others who prefer to keep things simple without the business of gaming; some reservations are more spiritual-minded, even religious. Many suffer from poverty. Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the most poverty-stricken places in the United States, poor vegetation because of the infertility of the land. There is a lot of crime in parts of the Navajo reservations; drugs and crime. Some bayou tribes are very simple, live off the land, craft, fish.
Me: People seem to talk about their Native American links, whether fictional or true, with pride.
Martha: There is a newer wave of people feeling pride in Native culture. My grandmother and mother were ashamed of their background; people considered them dirty; they were very mistreated; they were considered the lowest group of people. In my grandmother and mother’s generation, assimilation was greatly encouraged. In our generation, preserving our culture became something cool as kids. “Black Power.” “Indian Power.” It was a reversal. We soaked it up, wearing it on our sleeves. We didn’t deny our heritage, but accepted it as we were, proudly.
Martha: I have hope in the younger generations. Kids 15 and younger don’t care about what color anyone is. It reminds me of a scenario of a friend whose teenage daughter was watching the election of Barack Obama with her teary-eyed family who were talking about how far we’ve come. She was rolling her eyes as if to say “it’s not this Black guy who is going to be president, it’s a smart guy who is doing a good job.” It’s not that she had no respect for the past, but she is not living with the haunting of the past. This generation is receiving the benefits of the struggle. Many kids will be multicultural or live multicultural lives. They won’t be hung up on stigmas, or defensive. They will be facing other storms, like global warming.
Me: I know you are into other pursuits, can you talk a little about that?
Martha: I teach traditional music and participate in different organizations like the Man-Up Campaign, a global youth movement which is working to eliminate violence against women and girls. I teach a traditional music workshop in the Bayou every summer too.
Me: What do you sing about?
Martha: Love, social injustices, reflections, the ways of the world. I try to write without being too preachy. I try to make music that all people can relate to, contemporary Native soul music.
Martha: It is extremely important to honor everything that I am because if I died tomorrow, I would want people to know I was African-American and Native American and that we are still alive and well. I grew up with my mother being mistaken for Filipino or Hawaiian because many people believed that Indians no longer existed. I am on a mission to let people know Indians aren’t dead, are very much alive and that we go to schools, and are nurses and doctors, attorneys and musicians, own businesses, etc.
I took a group of kids to South Africa and there was a delegation from Uganda who was surprised and elated to find out that we are still here. One of the girls was even wearing turquoise Zuni earrings and didn’t know. We told her those were Zuni earrings and that they were from back home and she told us they were her favorite earrings sent to her from the United States, but she didn’t know exactly where from. When someone thinks your people are dead, that’s heavy. It’s heavy to think that people don’t think you even exist, that a whole group of people is just gone, like dinosaurs.
Another time, an older Black woman came up to me after a performance and said, “ Lawd, have mercy I thought ya’ll were all dead. Thank God for you, thank God for you, I thought you were all dead, keep doing what you doing because now I know you’re not dead.” “Keep doing what you are doing.” So, I have to keep doing what I’m doing, I feel I have a responsibility to continue to honor my heritages, not just for me but for my children’s children.
And Mrs. Martha Redbone is and she is doing it quite well.
** January 15 & 16th, Washington DC- Smithsonian Museum NMAI, Martin Luther King celebration weekend, FREE afternoon trio concerts, 1 & 4pm sets
** February 5th, Brooklyn, NY BAM Cafe Live, 9pm full band concert, FREE
** March 5th Brooklyn, NY Brooklyn Museum, Target First Saturdays afternoon full band concert- 3-5pm FREE