Decolonizing Music

By Martha Redbone

Thursday, April 29, 2021

My earliest memory of the traditional music from our mountain was at the funeral of an elder uncle-cousin. What I remember most was the melodies, the sound of sung vocals mixed with hymns and tears. I remember the vibrations rumbling above my head: the low tones of the men and the high tones of the women. The songs and singing went on for about three days, all at different times, mostly after prayers and eating. I was five years old and I understood that music and sound move through different meters and tempos, with layers of unexpected tones that dart in and out to conjure emotion, to conjure the spirits. Music can stir out of a quiet space or a solemn prayer, or it can explode from a storm, howling, lingering, and then dissipating The beauty of music is the power it has to take on a life of its own—music has no rules and needs no explanation.  

My Southeastern homeland is a huge inspiration for my music and compositions. It was taught to me by elders; it’s a reminder of who I am. Despite the painful memory of the complexities of my own family history of forced removal, displacement, erasure, and the enslavement of American Indian and African American peoples in the Southeast, these are the sounds that are the underlying tones of my recent work. They pull from past traditions and weave through the sounds that surround me in present day New York, in all its grit, concrete, and tones of metal and pollution. They also confront what the haunting sounds of sirens that whirred around us during the COVID-19 pandemic mean to us during these challenging times. 

There are many influential American Indian musicians who didn’t record their music, nor score their compositions, whose work was performed live for the community in the moment, the ceremony. Ours is a rich history of oral traditions and storytelling. In today’s society, which has marginalized Indigenous voices nearly to the point of erasure, our pioneers still managed to rise. But they were promptly pushed out of the mainstream because of their political activism on behalf of the Native community, as in the cases of the late John Trudell, the band Redbone, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The height of their popularity was the only time we got to see images of ourselves as musicians in mainstream media. Only through these glimpses could we possibly imagine that our own dreams in music could be a tangible reality.

“These legends gave American Indian musicians the courage to experiment in all styles, broadening the boundaries of contemporary music, addressing social issues facing our homelands, and writing about our love for our community, the land, and humanity.”

Each of these artists had their own unique style, propelling the sound of popular folk, blues, and rock music forward in a direction that had never been done before and ultimately reaching worldwide popularity. Redbone added their traditional Yaqui sounds to a funky, soulful rock hybrid and had a worldwide hit with “Come and Get Your Love,” which is still featured today in popular Hollywood films. John Trudell wrote of his life experience as one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), setting traditional American Indian music to a contemporary rock ‘n’ roll and blues backdrop, and recorded AKA Grafitti Man with legendary guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. With his multicultural band, Bad Dog, Trudell went on to record Johnny Damas and Me, Bone Days, and many more, addressing social justice issues in both the American Indian and African American community. His unique hybrid allowed him to have a worldwide appeal, leading to tours with Australian band Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust, the Big Mountain tour, and Peter Gabriel’s global production WOMAD. 

Buffy Sainte-Marie is the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for the song “Up Where We Belong,” co-written for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, which won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Her music, which is filled with issues in Indigenous communities as well as experimental sounds, vocables, and traditional music, has a timeless quality. Her gifted storytelling is inimitable. Sainte-Marie incorporated the 49er style into her hit song, “Darling Don’t Cry.” Here, she not only included our traditional 49er song but also shared the courting story to give a glimpse into Indigenous culture at social gatherings on our homelands. 

These legends gave American Indian musicians the courage to experiment in all styles, broadening the boundaries of contemporary music, addressing social issues facing our homelands, and writing about our love for our community, the land, and humanity. Unapologetic, these great musicians were also the first to celebrate us as humans in a world that has objectified us for centuries. American Indian musicians that inspire today’s music for me, past and present, include: Link Wray, Oscar Pettiford, Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Jesse Ed Davis, Jim Pepper, Joy Harjo, The Neville Brothers, among many others. Composers include: Raven Chacon, Dawn Avery, and R. Carlos Nakai, and Robert Mirabal, among many others. Ours is a thriving, innovative culture that’s ever-evolving. Listen to us. 

Martha Redbone, vocalist/songwriter/composer/educator, Cherokee/Choctaw/African American descent. She is known for her unique gumbo of folk, blues, and gospel from her childhood in Harlan County, Kentucky infused with the eclectic grit of pre-gentrified Brooklyn.