WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the 25-year-old Lakota rapper is blowing up.
By Joe Flood
“Man, this is the biggest show I’ve ever played!”
It’s unclear if Frank Waln is referring to the size of the crowd, or the fame of the two acts he’s opening up for, Neil Young and Willie Nelson. The 25-year-old Lakota rapper and producer looks out at an island of more than 8,000 people standing in a vast sea of Nebraska corn, swaying in the hot, humid breeze.
The concert is called Harvest the Hope and it’s a sort of protest-fundraiser against the Keystone XL Pipeline that could potentially run through this ecologically sensitive region of the Nebraska Sandhills (think Saudi Arabia, only with juuuust enough topsoil and moisture for some agriculture and cattle grazing). The sponsors are a hodgepodge of environmental groups, from the People’s Climate March organizers to the anti-pipeline Cowboy Indian Alliance.
Waln’s getup is fresh — a gray, woolen N8V Couture baseball cap with a brim flat as a pre-Columbian map of the world; denim shirt; black braids hanging down around his ribs; and a large, brightly beaded medallion around his neck reading Nake Nula Waun , Lakota for “I am always ready at all times for anything.” But Waln’s been on the road for months, playing a nonstop series of shows at colleges and clubs, and his slight frame is showing some of the wear, his shoulders slumped and eyes heavy.
… a confabulation of pink, white and blue feathers, ribbons and beadwork — powwow traditional meets Beyoncé stage show.
Waln huddles with his dancers, Micco and Sam Sampson, sons of the famous Native actor Will Sampson, who played the hulking “Chief” Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , and they go through their pre-set ritual. The Sampsons are done up in thick black and white face paint, their outfits a confabulation of pink, white and blue feathers, ribbons and beadwork — powwow traditional meets Beyoncé stage show.
It’s been a whirlwind few months for the three-time Native American Music Award-winning Waln. In the spring he was just another soon-to-be college grad trying to figure out his life. Since then he’s written and performed music for an episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines , been featured in a cover story in Native Max magazine, and become the unofficial soundtrack to the climate change and anti-pipeline movement with songs like “Oil 4 Blood.”
Hence, the nonstop touring.
Waln grew up just a few hours from here in He Dog, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, home of the Sicangu Lakota people. Like most plains reservations, Rosebud possesses a series of depressing statistics: home to the second poorest county in the country, unemployment rates estimated upward of 70 percent, almost three times the national rate of single-parent households. It’s the kind of place where kids have dreams and even opportunities — Native students are the most desirable demographic for diversity-conscious colleges, and Native-specific scholarships, grants and endowments abound. But the poverty and lack of “modeling” from educated, employed adults mean few kids figure out the steps to get from point A to point Z.
It’s been months since I’ve seen a Native
It’s messing with my creative …
— Frank Waln
Waln grew up with many of those hardships. “I grew up eating commods,” he posted on his Facebook page from New York City recently, referring to the USDA “commodity” foods that many Native Americans rely on. “I’m fitting as much of this fancy ass hotel’s free food and drink into my luggage as I can idgaf.”
But the explanation for why Waln — who graduated with a degree in audio arts and acoustics from Chicago’s Columbia College this spring on a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship — has done so much more than most is right there on stage for everyone to see.
Waln takes the stage with an easy swagger, any residual weariness long gone. He performs four original, high-energy songs, dense assemblages of dance beats, and quick-cut samples of world, dance, hip-hop and powwow music, flitting lyrically between anti-pipeline environmental issues, scenes of reservation life and the isolation of living off-rez (“It’s been months since I’ve seen a Native / It’s messing with my creative … ”).
For the finale, though, the music shifts into a slow piano riff as Waln calls his mother up on stage for his song about her, “My Stone.”
Waln’s father was out of the picture when he was a young child, but his mother, Mary, struggled on, dropping him off with an elderly baby sitter every morning before heading to work at a school. “At 2 years old, he was sitting around the kitchen table, drinking coffee with elders and talking like he was one of them,” she says with a laugh.
Mary read to him regularly and brought him to work with her as often as she could, a backpack full of Dr. Seuss books in tow, so that he knew why she left him every day, and what it was to have a job you’re committed to. When a teacher said Frank had musical tendencies, Mary found an old battery-operated keyboard in a shed at her work, and Frank taught himself to play it.
Onstage, she tears up and smiles as Frank sings:
“You took me everywhere
My cap and my backpack
Twenty years later now
I’m rapping in snapbacks” [the kind of adjustable ball caps he favors]
“We just opened for Willie Nelson!” Waln says backstage after the set, shaking his head almost in disbelief. “How many rappers can say that?!”
He takes a measured view of rock star activism — whale-sized buses idling in the sun as their owners rail against the ravages of petrofuels.
Waln talks nonchalantly about his next few gigs in Utah, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. He shrugs off questions about his recent successes and the documentary film crew that’s been following him around. He takes a measured view of some of the complexities and ironies of rock star activism — boiling down incredibly complicated geopolitical energy issues into sound bites; whale-sized tour buses idling in the sun as their owners rail against the ravages of petrofuels. What really gets him excited, though, is talking about the new record he’s writing and recording, his first full-length solo album.
“You know the director David Lynch?” he asks. “He’ll have a scene with, like, a beautiful house and yard and then he’ll zoom in and you’ll see the bugs and dirt and everything crawling around in the grass. I want to do the same thing about the rez, only in reverse, you know? You start in the cut and it’s all rugged and rough, and then you’ll pull back to the beauty.”
Just then, a distinctive harmonica starts playing over the speakers.
“Hoh! Is Neil up?” Waln asks, his eyes growing wide. “I gotta see this, man,” he says, running up onto the side of the stage, where he exchanges hugs and high-fives with Nelson’s band and Young’s manager. He waves his mother over and they stand with their arms around each other, as Young sits at a pipe organ, singing:
Oh Mother Earth …
How long can you give and not receive
And feed this world ruled by greed?
— Frank Waln
- Joe Flood, Joe Flood is the author of the Amazon Best Books of the Month selection The Fires, a history of New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis and fire epidemic. He lives in the Badlands of South Dakota, where he works as a reporter, data analyst and archery coach.Contact Joe Flood