Hip-Hop Artist Frank Waln Spits Rhymes From the Reservation

With his first full-length album due this year, the Sicangu Lakota rapper is poised to become a unique star in 2016.

Frank Waln

Having already been featured on WBEZ’s Vocalo and MTV’s Rebel Music, 26-year-old Sicangu Lakota rapper Frank Waln brings a unique brand of hip-hop framed through the perspective of a Sicangu Lakota man. Frank sat down with us to talk about his journey from the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota to being featured on MTV, producing art from an Indigenous perspective, and staying true to his story.

You grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Reservations are by design meant to be remote and isolated geographically and culturally. Were you exposed to a lot of hip-hop growing up?

For my generation, there was. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially having the platform I have now, and also in gaining a much greater understanding between black folks and Indigenous folks, and black Indians. Trying to really think hard about why hip-hop resonated so much, with a lot of Natives from my reservation. Our parents grew up on country and rock, but my generation — me, all my cousins — listened to hip-hop.

Looking at my own experiences, a big part of the draw was representation. At that time, we had no one, no Natives on TV we could look up to. The Natives we did see on TV were so stereotypical, so crafted by the white gaze, we would see at it and we’d look at ourselves and our families and say, “That’s not me, that’s not us.”

When I first started listening to hip-hop — this was before the internet — the music I consumed was passed through the people I knew. My older cousins were listening to all kinds of hip-hop: stuff from the West Coast, stuff from the East Coast, even stuff from Houston, Texas, from independent labels. I look back on it, and wonder how it even got to us in the first place.

Once I started listening to that music, the stuff these artists are talking about were things I could relate to. I was growing up in a poor community of color, and even though we were isolated, there were a lot of parallels. So we all gravitated to those stories and those artists, because that represented us so much more than Hollywood, the Indians we saw on TV, and all that stereotypical bullshit. Hip-hop music was closer to our truth than anything else we had.

Who were your musical influences?

It was particularly one song, Nas’ “One Mic”, that really got me excited at the thought of making hip-hop music. When I heard that song, I was like “Man, I want to do this. I want to make this type of stuff. I want to speak in this way.” He was commenting on his community, but also saying “we can create change,” and that was really powerful for me. Outkast, as well, because they were making very honest music, not just the lyrics and beats, but the production.

And I’m still into the music my parents listened to: Hank Williams, George Strait, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I still listen to those albums for musical inspiration. Probably my biggest influence, as far as music and speaking my truth, is an Indigenous activist and poet named John Trudell. His first album Tribal Voice was him reciting poetry over traditional ceremony songs. It’s probably my favorite album of all-time.

What was the process like going from “I want to make this music!” to actually making it?

My generation was the first generation that could actually produce music on our reservation. We come from one of the poorest counties in the United States, so there were no studios; there was no anything. But when I was in high school, the biggest school on our reservation got this grant that provided every student with a MacBook that came with a copy of GarageBand. Now, I didn’t go to this high school, and had to save up to buy my own MacBook, but because of that grant, you had a lot of kids on the reservation who were listening to hip-hop, and now for the first time, we could make music on the reservation.

We still had incredibly limited resources, but we did have GarageBand and a MacBook microphone. We didn’t have to get a record deal, or drive five hours to the nearest recording studio and pay studio fees we didn’t have. Suddenly, in the early 2000s, you had this wellspring of all these young, Indigenous hip-hop artists on Plains reservations who could now make music from home for the first time.

Once social media got big, it gave us a platform to share that music. Back in the day, just to get into a studio you either needed a record label or know someone to front you the money or space to record the album. And record labels definitely weren’t flocking to reservations to sign talent. So with social media, we’ve been able to get mainstream looks without depending on systems that have never really had space for us.

We talked about isolation, and what a lot of people don’t understand is that when they isolated us on reservations it also cut off inter-tribal communication. In the old days, inter-tribal communication was so important. People traveled and migrated; they shared knowledge, stories, and art. So another thing social media gave us, young Indigenous artists, was the opportunity to reconnect the communities which has been important to all of our art. Before all the tours and MTV, we were able to use Facebook to promote shows on our reservations.

Is the music you’re making now close to the music you started making in the early 2000s, or has it gone through some transitions?

It was totally transitions and phases. When we first started making music at home, we were just having fun, man. I look back and as an artist, even though those early songs were crap and it would make me cringe having to listen to them, me and my friends and my cousins had so much fun. Imagine for the first time; you could make something, create something. Even just hearing your own voice. Being there with my friends and cousins rapping about stupid shit was really exciting. We never had anything like that before, so we were writing as many songs as we could, just having fun.

And then I was able to save up enough money to build a little studio in my cousin’s basement, and formed a group with friends and family. It was me, and my younger cousin Colin, my cousin-in-law Andre Easter, another cousin Tom Schmidt, and a singer named Kodi DeNoyer. So there was this amazing hodgepodge of influences: Colin and I were rez kids, Andre is a black dude who was performing in Virginia before he moved out to Rosebud, Tom, a black Native military brat, and Kodi, a Lakota woman singer, all bringing different styles and perspectives. So going back to influences, recording with those folks definitely played into shaping my sound and style today.

Before your music started blowing up, you were a pre-med student. Tell me about that transition.

Right out of high school I got this really awesome scholarship, the Gates-Millennium Scholarship, so I had this golden ticket to go to college. I didn’t even think I was going to go to college until I got the scholarship. So I went off to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska to study pre-med for two years. At that time, I was kind of listening to what everyone around me was saying. Where I’m from, not a lot of people get go to college, so everyone was like “Frank, this is your chance. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, come back and help us out, help your people.”

I definitely wanted to help, I definitely wanted to be a healer for myself and my community, and at the time, I though being a doctor was the only way to do that. So I did pre-med for two years, and I kind of got burnt out; I realized medicine was not my passion. Music was, so I went back to the rez for a year, and just decided to put everything into music and figuring out how I could use that as a tool of healing and helping.

After a year,I decided to go back to school, to Columbia College Chicago, where I eventually got my degree. I started mingling with other artists of color, who helped me realize exactly how I could use music as a way to not only tell my story, but to use the music as a means of healing. In fact, it was this incredible professor, a black woman named Claudette Roper, was the first person that showed me that my story is worth something, and that my truth is powerful. Her advice and mentoring, it changed my career and my life.

You mentioned how important representation is. Does your recent success come with an added sense of pressure or responsibility?

It was during that time at Columbia I really started realizing my responsibility to speak my truth and tell my story. I got lucky: People started paying attention. I try to stay very mindful. I’m an unsigned artist, I’m a rez kid from one of the poorest reservations in South Dakota, and here I am being interviewed by Playboy and appearing on MTV. No one has ever done that before, and I’m very mindful of that. I’m being mindful of every step forward, because I’m in uncharted waters, so I’m very careful of how I’m representing in that regard.

As my platform progresses, I always want to do better. How can I make better music, how can I do a better performance, how can I be better at healing? Finding better ways to craft my truth and my truth and my story in a way that people outside my community can also relate to. I always want to put out a song or do a performance that will rock the rez Native community but at the same time, also rock people in Germany.

Frank Waln performing with the Sampson Brothers

Frank Waln

You’ve been touring across the U.S. and Europe over the past year. Do you see a difference in how you are received now that your audience is getting more diverse?

Well, I’ll start by saying that we do the exact same set, whether we are on the rez, at a university in the U.S., or in Germany. Our performance is very similar to VH1 Storytellers. Storytelling is very integral to me as a person, the other artists I perform with, and also the my own culture; the Lakota people are big storytellers. So I do a lot of contextualizing between songs; This is why I wrote this song, this is where I’m coming from. So if I’m on the rez playing for Native kids, the contextualization will be a different than at a show in Germany let’s say, but the set will be the same.

As far as being received … it’s wild, we get love no matter where we are. The love is different depending on where we are. I’m just starting to get the music out past Indian country, and now that I’ve done the tours across the country and been to Europe, I’m really starting to process that for the first time.

At home, the love is deeper … and maybe love is the wrong word, maybe it’s appreciation. Especially from Native kids. They understand what I’m going through and I understand what they’re going through. So for them to see someone coming from the same struggle, out doing what they love, and still staying true to who they are as a Lakota kid from a reservation, that appreciation tends to be deeper. It’s home, so it keeps me centered. If I go home and people are like “Yo, what the hell are you doing? You’re not the same Frank! What are you talking about in your music?” it would let me know I need to look at myself and figure out how I’m straying from my path.

Outside of Indian country, people are very appreciative of the music and also the perspective. Many folks have never heard any of our history. They’ve never seen a performance with Indigenous dancing combined with this powerful story. When we perform, we leave it all on the stage, man. I cry almost every night on the stage; that’s where I let out all the rage, all the frustration, all the pain. So it’s a very powerful performance. I think non-Natives tend to very appreciative of that perspective, and that it was delivered in such an impactful and honest way.

And this is where music and art is so awesome. For example, I could sit up on stage and read through stacks of U.S. policy, but if I can do a song where I talk about how that policy resulted in a specific event that was traumatic in my life, and bring the emotion through the performance, and make the audience feel that emotion, its a lot more impactful. And people all over have been appreciative of that; the story and emotion, taking Indigenous truth they maybe didn’t know much about and making it real, something they can feel. And I’m appreciative for the opportunity.

Frank performing at Colorado State University

Frank Waln

Your music definitely comes from an Indigenous perspective, but also as an independent artist, you’ve been able to frame producing the art through an Indigenous lens as well.

As my platform expands, even in how I go about defining “success” is something I try to frame Indigenous perspective. I’m apart of this Indigenous artist collective called Dream Warriors, founded in part by an incredible Indigenous woman named Tanaya Winder. She’s an educator, poet, artist, editor for an all woman of color literary magazine, and now my manager. So with her, and two other Indigenous hip-hop artists she’s managing: Mic Jordan in North Dakota, and Tall Paul out of Minneapolis, we formed a collective. We don’t need jealousy, we don’t need to fight for a “spot,” we don’t need to beef … we have to work together. For us, a big part of how we define “success” is how we can and lift each other up and provide opportunity to other artists.

As a collective, we decided to take a small portion out of every performance, and put it towards a scholarship fund for Native high school seniors who want to explore art in higher education. We want to be able to put other artists on, even if music isn’t their medium. We even framed the scholarship from an Indigenous perspective: we didn’t say “Your art has to be this, this, or this,” we asked the applicants to tell us how they define their art. The first application year, we had three applicants: two visual artists and a chef. To me that was really awesome, that this young lady saw cooking as her art. That’s a very Indigenous view of food and art: cooking, feeding your people, is love

From a historic Indigenous perspective, “art” isn’t nearly as heavily compartmentalized as it is in the Western world. For me, everything from hunting Buffalo to putting up a tipi was considered a form of art. It’s all about love and community, and for me expressing that, in whatever form, is art that should be treasured and elevated. So from our collective, we’re trying to not only make music, but bring opportunities home from an Indigenous perspective.

What do you want people to take away from your music?

Honesty. That’s so huge both personally and from a music standpoint. Whether they are Natives living on a reservation and know the stories that I’m telling, or they are non-Natives who have never heard these perspectives in their lives, I want people to be able to sense the honesty in my music. So wherever you are you can say either “OK, this guy is telling my story!” or “Even though I’m unfamiliar with this perspective, there is no way I can argue that he isn’t speaking his truth!”

**What’s coming up for you in 2016?”

We’re doing shows all over the U.S. and Canada in the next few months. Later this month, we’ll be at SXSW, then Lehigh University, and the One Nation Film Festival in Colorado. I just locked in an artist residency at the University of Delaware for April and the first part of May. I’ll be doing some outreach on campus, but primarily I’ll be working in a children’s hospital with a musicologist and music therapist exploring music healing with kids in the hospital. It’s a way to keep learning and keep getting better. It really feels like its all coming full-circle — going from pre-med to using music as a tool of healing for others in a hospital setting. I’m very excited to have that opportunity.

Of course, the big news is I’ll be dropping my first ever solo album later this year. It’s called Tokiya, which is the Lakota word for “first creation.” A big part of my story and my community’s story is how our language and culture have been stripped away as a part of the colonization and genocide process. I took a hard look at the framework of how our people lived — the storytelling, the music, the language, basically the way we lived our lives, because that is art to me. This album is going to be something special, it’s about reconnecting to my culture and my home, and about my own healing and also from the broader Lakota perspective.

I’m working with a ton of great artists from home and all over the world. It’s going to be a great peace of art musically and also the way its framed in the Indigenous perspective, which I’m very self-critical as an artist, I’m never really pleased with what I put out, but I’ve never felt this good about anything I’ve ever made.