Advice for aspiring artists? Nahko Bear says simply, ‘Don’t try so hard. Music should be fun.’
Nahko Bear is a hip-hop, folk and rock musician who is staking his claim on a worldwide stage. He is selling out tours all over the world and traveling to deliver performances in such places as Australia, Scotland and Standing Rock. Nahko Bear (Native American, Puerto Rican, and Filipino) is an artist who considers himself a citizen in service to the planet.
Nahko Bear says his current tour, A Call to Action, was born out of a public, musical journal of his journey toward personal, spiritual, and social healing.
Nahko Bear’s story is a miraculous one. His mother, who struggled with tragic abuse, had to put him up for adoption as a teenager. She was reunited with him years later. Nahko Bear was raised in loving, but a non-indigenous family, which caused him to struggle with his own identity and indigeneity.
In a conversation with ICMN, Nahko Bear discussed his life’s philosophies, his upbringing and his indigeneity. He also talks about his music, which he calls Medicine for the People.
Courtesy Josue' Rivas
Can you tell us a bit about who you, Nahko Bear are? A loaded question I know.
It’s fully loaded! Well, I’m a weirdo from the great northwest Cascadia region of Turtle Island. I’m a full time musician, activist, alchemic conductor of sound healing and social empowerment. I’m a bridge builder, a recluse at heart, a shadow worker, and a complete lover of off the grid living.
I’m also a multi-instrumentalist, board member to Honor the Earth, surfer, tattoo enthusiast, and horse hanger-outer (not whisperer, because I’m too loud.) I represent four nations; Apache, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Chamorro.
You identify you and your music as Medicine for the People. What is this medicine?
We are a group. We recognize the power of community, thus the ‘Tribe’. We see it as everyone has a role. Our role is bringing soulful melodies and real talk music to an industry that should never have been made an industry in the first place.
Medicine, in this reference, is music. The healing power of tone, vibration, intention and melody is undeniable. It has been proven time and time again for generations. This music we offer is simple…medicine for the people. Oh, for the plants and animals and all of creation, too, but that would be a super-long band name.
You visited Standing Rock and created the video Love Letters to God\**. What was your experience there?**
Like most of us who visited Standing Rock, for however long a time, my experience was deeply insightful, shocking and inspirational all in the same breath.
I’m 31. As an indigenous man, to see such collaboration and show of hand by our national and international indigenous family, entirely changed my perception of where we are in this generation. In order for us to truly be together, we must learn how to grieve together. Clearly, healing between tribes is imperative before truly being able to unite in a cohesive and decisive manner. That, however, is seemingly impossible on a large scale.
The wound is so deep and exposed now, it is imperative we strike now with the medicine we’ve been cultivating…We have been in this battle between the greedy, seemingly stronger species of humans for longer than perhaps those old textbooks and hieroglyphs and collected data can prove. If we’re here for a reason, than I think we’re here to give as much as we take. Balance is power.
I see so much hurt in my generation’s eyes. The lack of empathy is so deep. What has been taken from us is hardly replaceable. Our tendency is to strike rather than love. It is impossible to flip the script narrative if we continue to fight like our predecessors did. We must be a nucleus and move as one organism and think far ahead of our enemy. And use alternative modes of reaction and defense. I don’t have all the solutions, but I do believe the previous model of resistance isn’t working on certain levels. However, prayer is always a peaceful and necessary action.
Your lyrics in some of your songs refer to a lack of connection to your indigenous heritage growing up, can you address this?
Oh, man. Yes! This is the bridge building that I spoke of earlier. I grew up in a cookie cutter American life. And before I explain more, may I say out of love for my parents, I was loved, fed, had a roof over my head, was instilled with a sense of spirituality, and overall had a privileged childhood. In my teens and 20’s I was vocally and outwardly resistant to what my parents represented in the whole of America and to how they raised me. I was pretty aggressive and abrasive at times. I had yet to soften and see the gift that had been handed me. My birth mother gave me up for adoption when I was 9 months old and after I left home at 17 I began to address my trauma through immediate opposition towards the family that raised me.
It wasn’t until I found my birth mother, kind of by accident, in 2007 that my real work began. I learned about where our people came from and my whole energy shifted. My identity began to take form. Over the ten years that followed, I dove into my indigenous education through my mother and through my travels. I sought validation from native, black and brown, and islander communities and eventually realized that I had to let go of the confusing identity I came from and truly accept myself. Only then would people begin to see me for who I truly was. That was the turning point for me. That’s a long story short, ha! My process and healing I put into song.
Without music to lean on, cry on, suffer with, I would have had nothing. It is a language we can all translate and digest. It was my first connection.
This is a tough subject and I am asking it only if you would like to share. You were adopted as a result of your birth mother’s difficult upbringing, how does this affect you today as a Native man and as an artist?
Deeply! As indigenous peoples, we take the brunt of everything. EVERYTHING. But, you know this already. I’ll share a piece of her story for your readers. My mother was one of 15 kids. My grandmother grew up in a time where it was worse to be Native than it was to be Black. She grew up shunning her ancestry. As a result, she was also very twisted and broken. She trafficked her youngest four children. My mother was one of those kids. That’s how I was born. My mother was only 14 years old when she gave birth to me.
My mother’s past is dark and full of terror. She is the bravest, strongest, and most forgiving woman I know. I am in awe of her. Today, she holds a Masters from Portland State, is a social worker in downtown Portland, works a suicide hotline, and is a grandmother to five beautiful kids from both my sisters…to name a few things.
What my father went through, too, was anything less than unforgiving or simple. He joined the navy in the Philippines at 21 and left just as his father, my grandfather, was shot and killed. My grandfather was an attorney. When Shell came to try and drill for oil in a small settlement, he fought them in order to give the people first rights to jobs etc. He won the case, but was murdered for it shortly thereafter. The case is still open to this day.
My ancestor’s stories affect me deeply. Music is my tool for processing and letting go. As an artist, I am able to transform my consciousness through the weaving and letting go of all these narratives to paint a wholesome, more honest picture of self.
There is a beautiful moment during a performance of Build a Bridge in San Francisco a few years back when the audience began to sing your lyrics back to you, can you describe the experience?
That moment was the first of its kind. I had forgotten we were even recording that night! The song had recently finished itself and I was feeling the wholeness of its message. There are so many stories layered in that song, but the overarching theme is connection… In that moment when they began singing with me those words. I felt like I was seeing real results of my work. Like all the traveling and story collecting and life experience was paying off. Like the bridge was right in front of me, singing back to me. It gave me chills and deep sense of calm. I could see and hear and feel that they believed me when I said,’I have come to live in peace, so come let’s live.’ I knew then that it would be a long red road to peace, but I was heading in the right direction.
Your success is undoubtedly growing as you continue to sell-out performances all over the world. What are you doing right?
Being myself! In this industry, being genuine is hard to come by. Good poetry and melody will always bring the hungry and in need. I did not focus on a single group of people, rather on commentary as a whole. Therefore arriving at a place where there was something in it for everyone.
Any words you’d like to share to aspiring artists?
Don’t try so hard. Music should be fun. Art is weird. Don’t lose your weird. Don’t worry too much about what people say about your art, either. It is good to get feedback, but believe in what you’re doing and good things will come. To survive solely on music is not for everyone. However, you will survive on music for your soul’s needs, rather than the needs of your economic person. Keep it light. Be unattached to a need. Your voice will be heard. Your song will be sung back to you. By nature. By strangers. By spirit.
Anything else you’d like to add? What’s to come for Nahko Bear?
I’m working on a solo record at the moment. It’s a collection of songs I wrote from age 18-21. All before I met my birth family. It is a powerful step forward in the collection of music we have offered to the world in that these are the songs that formed Medicine for the People’s catalog. These were the stepping stones that helped me become a better writer. It’s a deep look at a persona, identity, and transformation of an indigenous man. I am very excited to share it with the world this fall!
Screen capture Nahko.com website
Also, we’re doing two big horse/ceremony rides this summer. As a board member of Honor the Earth, I am stoked about the mobilizing we’ve been doing lately. We’ll ride along the Keystone XL pipeline in Minnesota with Winona Laduke for about two weeks. That’s in July.
In September, we will have our second year Run 4 Salmon in Mount Shasta. I’ve been working closely with the Winnemum Wintu tribe and Chief Caleen Sisk in an effort to bring awareness about the plight of our northern rivers, the dams, and our sacred Salmon. We’ve just finished a short documentary about our 300-mile journey last year and will be showing it on our tours this year.