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Calling Back Spirits: Hip Hop artist Frank Waln on the restorative power of music

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Frank Waln, an award-winning Lakota Hip Hop artist and musician from South Dakota, talks about how music can heal our mind and spirits.

Wichita along with cities across the nation Monday are celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day to honor the cultures and histories of the Native American People. Frank Waln is an award-winning Lakota Hip Hop artist and musician from South Dakota. He performed in Wichita last week as part of the Wichita State celebration. KMUW's Carla Eckels spoke with Waln about his music... 

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

You’ve just come from teaching an indigenous songwriting workshop at Wichita State. How did it go?

WALN: It was incredible. I had, I had a nice crowd and it was a great chance for me to kind of intimately share my creative process, which is rooted in my culture. And for me, it's... I'm, I'm sort of a nerd about, you know, music and music stories and just how songs come to be. So, I love sharing that side of myself with people's, and they always end up asking some great questions, which lead to some great discussion.

You just mentioned about storytelling in your music, and I'm just curious, how do you go about writing your songs? What inspires you?

Life inspires me. My life experiences. I think survival too. You know, I, I write a lot of songs to help myself heal. And then in turn, those songs become tools to help other people heal. So for me, you know, it's life, it's survival, but it's... I know that I was born to play music. I get it from my, maternal grandmother's side. Her siblings all did music, and she said it skipped her for some reason. But I know, you know, I'm also continuing a family tradition of music in that way.

Frank, you said it helps you heal. What do you mean?

I mean, you know, the thing about music, and I'm gonna get a little metaphysical here, is, you know, music, I 100% believe has the ability to heal our minds and to heal our spirits. And in my culture, in Lakota culture, you know, we are not just a body. We are a spirit and a mind and a body, and it's all connected, those three elements. And whenever someone is sick, we believe in our culture, you need to heal their mind first. If you don't heal your mind, you're not gonna get better. If your body won't get better, your spirit won't get better. So for me, what these songs do, what music does is it helps me heal my mind. Whether that be, you know, I learned about a historical fact — something that happened to my ancestors that just really makes me feel pain. Instead of letting that eat me alive, I could write a song about how it makes me feel and tell that story to the world, or, you know, if I have a personal experience that I feel like I'm having a hard time with — I could put it in a song, I put it in music, and it kind of helps my brain process things. And once my mind falls in line, it feels like everything else falls in mind.

I'm just curious, when you write your music, Frank Waln is it indoors or outdoors?

That's a great question. You know, I think, uh, a lot of my ideas start outdoors. My songs start in a lot of different ways from little lyrical ideas to sample ideas to instrument rifts. But I'm inspired a lot by nature. I hear music all the time outside, especially the birds.The way the birds sing inspires the way I play the flute. So a lot of my ideas come from our natural world, but then I'll like capture that on my phone, record it, remember it, and then take it and save it for a time when I have, you know, kind of that time and space I need to really dig deep and, and think about that idea and write a song.

I love what you're saying because that goes right into what I wanna ask you next about your song. “Calling My Spirit Back."

Yes. I wrote this song — it's a solo flute piece — and I wrote it after I had ended up having an epileptic seizure just before the pandemic hit. And I was going through a really intense recovery process. And something that my culture has taught me is that in times of trauma, your spirit can leave your body and, you know, you just kind of feel empty and you feel like you're, you're a bit lost. And I felt that way. And so I knew I needed to call my spirit back in a very meaningful way. And what's special about this song is I really, truly believe it was a gift, because when I got out of the hospital after I had that seizure, I had really bad memory lapses and I couldn't remember much. But it was like, the only thing that was in my mind was this song already fully formed, and I just knew that I needed to play this song to call my spirit back. And when I got home, uh, this was the first thing I did. And this song has almost become like a prayer for me. And this is another way music helps me heal ... a lot of my songs almost become like meditations and prayers and I play them every day. And this is one of those songs for me.

It was an honor be able to share that, not only that song, but the story of where it came from.

Frank Waln at KMUW

You know, and the idea that you had your eyes closed, I was watching you perform, so it really is meaningful to you, something from your heart. Do you find that you're like a conduit, for music like it just kind of flows through you?

Yes, definitely. I believe, artists of any medium are conduits for the universe. We're conduits for our ancestors, we're conduits for ourselves. And I think the more you get in tune with your craft, whatever that may be, whether it's playing music or painting, or even writing, the more you're able to kind of open that channel and kind of what I like to say, get the human out of the way and just let the spirit flow and let the energy flow through you. So I definitely feel that when I perform that song.

Now, one critic has said, "When you listen to his rhymes, won raps and cadences, that boast a percussive power, his voice hits you square in the chest. His lyrics entertain your mind with stories from his life and of his people, he crafts his bars, to be honest, his beats are thick. The result is catchy in a way that his music stays with you long after this song ends." What's your reaction to that?

That makes me very happy to hear because I'm so very intentional about every element and aspect and layer of my music. And since I produce and engineer the music, you know, I feel like every note and then how I put all that together as an engineer is an extension of my heart and spirit. And for me, you know, every song is very heavy and loaded. So it kind of makes me happy to hear that reflected in that statement, that they understand all those layers and it stays with them after, because at the end of the day, I'm just trying to express myself and help people understand themselves better. And I think if people can resonate with your work and it, and it sticks with them, then you know they're able to understand themselves through that music, through those songs, and that's a blessing.

And Frank one of the songs that so many people say resonates with them. In fact, talking about a song that sticks with you is “My Stone.” Tell us about that one.

Frank Waln "My Stone" With Lyrics

Yes, that's a song that I wrote as a birthday present for my mother. I was in college at the time. I was what they call a starving artist. I was a struggling student. I was on scholarship and I was coming from a very poor part of the country. My reservation deals with a lot of poverty. So I didn't have any money at the time to buy my mom a birthday present and I wanted to do something special — extra special — for her that year.

She raised me as a single mother, and wasn't an easy job. She made a lot of sacrifices for me. I'm here because of her. So I just wanted to create something that, you know, was saying "thank you." That's something that my ancestors have always done too — write songs to give thanks, write songs of gratitude. So that was just me expressing my gratitude for my mother and creating a gift for... It's my most popular and I think longest lasting songs. It'll probably outlive me,

You know, it's real transparent. You're very transparent in that song.

Yes, for sure. And I think that was just one of those times... I felt we spoke earlier about being a channel. I felt like it was just right to be honest and just be open and just kind of be a channel in that. I've performed that song all around the world, and whether I'm in front of an all native audience or an all non-native audience, people of all ages and all walks of life come up to me and say they resonate with that song because of a connection they had with a mother figure. So it's a very universal topic as well.

You’ve won so many awards for your music. You don't necessarily call yourself an activist. You say "Lakota," tell us why? 

I wouldn't say I go as far as to reject the term activist, but I've never referred to myself in that way. I think if we really think about that word, you know, what does activists mean? Oftentimes they're talking about people who care about the land, people who care about other people, you care about their community. And I mean, if that makes you an activist and what are we saying about the rest of society? You know? And so for me, the fact that I fall in line with that is just because I'm Lakota. Because coming from a Lakota perspective, you care about the land you live on, you care about the water you drink, you care about your neighbors because you understand that we are dependent on each other for health and balance and survival. So that's where I'm coming from. But I guess a non-native eye looking at that from a Western lens will kind of see that as an activist. But that's why I kind of stray away from that term and just refer to myself as Lakota.

I'm curious to know about what you're teaching people, because I've read recently that there are people who think about Native Americans in the past — when they look at history books and what they read and what they may see. They may only know powwows, for example, but not really know or understand indigenous people. What's your thoughts about that?

Yeah. I've encountered that level of ignorance about native people, our history and our reality. When I left my reservation in South Dakota and moved to Chicago where I went to art school, and the first week I was there, I met a young lady who was attending my school who thought that natives were extinct until she met me. And it was just very eye opening for me to encounter that level of ignorance. And I started, questioning people, like, "Okay, where did you hear these from?" And it was always stories or information given to them by non-native people. A lot of times the narrative about native people in native communities has been told by non-native people. Oftentimes the same people who wanted us dead are participating in our genocide. And so I just realized the need and the importance for me to share my personal story as a native person, the history of my family, my tribe and I write songs about my life. So all of that influences my life, my reality, who I am. So I can help erect songs about, you know, my personal experience. So all of that history, all of that stuff just started coming out in my music. And when I started sharing it with the world, I realized the world needs that information. Not just non-natives, but native people too. It's important we understand our history so we know what we're dealing with and where we want to go.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.