Lyla June is Taos, New Mexico-based singer/songwriter who lives her life according to "the path of service." Besides being a musician, she's also a poet, anthropologist, educator, community organizer and public speaker. She is of Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) Native American lineages. CultureCatch sat with her recently. Here's that interview:
David Ashdown: What role did music play in your upbringing in the Diné tradition?
Lyla June: In the Diné language (Diné Bizaad) Hataałii means both "singer" and "doctor." Also, in our language Sodizin means both "song" and "prayer." So in my upbringing, music was all about deep intention to make the world a better place. Music was seen as a healer and singers were viewed as doctors. I was born into a world of struggle, as Native Americans continue to live in post-war conditions after the Native American holocaust. There's a lot of work to do to improve our communities. I was raised by strong people to live my life deliberately and to view every one of my creations as an opportunity to heal my people, all people.
DA: Were you discouraged at all from getting into American pop music and its culture as kid?
LJ: I was never discouraged from this. In fact, society encouraged me to listen to this because it was "cool" and it was the only thing on local radio stations. I drank the Kool-aid for a lot of years and went along with the programming of American children. There was a time though, around age 10, when I actually stopped drinking soda and I stopped listening to mainstream music. I started to see that mainstream music often times was part of the problem of keeping the public ignorant and distracted.
DA: What artists / songs got through to you early on and how did their music, vibe and lyrics influence you and your outlook on your place in the world?
LJ: The Beatles were a heavy influence growing up. My father was born in 1954 so he brought a lot of his music from the '60s and '70s into my life. When I picked up the guitar, the first songs I started to learn were Beatles songs and I think that continues to influence my song structures today. Other influences from all different genres included System of a Down, Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain (I know... funny right?), Blackalicious, Rage Against the Machine, India.Arie, The Glitch Mob, Led Zeppelin, Ulali and others. These artists showed me that music is a powerful launchpad for bringing joy, inspiration, hope, education and unification to the oppressed. None of these artists were Native American because it seemed at the time there weren't a lot of Native American role models in the music world for me. There was Buffy Saint Marie but I never really got into her music. Myself and a number of others are trying very hard to generate a new genre of indigenous music that inspires the youth.
DA: You have a track record for winning poetry jams at a statewide, and nationwide level, when did music become an extension of your drive to share your message?
LJ: I was always a writer. I remember reading poetry in public places as early as 4th grade. I remember winning writing competitions that early as well, for whatever that's worth. When I stumbled upon spoken word at age 14, I was an instant fanatic. I travelled all of the world in my teens performing spoken word. I also started picking up the guitar in earnest at that point. So my poetry and my music development started around the same age, but I was slower to become a decent musician, whereas writing and speaking came more naturally. I didn't feel confident in my music enough until very recently, perhaps five years ago, to really include it in my public performances. But since then, it has come to be appreciated as much as my poetry is.
DA: What was your musical life like while at Stanford?
LJ: I think that a lot of the drug addiction and sexual abuse I was experiencing in high school and at Stanford muted my musical confidence. I didn't feel worthy as a woman to do much of anything because I felt like a bad person. I didn't realize that just because bad things were happening to me, didn't mean I myself was bad. But because of that, I was very creatively stunted for a long time. It wasn't until my junior year of Stanford that I started to heal from the rape, get sober and pick up my guitar again. At that point the songs started flowing through me all the time. I didn't feel comfortable releasing them at that point, but now I do!
DA: How does the song writing process work for you and what does it take for you to feel a song is finished and ready to be performed or recorded?
LJ: Everything is in prayer. Like my ancestors, I treat life like a ceremony. So first thing I do, unless I'm being rushed and careless, is I pray. Maybe go outside and offer some corn pollen to the earth and ask her to give me some good words. One of my mentors has a prayer that he says every morning: "May you help me help at least one person today." That is a very beautiful prayer to me. So I pray that with each song it can help at least one person. I don't have a real unreachable standard for when a song is finished. I try to be laid back and allow a song to go out even if it's not perfect. I used to do that and I would never publish anything because it wasn't flawless. Now I kind of rest in my imperfection and do my best and be happy with that. I'm often pleasantly surprised with what "my best" ends up being.
DA: In a way what you're doing harkens back to the late 60's folk rock peace movement... do you feel any affinity with those artists and their music today?
LJ: I feel very connected to this movement, even though there aren't a lot of highly visible Native American's in that movement. I feel like even though it was mainly a White movement, it still had some very good messages and was trying hard to generate a new way of seeing things. I pray to further that movement by grounding it in Indigenous rights. I feel that before this country can have peace it must contend with its "original sin": the fact that this country is founded on the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. Until we give lands back to what little Native people are left, and until we make serious efforts to uplift these communities on their terms, then we will always be a farce of justice.
DA: What do you do to get in the right head space before playing (or speaking) to an audience? Do you have a day-of-show ritual?
LJ: Again, prayer is the first thing I do. One of our old songs says, "Great Mystery, first I pray to you. Because of this, I will live well with my people." This song reminds me that prayer is the first step to any process. I used to say a little mantra I'd say to myself before stepping in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. I would say, "I am always confident, calm, humble and strong before I speak to the people because I know I carry a message of truth, love, healing and peace." I would say that all the time. But now I think it's woven into my being so it is understood without being spoken.
DA: How was your experience last year at the Newport Folk Festival?
LJ: I loved being in Newport and not just for the seafood! I remember my set was sandwiched between a lot of amazing musicians on one of the side stages. I was the only woman in that section, the only person of color and definitely the only person who identified as Native American. So in many ways I was an anomaly. A lot of people in the audience were not expecting to hear an Indigenous activist/musician. They were overwhelmingly grateful for the set I brought and bought a lot of albums, the proceeds of which I donated to Lakota youth projects. These audiences often don't know what to make of me, but they are always pretty moved by it and describe my set as a cathartic process.
DA: You are asked to perform a song on The Grammys to further 'First Nation's' causes / pride. You are to be allowed a brief introductory sentence or two and then to play a cover song of your choosing --- what do you say to and play for America?
LJ: First of all, I should say, I try to refer to this land as "Turtle Island" and not as "America." Because that is the original name given to this continent by its original peoples. But, I hope this day comes, not for the sake of my fame but to bring my people's message to those who might not hear it otherwise. If I were in that position, I would say, "My people are busy working to revive languages and land stewardship techniques that were brutally destroyed by the processes of Manifest Destiny. We can no longer destroy what we do not understand. The systems of my people are not savage, but incredibly sophisticated and have the ability to bring solutions now, to a world in crisis." And then I would sing an old song of my people, a song of overcoming called, "Shi Nishaa." This song is the song that the elders sang when they saw their southern sacred mountain for the first time in four years. They didn't see it for so long because they were being held in a concentration camp by the US military from 1864-1868. It is a song of joy and resilience. Not even the US military can stamp out this medicine. We are here to bring it to everyone, even those who tried to wipe us from the face of the earth. This is the unconditional love that my elders told me was the deepest medicine.