By Annie Cebulski
A young Native American rap artist stood center stage on February 10 amid white pillars in a white room trimmed with European crown molding to deliver a message: “This country’s story is written with the blood of my people.”
Frank Waln, a Chicago-based rapper and hip-hop artist from South Dakota, delivered songs and talked about his personal struggle with his Lakota identity to nearly 100 people in Harris Hall at Northwestern University. According to Waln, his goal is to educate people about the current state of Native Americans and inspire them through his songs with searing lines like, “I can’t stand the pressure that I feel explaining our history to these damn professors.” The performance drew a diverse crowd full of students, Evanston residents, and Native Americans from around the Chicago area.
Before the performance, the room buzzed with conversation. But as the lights went down and the 26-year-old took the stage, the room fell silent in anticipation. Back to Chicago after a long tour on the road, Waln began what he said would be “one of the most intimate performances he ever did.
Waln rapped live over pre-recorded beats that mixed elements of Native American culture with traditional hip-hop in songs like “The Wild Wild West” and “2 Live and Die on the Plains.” When his old college roommate Samsoche Sampson wasn’t playing live flute, Waln stood alone on stage, clutching the microphone and rocking with the beat.
“It’s one of the few times in my life I feel like I’m in control,” Waln said. “The United States government shaped my reality, but onstage I feel alive and open.”
Northwestern junior Alexander Kirschner came to the performance because he heard it had an environmental aspect, and he appreciated the perspective Waln gave on the Keystone Pipeline as someone whose hometown would be directly affected by the pipeline. But what affected him most was Waln’s honesty about the struggles he faced. Kirschner said that hip hop was a great choice of medium for a message so personal and important.
“The genre itself is rooted in social justice,” Kirschner said. “His beats were very much in line with his emotions and the story he was trying to tell.”
Waln’s performance was not a just a show but an extension of his life, and the moments he spoke with the audience were raw and real.
“I’ve been in trauma since the womb,” Waln said. “We aren’t savage–what was done to us was.”
Logan Square resident James Monegain, 20, felt a connection with the songs because of his own experience living as a Seminole in a culture in which some consider Native Americans extinct. He had never seen Waln before, but he had heard about the performance from Chi Nations, a group for Native Americans in Chicago, and decided to check it out.
“I felt the pain he went through,” Monegain said. “I have felt this way as well.”
After the show, Waln said that although performing gives him clarity, writing puts him in a dark place by bringing up his darkest emotions. But he said his “songs are his sword and shield,” and he has to create.
“I wish I didn’t have to make music like this,” Waln said. “But I’m gonna make music about my life. The day will come when I can make some happy songs, but I’m not there yet.”
In the meantime, Waln said he will use his songs, as painful as they are, to accomplish his mission in life: to bring education and healing wherever he performs.