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'We Will Always Sing': Black Belt Eagle Scout Makes Space For The Marginalized

Sep 9, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 3:44 pm

To understand the music of Black Belt Eagle Scout, it helps to know a little bit about the place frontwoman Katherine Paul grew up. The artist was raised on Swinomish Indian Reservation in Washington. With there only being about 1,000 people in the Swinomish tribe — and not all of them living on the reservation — Paul's community was extremely tight knit.

Paul, who now lives in Portland, Ore., still channels her community through her music. Paul says that a lot of the music on her latest album, At the Party With My Brown Friends, finds its origins in the music she heard on the reservation.

I guess I was just always surrounded by [music]," Paul says. "My family had a drum group... We would host pow wows and I think for me music is just a way of life. It's how we express ourselves it's how we express our spirituality and how we live our culture."

Paul says some songs on the album — "one of the songs that comes to mind is 'Going to the Beach With Haley'" — have melodies that remind her of pow wows. Others, like the album's opening track, "At the Party," are about 'trying to find the strength within yourself to be able to support somebody else."

"When I think about the struggles that black, indigenous people of color face, that line of 'We will always sing / We will always sing,' that just kind of shows no matter what, we're always going to be standing back up."

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Paul has always focused on giving space to the narratives of indigenous people has said that she before that she gets uncomfortable when she sees mostly white men at her shows.

"I think the thing that makes me uncomfortable is that the reason why I'm playing music is not for them," Paul says. "It's for people of color, for indigenous people, for queer people and white men are so fragile when I say I say stuff like that. It's because of white privilege and they don't often get told that."

Paul says that if she were to make up her own show rules, she wouldn't exclude white men from attending, but would save most of the space for people of color.

"I think from my experiences and from talking with friends of color, it is a lot easier to live one's life when you have people like you surrounding you," Paul says. "In dreams of a lot of native people, see a world where we haven't been murdered where we are able to speak our language and where we can we can live free."

Paul spoke with NPR's Ailsa Chang about subverting white privilege, her relationship with her mother and more. Listen to the conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To understand the music of Black Belt Eagle Scout, it helps to know a little bit about the place frontwoman Katherine Paul grew up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART DREAMS")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) My heart dreams.

CHANG: The Swinomish Indian Reservation in Washington State is a small community. There are only about a thousand members in the Swinomish tribe, and not all of them live on the reservation, which made the community there really tight-knit.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: Oh, yeah. Everyone - everybody is family, and the tribe itself is very into, like, community dinners and community events and just kind of making sure that everybody is involved with stuff, so it was like one big, huge family.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART DREAMS")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) And I wake up. I love you, screaming loudly, screaming softly, too.

CHANG: Katherine Paul now lives in Portland, Ore., and she just released her second album as Black Belt Eagle Scout. It's called "At The Party With My Brown Friends," and she told me that a lot of the music on the album has its origins in the music she heard on the reservation.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: I guess I was just always surrounded by it. My family had a drum group called The Skagit Valley Singers, and we would host powwows. And I think for me, music is just a way of life. It's how we express ourselves. It's how we express our spirituality and how we live our culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HEART DREAMS")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) Wasting this life, I only want me and you.

CHANG: I read that you think some of the melodies that you sing now remind you of powwow songs. Is there a song on this new album that sounds that way to you?

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: So one of the songs that comes to mind is "Going To The Beach With Haley."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING TO THE BEACH WITH HALEY")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) I feel what I'm like with you.

I'll sing some lyrics, and then it'll have this part that's just kind of doing this melody with vocals, which is this part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT THE BEACH WITH HALEY")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Vocalizing).

I think whenever I'm humming or doing sort of (vocalizing) type stuff, that feels more natural in the sense of the music that I grew up with.

CHANG: I want to listen to a bit of the first track on this album, "At The Party."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT THE PARTY")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) How is it real when you don't even notice it?

CHANG: What is this song about?

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: Trying to find the strength within yourself to be able to support somebody else. And so with that line of, we will always sing...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT THE PARTY")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) We will always sing.

I was singing that one time, and that line came out. I was like, we will always sing. We will always sing. And it's because when I think about the struggles that black Indigenous people of color face, that line of, we will always sing - that just kind of shows, no matter what, we're always going to be standing back up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT THE PARTY")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) Even when you look at me, your heart so full, I'll think of you from a nice place.

CHANG: I know that you've been pretty vocal about being uncomfortable with white men at your shows.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: Oh, yeah.

CHANG: And you got some pushback for that. I just want to understand. What does make you uncomfortable about seeing a bunch of white guys at your performances?

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: I think the thing that makes me uncomfortable is that the reason why I'm playing music is not for them, and it's for people of color, for Indigenous people, for queer people. And white men are so fragile. They get really angry when I say stuff like that, and it's because of white privilege. And they don't often get told that, so that's why there's pushback.

CHANG: So if you had it your way, would you not want white men to be at your performances, to listen to your music?

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: No. I think that I would want them to be able to listen to my music and to be supportive, but I would want them to acknowledge that the space is primarily for people of color.

CHANG: So again, like, if you were to make up the rules for all your performances, you would save most of the space for people of color.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: Is that surprising?

CHANG: Well, I guess, you know, I wonder, what's the harm in having white audiences?

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: This is a hard one to answer. I'm going to try and think of a good answer...

CHANG: OK.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: ...Because I have thoughts.

CHANG: Sure. Yeah. Take a moment.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: I think, from my experiences and from talking with friends of color, it is a lot easier to live one's life when you have people like you surrounding you and to be able to feel free in yourself because of a lot of historical and systematic oppression and trauma that has plagued communities of color. And in dreams of a lot of native people, we see a world where we haven't been murdered, where we are able to speak our language and where we can live free.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT SONG, "YOU'RE ME AND I'M YOU")

CHANG: So we have talked a lot about your identity and how that's affected where you've landed, but I want to turn to something a little different now. I want to turn to love. The last song is the love between you and your mom, the connection that you share.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: Yeah.

CHANG: Tell me about your connection with your mom.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: My mom is a really strong person. The song that is the last track on the album - I was trying to portray feelings about, like, the support that I received from her in particular when I came out as queer. And I think the song was, like, here's an example of how a mother can love their child.

CHANG: Yeah.

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: And if you are needing that in your life to look towards, like, hopefully this can help you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE ME AND I'M YOU")

BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT: (Singing) I am the one, the one she loves no matter what my heart becomes.

CHANG: Katherine Paul is the indie artist Black Belt Eagle Scout. Her new album is called "At The Party With My Brown Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT SONG, "YOU'RE ME AND I'M YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.