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.”
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.