NEW YORK - Martha Redbone has come a long way since returning home six
Working without a professional manager, booking agent or big-label
contract, the Brooklyn-based Native rhythm and blues singer has steadily
won friends and major awards.
She is now issuing a second CD, "Skintalk," to join her spectacular first
effort "Home of the Brave," and is preparing for repeat performances at
prestigious national music festivals.
Of course, it helps that she is bursting with talent. Her powerful voice
soars from a sensuously husky base, gathering intensity and purity as it
pierces the higher registers. With collaborator Aaron Whitby, she has
written, arranged and produced all of the songs on both her albums, issued
under her own label, Blackfeet Productions.
"We give thanks to the Creator for all of the gifts that have been given to
us," she said in a recent interview with Indian Country Today.
Her gifts come from several continents. As an African-American with Native
heritage, she draws on a rich and historic, but often overlooked, mix of
traditions. Her mother's family claims Blackfeet, Shawnee and Choctaw
descent and her father has ties to the Lumbee region of North Carolina. She
took her stage name Redbone from Southern slang for people of black and
Indian ancestry. From five years as an expatriate in London, England, she
brings a cosmopolitan viewpoint to American attitudes toward race, and
particularly the complicated relations between black and red.
The strength and energy that comes from the mixture permeates her music.
She interjects Native vocals into an R&B beat, much like the Neville
Brothers of New Orleans who also have tribal roots. A cut on her latest
album begins with an Ojibwa song performed by American Indian Movement
veteran Dennis Banks. (Another cut features a rap by occasional ICT
contributor Gyasi Ross.)
"This is soul music," she said of the Native sound. "It's music from the
Furthermore, Indian country has embraced her work, asking for repeat
performances at some of its biggest venues. She will perform in a tribute
for the Clyde Bellecourt Scholarship Fund May 6 at the Minneapolis (Minn.)
Convention Center, at the request of Bellecourt, another founder of AIM.
She will also fly in for a concert at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in
Albuquerque, N.M. April 27, but she'll have to make a quick turn-around for
a mid-day show the next day at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz Festival.
She will appear at Milwaukee, Wis. Indian Summer Festival in September,
where she won its music award in the pop category last year.
She takes special pride in reports that her songs are much requested on
reservation radio stations. It stands in sharp contrast to a moment of
uncertainty three years ago when a boycott of the Native American Music
Awards was considered because of its inclusive policy toward performers.
Redbone offered to withdraw her name from consideration but was talked out
of retreating. She went on to win four NAMMYs.
In an earlier talk with ICT, she reflected on African-American and Indian
organizations' opposing attitudes toward their constituencies. Indians, she
complained, often seem bent on excluding anyone who lacked the clearest
credentials. The black movement, on the other hand, welcomed anyone with a
fraction of a connection: "They say, 'Come on in;'" she said.
She is now finding that speaking to both constituencies is an advantage.
She was recently named one of five Native spokesmen for the National
HIV/AIDS Awareness campaign along with Rita Coolidge, Adam Beach, Wes Studi
and Wilma Mankiller. She appears in the inaugural ads, aimed at a Native
audience but reaching to African-Americans as well.
"I think my parents knew what they were doing," she said.