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Willie, Neil Young, and Me: Frank Waln Takes the Stage With Legends on Saturday

Fans of Willie Nelson and Neil Young may not have heard of Frank Waln, but they're about to meet the biggest hip hop phenomenon in Indian country
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Omaha, Neb. — A hip-hop artist might seem out of place in the cornfields of rural Nebraska. Not Frank Waln. The 25-year-old Native musician is on the way home, as he performs at Saturday’s “Harvest the Hope,” a Keystone XL oil pipeline protest concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Waln’s hometown on the Rosebud Reservation is only a few hours from the concert in Neligh. The Sicangu Lakota rapper has spent recent years studying in Chicago while trying to jumpstart his career. Now he has music awards, a bachelor’s degree, and a new album in development. ICTMN catches up with Waln before he performs at Creighton University (Friday at 7 p.m.) and then departs for the cornfield concert/protest venue featuring Willie Nelson and Neil Young (Saturday).

What’s it like to see your name beside Willie Nelson and Neil Young on promo materials and news coverage?

It’s a dream come true. I look up to them musically. So, to be on the bill together, for something that is near and dear to my heart and will help people back home, it’s the best of both worlds for me.

Have you had a chance to interact with Saturday’s headliners?

I met Neil Young in April when we performed at the Keystone XL rallies in Washington D.C. He was marching with us, and I met him before the whole thing started. Later, we ended up doing this huge round dance, and I was round-dancing in the front holding the tribal flag nearby him and his manager.

You’ll be the only rapper on stage at Harvest the Hope. What do you think of country music and folk rock? Do you have any favorite Neil Young and Willie Nelson tunes?

I have songs that I hope both perform. For sure I hope Neil Young performs “Harvest Moon,” also “Southern Man.” For Willie Nelson, I hope he plays “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, or maybe “Crazy.” I was raised on country back on the rez, in a ranching community. I’ve got a soft spot for that old country music.

On many reservations country music dominates local radio. How did you first get into hip hop?

I come from a small community on Rosebud called “He Dog.” One evening when I was in 6th grade, I was walking on the gravel road with my mom, and something glistened in the sun, catching the corner of my eye. I walked over and found a copy of Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP. It was really scratched up. I picked it up, took it home, found a CD player, and it blew my mind. Ever since then I’ve been in love with hip hop.

What are you doing in Omaha before the “Harvest the Hope” concert begins Saturday in Neligh?

On Thursday (Sept. 25), I spoke to all the Native students of the Omaha Public Schools. It was a special event organized for them. I shared my life story. Today (Friday, Sept. 26), I’m performing a concert at Creighton University at 7 p.m

How many environmental protest concerts have you joined this year?

Aside from the Keystone XL event in D.C., I performed at Earth Day at Marquette University, and with Winona LaDuke’s “Love Water Not Oil” tour along the proposed Enbridge Pipeline route. We rode horses, and spoke to rez community center floors, and did everything we could to get the message out to people.

How does environmental consciousness relate to your Native identity?

For me as a Lakota person, it’s part of everything we do. Identity isn’t measured by your blood quantum. It’s measured by how much you know about your culture. Almost every indigenous culture is rooted in connections to the land, to your environment, to your homeland, and protecting those things. At the recent UN protests in New York City, there were indigenous folks from all the way up in Canada down to South America. Part of almost every indigenous culture is a relationship to the land.

Your song “Oil 4 Blood” refers directly to the Keystone XL controversy, with the lyrics: “Lakota philosophy / keep them haters off of me / Keystone XL, you smell like an atrocity.” Why did you write that song?

I made that song four years ago now. That was before anyone outside our rez was talking about this issue. And that was even before I had the audience or the platform that I have now. So the moment when I made that song, I knew that I didn’t have a large non-Native following. That song was geared toward my peers in my age group as a wake-up call. The overall song is an anti-Keystone XL song.

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How is the ongoing Keystone XL debate informing or inspiring your music today?

I’m working on an album about my life, and the pipeline proposal is intertwined in my story. I’ve dedicated some of my life to this issue, making sure it doesn’t happen. The topic will keep resurfacing in my songs until we win. The new album doesn’t have a name yet, but is scheduled tentatively for release in late fall.

From the United Nations Climate Summit protests in New York City to a cornfield in Nebraska, you’re having a busy week. Could you describe it?

We were 400,000 strong at the march and indigenous people were leading. We had a really strong voice throughout the whole event, which was incredible. We’ve been at the forefront of these issues, and we’ve been dealing with the consequences that others are just now becoming aware of. 

Aside from marching, I did three performances. Each was incredible. Then I went to a studio at 5 a.m., woke up, flew to Chicago, did my laundry, flew out to Omaha early the next day to do this gig at Creighton, where I used to go school actually. 

When I first left the rez, I completed my freshman and sophomore year at Creighton studying pre-med. Now that I come to think of it, it’s like I’ve come full circle. I’m coming back to where I started in Nebraska.

What were your three performances in NYC?

Three different shows in very different settings.

One show was off in way, way east Brooklyn, at a place called Rockaway Beach. A group, Rockaway Wildfire, had been camping on the beach where there was a pipeline proposed, in the same area where Hurricane Sandy came through. By the time we got there, the cops had shutdown the event. So we ended up driving all over Brooklyn and were about to go home before we found the Bushwick Starr. It was just a huge crazy house party with everybody from the beach who was protesting the pipeline. That was an incredible show, and we ended up playing there till about 2 a.m. 

The next day, we did a show at the climate march where a bunch of college-aged people gathered. That was another incredible show.

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Then on Sunday (Sept. 21), I performed after the climate march at the area where the rally actually finished. There was a hip-hop stage, and people packed the street like a block party.

What was the recording session?

I had met Nataanii Means, the son of Russell Means. Nataanii is a young hip-hop artist, too. I also met singer Inez Jasper (Ojibway and Métis from Canada. We clicked right away. We all three had a lot in common. So, we got in the studio and made a song. We are still considering what to do with it.