Storytelling for the spirit

By and Bob Ferguson
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Photo: Bolora Munkhbold

A conversation with singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza on the role activism can play in music

Artist and activist Raye Zaragoza released her third album, Hold That Spirit, this summer and embarked on her first headline tour. She’s about to take on the role of Tiger Lily in the national tour of Peter Pan with a revised book by Indigenous playwright Larissa FastHorse. We caught up with her on a break between shows to discuss how music plays a role in activism.

Oxfam: Your new album has themes of womanhood and feminism, and freedom. ...Did you set out to write an album around those themes, or did it happen organically?

Raye: I was getting out of an engagement and I thought my life was going in one direction. …These are like my healing songs. This album, Hold the Spirit, is really about holding on the spirit within when you’re having a difficult year. My year was really tumultuous, it was beautiful, it was difficult.  It was a huge year of growth and Hold That Spirit for me was about growth.

Oxfam: Your songs address issues like domestic violence, Indigenous rights, reproductive rights, all of which are heavy concepts. How do balance the weight of creating music like this against just wanting to create a bop?

Raye: A lot of my fans found me through Fight for You, my debut album, and many of the songs are about Standing Rock [the movement to defend Standing Rock Sioux territory from the Dakota Access Pipeline]. …I refuse to write something unless it’s coming from an authentic place. I’m not setting out to write anything specifically, I write how I feel that day and sometimes those are songs that have a social justice nature. When I write those songs it’s not even something I’m aware of, it’s just where my storytelling takes me and sometimes that is political.

Oxfam: You’ve been very supportive of our gender work. How much does activism inform your music?

Raye: Sometimes claiming the word activist is hard for me because there are so many community organizers and people on the front lines and I just want to provide them music. Social change through music resonates with me but I don’t know if I can claim that, I just want to be of service to them through music. ...My form of activism is through storytelling. If I can tell stories that humanize these causes, through music, then maybe I can change minds, maybe I can grow minds, or maybe I can just provide comfort to people who feel similarly and give them a song to wrap themselves up in like a blanket.

When I first started getting into activism and showing up at rallies around Standing Rock, I realized that it’s easier for me to articulate the change I want to see in the world through song. On my last record, I have the song “They Say,” which is about socio-economic and racial inequalities and how not everyone has access to the same resources. ...During the pandemic, a lot of Indigenous people on reservations didn’t have testing or PPE. There were all these things that people in cities could go out and grab, but that you couldn’t get on reservations. The song was actually written before the pandemic, but it ended up being so much about the pandemic and this disparity. That song actually started off as a poem.

Oxfam: At Oxfam, we know music is a powerful tool for creating community. Can you give an example of someone who inspired your activism?

Raye: Connie Lim, the artist Milck, her song “Quiet.” That song, you just listen to it and it makes you want to cry and scream and speak up. I heard that song and I became an instant fan of hers. I’ve had the privilege and honor of getting to record some songs with her for this record.

Oxfam: It was recently announced that you’ve been cast to play Tiger Lily in a national production of Peter Pan—what does that mean to you as an Indigenous woman to take on this newly imagined role?

Raye: When we get to rewrite these stories that are both nostalgic but also problematic, it’s really beautiful because it heals you and also scratches that bit of nostalgia. We all know Peter Pan and Tiger Lily. There are parts that are good, so how can we take that core of good and turn it into something that is empowering and where we can show Indigenous girls there’s a version of this girl to look up to. I’m excited to work on this so that little girls can have something empowered and changed to look up to.

Oxfam: What issues are speaking to you right now?

Raye: I’m really passionate about the work [non-profit] Calling All Crows is doing with Here for the Music, changing the music industry to be a safer place. When I think about whether I’ve had bad experiences in this industry as a woman… It’s almost like this defense mechanism kicks in to say everything is good, everything is fine. But in my twenties, I definitely had scary experiences. I’m glad we’re cleaning up our act. That’s top of mind as I’m touring. I’m always passionate about sharing Indigenous stories and of youth of color.

Oxfam: On your new album, particularly the song “Joy Revolution” feels very forward looking.  How are you feeling about the future?

Raye: Sometimes I see this as chapter one and I think about where am I going next? I have all these things I want that feel dissonant with being a touring musician though they’re not really. I’m going to be doing this show for a year and then my end goal is to focus mostly on writing. The future, I’m still figuring it out. I just want to keep healing, keep calming my nervous system, and keep creating music that does the same for others.

Check out "Five Songs That Inspire Me" curated by Raye, and two of her songs that inspire us

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