PEOPLE: Martha Redbone charts her own distinctive course, marches to her own beat
New York—Recording artist Martha Redbone’s Native American-infused soul is all her own.
Redbone is an independent artist who is as likely to include a powwow drum as she is jazz riffs in her highly danceable music. Her second album, “Skintalk,” is a sophisticated blend that is powered not by electronics but by a funk-rock band of veteran musicians. Released in 2005, she has toured behind it for five years—pausing only to have a son in 2008—bringing her songs to the indie-music scene in New York City and to festivals on reservations and across the U.S.
“Because we released it independently, it gave people more chance to discover it,” she said. “It is like a new album in each new community that we visited.”
In 2011, a new album, continuing in the danceable soul style of “Skintalk” and recorded with all live instruments, is planned for release.
“Martha has two sides to her, on her father’s side a lot of R&B and soul,” said her husband Aaron Whitby. “We are trying to put that together with some relevant messages and ethical messages, and with her mother’s heritage.”
Redbone, who grew up in Brooklyn and calls herself a mixed blood, Cherokee, Shawnee and Choctaw on her mother’s side, and African American on her father’s. She was in art school, drawing cartoons for George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars’ Mothership Reconnection project, when she was coaxed in front of a microphone and, as she says, “fell into singing.” She went on to sing background vocals on Clinton’s 1996 album, “T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership).”
Her British-born husband has been her friend and her producing and song-writing partner since they were in their early 20s. That was when the music industry first took notice of their talent.
As a young artist rooted in Otis Redding, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the stomp dance songs of her mother’s tribes, Redbone already had this vision for blending musical traditions. Whitby, a jazz pianist who toured Europe in jazz bands, brought the third ingredient into their musical gumbo. The sheer talent she and Whitby displayed on a demo drew the attention of the recording industry.
“I’ll tell you what happened, we had a really powerful manager at the time,” she said. “He didn’t like the fact that I wanted to include my culture into my music. He didn’t understand. ‘You sing soul music, you sing R&B,’ he said. ‘No one cares about that kind of thing.’”
Whitby says he was probably the biggest manager in America then, but things ground to a halt.
“When he said, ‘Drop the Indian (influences)’ we decided to go on our own. We said, ‘We’ve already written our record and we write for other people too,’” Whitby said. “We have the right talent, but I don’t think we were the right personalities for that world.”
As songwriters and studio musicians they joined Warner/Chappell Music, writing songs including chart topper “Don’t Push” in both Canada and France sung by Jazmin and “Love is the Deepest Hurt” recorded by British Grammy winner Shola Ama. They turned down a year-and-a-half long tour with the band Simply Red, choosing to continue on as artists and writer/producers.
In 2000, Redbone released the solo album, “Home of the Brave” on Blackfeet Productions, a record label which she and Whitby co-founded. The album won her the Best Debut Artist award at the Native American Music Awards and Indian Summer Music Award for Best Pop Album. Backed by a tight funk and pop band of veteran New York musicians, Redbone’s powerful Native-infused soul delivery and social commentary won her accolades in the indie music world. The Village Voice called her an “heiress to such luminaries as Sly, Philippe Wynne and Roberta Flack.” Billboard’s Larry Flick wrote that, “She sounds the kind of artist who sets trends, a true original.”
“It’s really important that there are people like me representing and telling our stories to the world,” Redbone said, “regardless of MTV. Not that I would turn my nose up to a No. 1 or Top 10 song, but not at any cost. I am not prepared to put a headdress on and dance.”
“Sharing the Dream: A Multicultural Celebration of Love & Justice” will be held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on Jan. 15 and 16. It is a celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The festival is an event of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Latino Center and National Museum of the American Indian. Martha Redbone is one of the many artists invited because of their expressions of love and justice through their music, spoken-word and storytelling performances.
Redbone’s heritage guides her life.
When after a performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival she met Brenda Dardar–Robichaux, then the principle chief of the United Houma Nation, and heard about the tribe’s efforts to share culture with their youth. Redbone offered to help, and for the last four summers she has traveled to this bayou nation where she shares songs that are culturally relevant to Houma’s six to 12-year-olds. Some songs are Choctaw, some in Houma French, and others are just beautiful when sung with a hand drum, Robichaux said.
“She is so gifted and talented, and she uses her gift not for self promotion, but to give to others,” Robichaux said. “It is evident in her coming to Louisiana and teaching our kids, she is not about promoting Martha Redbone. When she comes to camp she is out there, whether it’s serving food or cleaning up. It is not uncommon for me to receive phone calls from her. She is constantly brainstorming how she can help not only the Houma but youth across Indian Country.”
Redbone remembers where her name came from; it was a derogatory word from her youth for someone of mixed black and Native ancestry. As an adult, she embraced being mixed race, interpreting her father’s love of soul music and her mother’s Native heritage into who she is.
The “Skintalk” album’s “Children of Love” starts with a powwow drum led by Dennis Banks, Ojibwe, and a rap by Gyasi Ross, Blackfeet, that dissolves into a mid-tempo groove, but runs underneath and rises to the surface between verses. The purpose, she said, was to draw people into Native culture and music. The effect was provocative, even political. The song became a soul hit in Europe and England, where, she said, “they don’t even know that Indian people are still here.” Most people liked the powwow drum, but some didn’t. Still Whitby and Redbone stand by their vision of blending musical traditions.
Redbone’s hybridization of soul, R&B and Native music is in the tradition of contemporary artists like Keith Secola and Bill Miller, and it is a vision shared by Whitby. He likes to quote legendary producer Quincy Jones, who said there are only 12 notes in a scale, or only so far that each style of music can go before it runs out of fresh material. “The only way forward,” Whitby said, “is to make new hybridizations.”
“I think the Native American perspective is different,” Whitby said, “more interesting. As another way of putting it, it is real folk music, made for the people by the people without the help of corporations. It is really from the community, and that gives it some real legs.”
Still in Redbone’s hands it is also pop music in the best sense of that expression. Redbone credits the work ethic that has kept her and Whitby creating for 17 years, and making choices that were anti-intuitive. It’s work that she plans to expand with more albums, with more styles of music, more types of writing.
“You can turn on the television and see people who want to be famous for nothing,” she said. “People do something ridiculous and then they are on Oprah and writing a book about it. I look at it that this way, how is this going to look 20 years from now. I live my life that way.”
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service