He was named for his ancestor, Chief Conquering Bear, a powerful Lakota spiritual leader
and diplomat. Mato Wayuhi is hoping his music -- and his message -- will do him justice.
1. In “Gravel,” there’s a lyric: “I’m still not a human being/ still shit that you’re not
seeing.” Can we start there?
That song is about me weighing my role in my Native community. I tap into my grandpa’s story about returning from the Korean War with a Purple Heart. He comes home, gets off of the bus and goes to a bar on the reservation where there’s a sign that says, “No dogs. No Indians.” He took off his medal, threw it at the door, and walked away. And from that point onward, it was a fight for survival.
That kind of experience is still very real in a lot of marginalized communities, because in a lot of them, survival mode is an everyday thing, whether it be battling microaggressions or systemic racism. “Gravel” was my way of speaking to that. It’s both very specific and universal. It’s like the chorus says, “We’ve been walking for a long time.” Everyone has felt like they’ve had to trudge through some bullshit.
2. What do you wish people could see about being Native?
That we’re here. That we’re still alive. That’s we’re fully human. Too often, I think that we’re
put in this historical box, which is why these different mascots and these different modes of
representation are permissible, because they’re not seen as affecting anybody.
But they are. Because Natives have every emotion of every other human community.
Growing up, I always felt really, really stupid in class. I could never pay attention; I was always
fidgeting. I have this line in one song – “You call me a slow learner/No, the boy was just a slow burner.” When I wrote that, I was thinking of my own experience with a teacher who used to ridicule me, but also the experiences of the Native children who were forced into boarding schools in the past.
But that feeling of being out of place -- it’s personal and it’s not. Because Native or not,
everyone’s been in class where they’ve had that feeling of being at a loss. It’s deeper than just not knowing the material. It’s about questioning your own abilities and your own strengths, and you just feel silenced.
I think what I can do in my lifetime and through the generations I pass down is show that there’s a oneness. Native kids in Pineridge, South Dakota go through the same things that kids in Detroit go through.
3. What kinds of things did you go through in South Dakota?
I’m part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe so I grew up with a very traditional cultural
background. I got to go to a lot of different ceremonies, and that really shaped my spirit and my character and how I see the world. It was a very good way to grow up.
The most powerful part was the spirituality of the culture. There is no greater force that I have felt, in my life, than being a part of these different ceremonies that we hold. And that force – it’s just a beautiful thing, and it can only really manifest through community and through celebration or through trials and tribulations.
And then there’s the teasing and the laughter. There’s a very niche type of humor in Native
communities that is so goddamn funny. Really dry. And the teasing is incessant. It’s not
malicious in any capacity – it’s just the face-value humor in things. We love to bash each other. Like you’ll do something that’s really stereotypically Native and we’ll all say, “Not that native.” It’s a constant kinetic energy of like, “Oh, who’s going to say something?”
4. Did LA blow your mind?
I’m a media baby. I was social, but I was always watching and listening to things. I grew up on a lot of LA and West Coast culture. The music, style, skating, food – I felt like I did my studying. I felt like I was prepared.
That said, I definitely had a culture shock, 100%. I remember getting off the plane and seeing
palm trees and bugging out.
5. Do you like it?
There’s too much greatness in this city to ever really bash it, and it’s taught me so much. I have such a gratitude for it. The things you’ll see here are really unprecedented, and the diversity has always been something I’ve been attracted to. Growing up, unfortunately, there wasn’t a ton of diversity. Well, there was some diversity, but it wasn’t as celebrated as it is in LA.
I don’t like to be in places where I don’t have a purpose. And so, performing always gave me this sort of purpose.
6. When did you realize you wanted to make music?
I actually started off wanting to make movies. There was this film called Lords of Dogtown that came out in 2005 and was directed by Catherine Hardwicke. It’s a skateboard film. That was really the catalyst for me – that’s what turned me on creatively, literally flipped a switch. There were so many different parameters to it, but a lot of it was representation. I was seeing people on screen that looked like me -- I had long hair my whole life, and growing up as a chubby boy with long hair … you really got to get durable quick, and so to see a version of myself on screen was really special. The music, the direction, the acting, everything – that was really the genesis for me of like, “Ok, this is what I need to do with my life.” I was 8 or 9 years old.
But I like to move around a lot, and so the film set isn’t always the best environment for that. I’m looking to create a credibility in music and then transfer that into film.
7. But the idea is to be a musician first?
I’ve always loved to perform. To me, that’s such a spiritual aspect because I think the
entertainment that you can create for somebody, it goes deeper than just escapism, it’s more of some sort of fulfillment. So if I’m ever able to provide that for somebody, I can see my role in a room. You know what I mean? I don’t like to be in places where I don’t have a purpose. And so, performing always gave me this sort of purpose.
I would do plays throughout elementary school, and I remember I would rap the student council announcements to my class. When I was about 15 or 16, I started to take things a lot more seriously. To me, it was never a second question. It was, “Ok, I’m doing this now.” I just fully fell into it. There were no moments of hesitation or reluctance. And I guess I really never
8. What does your family say?
They were always really supportive. They don’t always get it, and sometimes they would
challenge me, which is good, though, because I feel like rebuttal strengthens the argument. I
would rather have them feel negatively towards something than just feel passively towards
something. And that’s true with my fan base too. I want pushback – that creates something. I’m not making music to just wade in the water.
I have two older sisters and they were always supportive too. My oldest sister is Black and she’s been able to really keep me conscious of what I’m doing in terms of appropriating a Black art form, so I’m really thankful for her because she’s been able to give me a lot of information and knowledge in terms of how to conduct myself in the most appropriate way possible. And it’s challenging – that’s an everyday thing. I think if you want to forge some sort of social conscience, it’s not something where you can check a box and say, “Oh, I did that.” It’s a constant, day-to-day thing, of listening to people and thinking. That being said, being a Native artist practicing an artform that wasn’t originally mine, everything I do is with the utmost intention. Nothing is random. That goes down to my work, to my social media posts – everything is very, very curated.
9. We’re afraid to ask you what you do for fun.
Oh, I’m a fun person! I’m an amateur juggler, getting better – four balls soon, but three balls I can lock down. In high school, my AP Psych teacher juggled and I was so amazed by it, I
thought, I need to learn how to do that. So I started learning, but I didn’t really commit myself until I moved to LA and had a lemon tree in my backyard. Suddenly, I just had all of the accessibility – every morning this past summer, I would go outside, make coffee, and juggle for a little while. The ultimate goal is to juggle and rap on stage; I just feel like people would lose their minds, they wouldn’t know what to do… start a new genre of juggle-rap.
10. Is there a metaphor coming on?
Yes! It is. 100%. It’s fun to get so literal with it. In life, as it is in juggling, it’s all about the
rhythm – the pace at which you go. You can throw the balls higher and go at a slower pace, or you can throw them quicker. You just have to be comfortable with your own abilities and your own strengths.
I definitely do juggle a lot, as a lot of different kids do in LA, and in the rest of the world.
Everyone has different balls in the air. For me, I think I’m a vessel for my ancestors before me.
So, I say that, meaning that, I think I’m given a lot of different privileges that a lot of people that I’m related to weren’t. So, how I keep oriented with music and film is that I’m doing everything I can to represent us in the most meaningful way. And I think that there’s this really powerful momentum building that different artists and different marginalized communities are getting their own jurisdiction.
There’s a lot of work to be done… and a lot of beautiful art that can come out of proper Native representation.
Check out Mato Wayuhi below!