At an early age, Alexis Sallee discovered that if the world was dominated by images, she preferred to be enveloped in sound. By the time she graduated from high school, Sallee found her calling with KNBA’s radio program ‘Earth Songs’. Launched nationally in December of 1998 under the direction of host Gregg McVicar, ‘Earth Songs’ promotes Indigenous music from across America, Canada and Australia. The program’s mission was one Sallee identified with and under the tutelage of long-time host Shyanne Beatty, she began to learn the basics of radio programming.
“Editing interviews can get a little tedious for people so I think Shyanne [Beatty] was happy to give me that work and I was happy to take it. So, I worked doing that and other special projects for a while like reporting on AFN. But I really wanted to do more and to expand my skills,” recalls Sallee.
In 2010, she packed up her newly acquired knowledge and moved to Florida to pursue a BS in Recording Arts at Full Sail University. Not one to rest on her laurels, after graduation, Sallee crammed her belongings into a car and relocated to Los Angeles where she sought work as a sound engineer.
“When I first got to LA I applied for everything to try and get my foot in the door. Eventually, I ended up landing a job as a Foley Recordist—which is the person that stands in a booth and records the everyday sounds you hear in movies like footsteps and stuff,” explains Sallee. “I worked my way up to be a Re-recording Mix Assistant which was pretty cool because I got to work on stuff for NBC and the 2015 re-make of ‘Poltergeist’.”
Despite finding success, Sallee felt that she was missing the passion that had inspired her to work with sound in the first place. So, she began looking for opportunities to fill the void. In 2013, the pieces fell into place when Beatty moved on from Earth Songs leaving a hole that could only be filled by Sallee.
“Shyanne [Beatty] told me that I was the logical choice to take over for her because I knew and understood the program. Once I found out that I could still produce the show from LA, I agreed to take it over,” says Sallee, who spends her workweek as a Senior Audio Engineer at LinkedIn and her weekends creating weekly programming for Earth Songs.
Five years after assuming the helm as the Earth Songs radio host, Sallee has embarked on a major rebrand of the program. Armed with a substantial grant from National Endowment for the Arts, Sallee has spent the last year realizing her lifelong dream of crafting a meaningful piece of storytelling. The fruits of her labor is a four-part miniseries profiling Indigenous rappers from Minnesota to Alaska.
“When we received the NEA grant I knew that I could make a special radio piece, but I also wanted to make it bigger. I wanted to find an Indigenous filmmaker who could understand and relate to the project—someone who I could work with to create an authentic feel to a visual version of the story I wanted to tell. It was really important to me that the visuals were not cliched and combined a sense of the modern with the traditional,” explains Sallee, who turned down several filmmakers before finding the perfect person to execute her vision.
Arizona-native Tomas Amaya ended up being Sallee’s creative equal and worked side-by-side with her to produce the four-part documentary, “Definition of Resilience”. It was a partnership that almost didn’t happen.
“When I first got her email, I thought it was one of those ‘spray and pray’ kind of job requests, so I didn’t take it seriously. But then I read her email and found out that she was serious and did her due diligence to look at my work. I think after our first phone call, we sort of knew that we were going to connect,” explains Amaya, who met Sallee for the first time on a road trip to a remote reservation in Minnesota.
Amaya, who is of Yoeme, Ashiwi and Rarámuri descent, found a creative common ground with Sallee via their shared love of Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner: 2049’ as they braved the frozen Minnesota wilderness for their first set of interviews. Although the trip to the reservation went off without a hitch, the actual filming didn’t go as smoothly.
Sallee and Amaya had only scheduled a single interview with Ojibwe rapper Thomas X and needed a female voice to add a counterpoint to his interview. After a fateful night spent at a remote BBQ joint, the newly paired directors found their female voice in another Ojibwe rapper, Giizhigookwe.
“We were standing around for a few hours before anyone came up to talk to us. Finally, Giizhigookwe walked up, introduced herself and said, ‘I have a lot to say, you know.’ I think we knew then that this was going to be something special,” remembers Amaya.
But their exuberance to kick off the project in a meaningful way nearly backfired when their recording equipment failed on day one.
“Somehow we found this janky little shop in the middle of the bush of Minnesota and this guy was able to fashion a custom cable for our recording equipment. Then during setup Tomas tripped over the cord and I ended up having to manually hold it in place for the whole interview,” recalls Sallee with a hearty laugh.
Despite the kerfuffle, it was that first interview that ended up framing the project’s message.
“We really identified with Giizhigookwe’s message and her experience. Like, if you’re going to get into hip-hop, what are your going to talk about? Are you going to focus on drugs and pimping your women or are you going to use it to uplift your community and empower your women? For us being Indigenous and hearing her message was just like this ‘holy shit’ moment,” Sallee recalls.
“Yeah, that was one of the most important moments for me as well because I have such a strong connection and respect for the women in my family. I just feel like there is so much healing that needs to happen with our women and it’s important for me to be able to share that desire,” says Amaya, whose sentiment is one that Suquamish rapper Calina Lawrence echoes.
“We have always been combating political and social issues that have impacted our quality of lives and although I didn’t consider myself an activist when I began rapping, I think in many ways, I have become one. Hip-hop is a product of singing and talking about our social circumstances and it’s impacted by the lack of support our communities receive, so it’s definitely something that has always been a part of me,” says Lawrence.
While rapping may seem like a natural extension of Lawrence’s creative expression, some believe Indigenous rap is another example of cultural appropriation. It is a question that Lawrence has spent time contemplating.
“This is something that keeps coming up and for me,” explains Lawrence. “I will say, no it’s not cultural appropriation because there were Indigenous people in the urban settings when hip-hop was birthed. There’s been an ongoing solidarity and parallel between black and Indigenous communities because in a lot of instances, we have shared our everyday lives with one another. The Indian Settlement Act sent a lot of Indigenous people into the urban areas and it formed a special connection between the two communities,”
Although Indigenous rappers may be a new element of hip-hop, Lawrence asserts that even in the early days of hip-hop culture there were Indigenous b-boys and graffiti artists in New York, Chicago and LA who were making their mark on the scene.
“I think it’s important to respect the formula of creating rap and to remember its intended purpose as a form of protest music. But it’s also important not remove [Indigenous peoples] from the history of the music. We share the same struggles and much of the same past and that’s going to be an influence on the way we express the experiences that shaped us,” says Lawrence.
For Lawrence, the experiences that shaped her music were as diverse as the 10 foster homes where she grew up. Living on the reservation she was exposed to the Coast Salish music of her tribe, western influences from the Indian Shaker Church, bluegrass from one of her foster parents and hip-hop from her siblings.
“Having all of these musical influences at my front door encouraged me to start to learn new songs and singing became like therapy for me. I’d say I’ve always been a vocalist, but I’ve found that you can just say more with rap than you can with singing—not only because you can physically get more words into a measure but because there’s a power to the delivery. It makes people listen,” says Lawrence.
Rap may be a platform that Lawrence uses to make her voice heard but it’s not the only one. She sometimes incorporates elements of the Coast Salish music of her childhood and mixes it with beats from other Indigenous tribes and contemporary western music. Lawrence says that she hasn’t encountered push-back from her tribe about combining musical traditions, but she understands why some may be opposed to it.
“I know that in the past separation has been a tactic of saving our cultural teachings that were in threat of extinction, but I think today there are so many mixed race people—people who come from western roots and the Indigenous roots—and they have to find a way that they can feel represented and like the two sides don’t have to be separate. So, I feel like the intention of the music fusion is circumstantial to answering the question of whether or not it should be mixed. The answer is going to be different for everyone,” Lawrence says.
Although Sallee’s project quietly began a year ago as a way to spotlight Indigenous rappers, she realizes that her work has morphed into a conversation starter about what it means to be Indigenous in modern society.
“I was so disconnected from my culture growing up in Anchorage because wasn’t exposed to some of the cultural things that are uniquely Iñupiaq. This project has felt like tapping into another side of myself and finding my roots. Just having that connection with other Indigenous people from all over America and being able to have meaningful discussions about what it is to be Indigenous in this modern world has meant a lot to me,” says Sallee. “The work can’t stop here though. We have to keep going and we have to do more.”
To see the four-part miniseries “Definition of Resilience,” visit indigefi.org/definition-of-resilience. You can also catch Sallee’s weekly radio show on KNBA 90.3 every Tuesday and Saturday at 11am.
If you want to hear and extended version of O’Hara’s interview with Sallee, Amaya and Lawrence, visit the Anchorage Press Facebook page and click on the Press Podcasts tab.