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Raye Zaragoza Didn't Choose to Be a Political Songwriter
Ursula Vari

Raye Zaragoza Didn't Choose to Be a Political Songwriter

New York singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza says it's surreal that she'll be opening for Dispatch and Nahko and Medicine for the People on June 16 in Vail and June 17 at Red Rocks.

She's on tour with both bands throughout the summer, and the tour itself is, in part, a fundraiser for Generation Indigenous, a Native youth initiative. This organization's work with Native youth hits home for Zaragoza, who often pens songs about her indigenous heritage and whose music and activism go hand in hand.

Westword caught up with Zaragoza to talk about music and the social and environmental movements she champions.

What should the crowd expect when they see you in Vail and Red Rocks?

It’s going to be a lot of my songs from my recent album, Fight for You, that was released last summer. I wrote a lot of the songs about my identity of being a mixed-race individual in the United States. I wrote a lot about Standing Rock and indigenous-rights issues and how we should stand up for the environment.

Which one of your songs is your favorite to perform live?

I think my favorite song to perform is "American Dream," and that song is really about my life. I see the song as a prologue to my live show, a prologue to my album, an introduction to who I am and why I write music. ... I feel after hearing that song, the audience will know me. I feel we will have been acquainted as people. 

Your song “In the River” was written in response to the Dakota Pipeline protests. What was your thought process when writing this song?

Well, I wrote that song on a morning when [I saw] videos of security dogs...being released on the water protectors. I was at home and hadn’t yet gone up to Standing Rock, and it completely broke my heart. What was even more heartbreaking beyond the videos was no one knew about it. Yeah, with social media, more and more people were seeing it, but it was not on television, it was not in the news, it was not in mass media. No one was paying attention.

It troubled me so much how indigenous struggles have been overlooked for so long, and I came to a realization at that moment that enough was enough for me, and I am going to do everything I can to stand up and fight back. Through that, I wrote the song, and I wrote the song pretty quick. It was an emotional experience, but I needed to write even beyond as a way to spread awareness, but [also] as a way to heal personally. I needed that song. But I ended up making a video with my brother with facts that were happening at Standing Rock. We put it online, and overnight it got over 100,000 views. ... That was eye-opening, and showed me music is powerful and has a way of spreading awareness, even for issues that are overlooked.

Do you see yourself as a political artist?

I see myself as an artist. A lot of times, I get labeled as a political artist, a protest songwriter, etc. To me, I write for who I am. Sometimes I write a lot of love songs. Sometimes I write a lot of “protest songs,” but it is my life. ... My mom is an immigrant from Japan, and my dad is both indigenous to Mexico and a Native American, and to me, what we have seen and been told being a person of color is, my existence is resistance.

Whenever I get labeled as a political artist, I understand it and appreciate it, but to me, it almost sounds like it was a choice. Like I woke up one day, saying, hey, I’m going to write songs of a political nature — but it never was that way. It’s just what happens around me; it’s just the comments made to me ever since I was a kid because of the color of my skin — all the things that have shaped me into the human I am. As an artist, it’s only natural that that is going to turn into my songs...but I see how the political or protest labels happen a lot.

The media likes to toss out those labels like it's a pat on their back.

Everyone wants to put you in a box. What’s important is that a lot of times, being a person of color, the box we are put in is our racial identity. No one is putting me in a box because of my genre. No one is putting me in a box because of anything other than my race, generally. Sometimes that can hurt.

If I get put in a box, why can’t it be based on my voice? My talents? It’s not only racial. And I’m incredibly proud of my race, where I come from, my ancestors and heritage, but a lot of times...I want people to know I’m also from New York City, I’m a city girl, a multi-faceted human being — and sometimes it’s always labeling, it’s always being boxed in by something racial.

Raye Zaragoza Didn't Choose to Be a Political Songwriter
Laura Foto

Was there a moment that made you want to do activism work?

For me, I think finding my voice as an activist was parallel with me coming to terms with who I am and my identity. It was really coming of age and being a young woman and trying to figure out who I am and what I can do for the world.

I thought for my whole life, what can one person do? I’m so bummed out about it, but what change can we really do? I think we are almost brainwashed to think we don’t have as much power as we do.

What gets you through those days when you just realize, the world is kinda upside down?

What gets me through those days is I realized hope and action are two choices. I realized there is no such thing as being idle. We are either going to do something or we are going to be hurting...You're either taking action or you're contributing to the pullback...the first line in ["In the River"] is, you have to have some hope.

Even if it’s the smallest thing, even if you're just the one to speak up in a conversation between five people, take one small piece of action every day. ... Even if it's impacting just one life other than your own, that’s progress.

What do you want your audience to take away after listening to your music?

I want my audience to be able to feel that seed planted inside of them. No matter what it is they want to fight for, whether it's what I’m fighting for or something personal to them, I want them to leave my set to feel empowered to take the next step and stand up for what they believe in. They are beautiful and valid and should feel welcomed here on this land, because so many times my songs are about not feeling welcomed even though I was born here.

Dispatch and Nahko and Medicine for the People
6 to 11 p.m. Saturday, June 16, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater 530 South Frontage Road East, Vail, $49.50 and up; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday, June 17, 2018 Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, $44.50 and up.

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