Interview by Dr. HONEY DAWN KARIMA
SPECIAL TO THE ONE FEATHER
Q: When I think of Saint Michael, I think of the ArchAngel. What should I think of when I think about you?
A: That’s exactly who should come to mind. My mother made the Archangel my namesake when I was born. He was the Lord’s host who cast the first angel, Lucifer, out of Heaven and led the loyal warrior angels against the mutinous rebel angels during the War of Heaven. I consider myself that type of person; loyal to family, ready for battle, leader with a steady hand, and protector from whatever looks to harm me and mine. I may not be an angel, but I have been called a warrior.
A: There’s really no story actually. Since 1992, I have had a list of names in the rap game. And those, like m y sins, will be left behind (smiles). I guess I grew into this name, earned it, if you will. It’s a persona of who I am inside. As I mentioned before, my mom named me after the Archangel, and to become Saint Mike, I had to really think about my life and the turns it’s taken. I’ve done some good things in life, but I’ve done some fairly bad things as well. So, through my ‘redemption’, I feel I’ve earned my place in life and my name.
Q:Tell us about your tribal background. Are there beliefs or traditions that influence your music? The way you live your life?
A: I’m Navajo (Salt Clan), Laguna Pueblo (Bear clan), Washoe, and Mexican. My parents raised me and my siblings Catholic along with traditional beliefs and practice. The two beliefs both walked side-by-side in our household. I tell people that I have traditional beliefs with Catholic fears and I live my life with both influences strong in my belief system. I mostly keep the Catholic faith out of love and respect for my mom, who is the strongest, greatest woman on earth to me. I will do anything for her. Later, I took the initiative to learn more about my traditional Native beliefs that were first introduced to me in my early years and now they help me find balance in my everyday life. My family comes from strong medicine and I honor that by practicing traditional prayer everyday.
Ultimately, My mom always said it ain’t right to preach so I keep my religious beliefs out of my music. Therefore, I don’t want to saturate my music with what I consider to be sacred to me and my family.
Q:Why Hip-Hop? Is that a new new form of Native traditional music?
A: I believe that hip-hop is our generation’s form of storytelling. Many of us have stories, real events, anecdotes, that influenced us to go right or left in our lives. Some of those detours resulted in us facing life and death at times. For me, my subject matter focuses on things that happened to me growing up, or things I witness(ed). I’m from a generation that saw a regeneration and revitalization of Native American identity in the urban environment. And hip-hop was the medium that we chose to touch the canvas with. In essence, some of us are still learning to paint while others have already manifested their masterpieces into words.
I feel that I’m one of those artists that heard the mainstream and what it had to say and then took from it, learned from it, and transformed it into my own style. So, if hip-hop is the only way we can convey our stories and re-solidify our culture, we’re gonna say it as we see it and feel it.
Q:Why do you think rap has caught fire in NDN Country?
A: For the same reason beat poetry did in the ’60’s; we all got something to say. I’m telling you, my parents were one of the first that said rap music was gonna be a fad. That was over 25 years ago. And I think a big part of it is that Native rap musicians are starting to see the way rap music is going and we’re ready to open the flood gates. Honestly, most of the mainstream radio rap music, if you can call it ‘rap’, relies more on the physical aspect of the culture and not really the metaphysical side. It all seems to focus more on the image and not the message. When that happens, the logic gets overshadowed by the glamour. Prime example – rap went from Public Enemy’s Fight the Power to auto-tuned mess that saturates the radio. I mean, that’s the way the culture’s going? Really???
In my opinion, there is a clear lack of talent that gets Grammy nominated every year, I think it’s evident that some lyricists are running out of things to say or talk about. Us natives never run out of things to say, or teach, or talk about, or laugh about, or be angry about, or feel good about. But mainstream media doesn’t have the courage to touch it, nonetheless, be willing to even listen to it. But we still do it. Hell, even small sparks can start a mad blaze. And our lives and lyrics are the kerosene to keep it burning.
Q: Do you consider yourself urban? How does that shape your sound?
A: My parents relocated to the Bay Area in the 1960’s, met, fell in love, got married, and had four beautiful kids. Therefore, I am urban ‘one-hunnit’ (smiles). I was raised in the trials and wilds of East Oakland, CA and that is where my heart shall remain. I grew up with all the other urban reds in the halls of the Intertribal Friendship House on E-14th. St., attended pre-school at Hintil Ku Caa Native American Child Development Center, and got spanked by everybody’s mom when my little bad-ass got outta line.
For years, all I knew was the street. And growing up inner city, we all faced the initiations that urban youth still face today; bullies, racism, influences, all sorts of unlawful activity, etc. Some of us fell victim to it while others, like myself, learned from it and moved forward. That is pretty much the influence in my music. I stay true to my streets and keep traditional sounds out of my production. Why? That sound doesn’t fit in what I feel is my style and I chose to keep it separate. I don’t like to cross the streams, so to speak. Like me, I keep my music urban one-hunnit.
Q:So, how did you start making music? Did you have a musical childhood? Who influences you musically?
A: Other than my dad being a trumpet player in his early days, there was really no musical influence in my upbringing. I started writing lyrics first after a lot of reflection on things I had witnessed and experienced up until that time. Soon after, I was practicing them over other rap music I had, getting my flow down, my delivery down etc. Before long, I had notebooks filled with lyrics and they kinda got put on the back burner for a minute. Then, in 1992, I was asked by my brother to be in a newly formed Native rap group called Without Rezervation. It was to be myself, my brother, his brother-in-law, and a lifelong friend of ours. At first, all we had was a drum set, which my brother took control of. That was the time I dusted off the notebooks and opened up the magic. But, as creative differences surfaced, I shook hands and went my way. Then in 1997, I was asked by the group (minus the lifelong friend) to co-write the follow-up to their first album Are You Ready For WOR? (Canyon Records) with their second album titled World WOR II. Music was made, fun was had, but then the sound faded out. Fast forward to 2008, when I got some production software for my computer and, boom, seven unreleased albums and one on the market were soon born.
My writing has since matured since ’92. I mean, since then, I opened up to all different genres of music. Classical, world, even country opened my mind up to develop more than what it was used to. I would say that my biggest influences in music are Johnny Cash and the GZA/Genius from the Wu-Tang Clan. Man, Johnny can tell a story poetically, flawlessly, and with conviction. You feel his pain in his music and you hear the dignity in his voice as he tells it how he knows it. And the GZA is just mad talent, both in lyrics and subject matter. I can listen to their material over and over again and never get tired of it. Matter of fact, I listen to their material moments before I hit any stage. They get me centered. They get me balanced.
Q:What do you hope folks will feel or find when they listen to your tracks?
A: I hope they feel a new respect for Native rap and the things we have to say. For me, I hope they at least appreciate the three years it took for me to singly produce my own album. Not for awards or money, but just to be heard. I think that’s all most of us want when people pick up our CD or download our songs. And if it makes us successful, so be it. But that’s not what drives me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, if I could pay my mortgage from this or get extra toppings on my pizza, who am I to complain? But I want people to hear and understand that there are Native people that have a voice, either urban or rez, and that voice has a soul and story behind it. I want them take the headphones off and say, “Damn, that was some poignant s**t.” All I want is to be heard and respected.
Also, I have a very old school style to the way I flow. I keep mine pretty simple with very little profanity and lots of prose. There is a lot of self-respect in my music, both for me and my audience. A wise man once told me that less profanity in your rhymes demonstrates more articulation in your flow. And it took. You see, I’m from the days of wayback and I redeliver that into the now.
Q: Do you have particular songs that have special meaning to you and for you? Tell us about some of those?
A: On my debut album First Blood (Whenboy Records), the song that makes me smile and think of home is No Limit On It. It reminds me of Lake Merritt near downtown Oakland, late afternoon with a carload of my closet homies, getting our holler on with the yeahs (ladies) on the curb. Those were the days, boy (smiles).
Another is 49 Wayz. That one brings me back to the Stanford Powwow 49. My brother and I were legendary participants. Man, we had the biggest crowd, the closet homies, the wildest crew, and the cutest snags. That’s also my most favorite song to perform. It gets the crowd hyped when the beat drops and they know what’s coming. I think every Native can relate to that one, too.
Q:Do you receive your songs fully formed? Or do you labor over each line?
A: I never think of it as ‘labor’. Like when I do art, I sometimes keep my edges rough. It has character when it’s sometimes raw. My lyrics are no different. What happens when you have a head full of ideas is you get seven unreleased albums in your vault. Like I said, there’s always something to talk about. Often enough, I write just chill rhymes, ill rhymes, barely any skill rhymes. Some are just words that form themselves into sentences and I barely need to arrange them. The music is what takes time. Searching for the right sound can drive you into the all-nighter stage. Break out the Red Bull and M&M’s. Or for me, Coke Zero and beef jerky.
And I rarely, almost never, sample music. I think that’s the labor in the production process. If you live in originality, it’s sometimes harder to forge your own weapons. But Saint Mike has his own armory, fo’real.
Q: Music is a powerful force. Why do you think people should listen to yours?
A: Because it’s original. It’s all me. It’s not truth based on someone else’s life or lies. See, I write about material that is life experienced without additives or preservatives. I tell it how I know it and I’m not all afraid to show it. But one of the things that bothers me is that sometimes our own people don’t give us the time of day. I’ve met hundreds of young Native people that complain that “there’s no Native rappers out there”. But when one is presented to them, they turn away and continue to buy into the mainstream rap culture instead of reinforcing ours. And often enough, our subject matter is not what they’re willing to hear. And that creates a desire for some of us to transform our music into a mainstream medium to be more appealing to a younger audience. Therefore, Native rap loses it’s originality and becomes a regurgitated clone of what is already popular.
Q:Who are you away from the studio? What fills your time, your dreams, your days besides music?
A: I am the same person everyday, all day. The person you hear in the music is the same person who is a child care provider when he can be, a youth mentor, an artist with a BA in animation, and a loving husband. There isn’t a change to who I am on or off the stage. For example, in my music, I don’t condone the mistreatment or disrespect of women, nor do I encourage substance abuse or irresponsible behavior in people, especially youth. My character never changes, nor does my mission; to be a positive role model in and around the Native American community. You see, I’ve been drug and alcohol free for 18 years. I became crime-free in 1995 and since then, I’ve become a person in community that people can rely on for help, understanding, and listening. All of the young folks that I’ve met in my life have all made me the person I am today. If I fail at being a man and role model, all of their love and dedication to me will have been wasted. And I pray everyday that I never let them down.
As far as dreams go, I leave them for sleep. I’m a person that believes in achieving what you desire through hard work and dedication. My dad is a very firm believer in “earned not given” and I carry that with me in my life. Therefore, I stay dedicated to my art and music and, hopefully, it will bear fruit. Shoot, if I do dream awake, it’s getting that lotto scratcher that cures all my financial ills, fo’real.
Q:What do you think people see when they first see you? What will they miss if they just go by first impressions?
A: “Damn, this guy’s big!’ That’s what usually passes my mind when I enter their line of vision. Really though, if their first impression of me drives them to walk by quickly, cross the street, or totally ignore me, that’s their loss. But if they took time to get to know me, they will meet a very articulate person that loves to clown and talk film, art, music, and ghost stories. Politics, not so much. Want to put me to sleep, bring up some politics. But I think the most surprising thing I reveal in conversation is that I have over ten years experience in early childhood education. That gets a few raised eyebrows, let me tell you.
Q:Okay, then what do you think listeners hear when they first hear your music? What will they miss if they don’t take a second listen?
A: I hope it’s something they’ve never heard before. I want them to hear a voice that is laced with the convictions of a man that is a living witness to the trials and tribulations that grace the East Oakland city streets. Everyone has a story and I believe that mine conveys itself well in my music. I’m getting to the stage in my life where a puffed chest impresses nobody and street smarts start to settle into the warm bath of middle age. And I’m content with that. That is what I want them to hear; a comfortable man from a honest fam that is bringing the truth clear and correct.
To me, second listens are equivalent to when I create a piece of art. I let it settle, marinate, and look at it the next day. I revisit what I first envisioned, see how it manifested, and examine its meticulous strokes or flaws. My music can be looked at the same way. People can hear it the first time, let it soak in, and listen again for what’s right on or left out. Some of my material is a lot to take in. To be honest, this debut album First Blood is just the shape of things to come. I chose songs to show the public that I have a reflective side, a chill side, an aggressive side, and a storytelling side. All of this wrapped up in the warrior poetry style I call mine.
Q:Well, I’m sure you have readers’ interest now. How can they find your music or connect with you?
A: I’m a very open person, one you won’t have to cross the street from and yell at me to communicate with. I can be reached via email at email@example.com and online at facebook.com/saintmike71. My music is available and can be found on CD at cdbaby.com/cd/saintmike and on mp3 download on iTunes, Amazon MP3, Rhapsody, Grooveshark, and various other music engines.
Q:What do you wish we knew about you and about your music right now that we don’t?
Tell us, please.
A: I think the most remarkable thing that I’ve accomplished with my music is that I’ve completed seven albums in just under three years. I write all the lyrics, do all the production, engineering, and mastering. All of these are self-taught skills I’ve developed on my own over the years. I’m also an accomplished artist who does his own album graphic design. So, I’m very proud to present First Blood, the debut project that is all Saint Mike.
Thank you so much for sharing with us. We look forward to much music from you.