Shining Soul have been around for years. So when the Phoenix hip-hop trio was nominated for “New or Debut Duo/Group of the Year” by the Native American Music Awards and Association (N.A.M.A.) for their 2016 album Politics Aside, it was a little surprising.
“It’s the first time [N.A.M.A.] has heard our stuff,” laughs MC Liaizon. “What do they say? It takes 10 years to ‘make it.’ We’ve been doing it in some form or fashion for roughly that long.”
Comprising Liaizon, Bronze Candidate, and DJ Reflekshin, the O’odham/Chicano rap group also received nominations for “Best Rap/Hip-Hop/R&B Recording” (also for Politics Aside) and “Best Music Video-Performance” for the powerful short All Day.
That video was filmed along the U.S.-Mexico border, and serves as a reminder that part of the land President Donald Trump wants to build a wall on is part of the Tohono O’odham Nation, not the United States. It is considered sacred. That point becomes clear when the music stops midway through and Wynona Larson, a friend of the trio, speaks about the issue in her native tongue.
“The border issue that video addresses affects my community directly,” Liaizon says. “[Larson] is someone who does not try to put herself out there. From her perspective, it’s not just about one person. It’s about everybody. It was a good way to let people hear who is really being affected by what is going on.”
Recently, Liaizon sold some of the group’s albums to tribal radio station KOHN-FM, which broadcasts from Sells, Arizona, to an area about the size of Connecticut. The station wanted to send three of Shining Soul’s albums to N.A.M.A. and submitted the paperwork on the group’s behalf. Shortly after, Liaizon heard that Shining Soul had received nominations.
DJ Reflekshin grew up on the reservation and remembers how inspiring it was to have the Native American Music Awards. “I always thought it was cool to be nominated for [an award],” he says.
Liaizon has complex feelings surrounding the nominations.
Shining Soul has always made socially conscious music, but they want it to feel universal. The Native American Studies major says the group has worked hard to make music that speaks to everyone, not just those in the Native American community. They accomplish this through the laid-back samples and scratches Reflekshin uses or the words Liaizon and his fellow MC Bronze Candidate, who is Chicano, use for their flow. They do not want to come off as if they are working an angle.
“I try my best to keep it in the middle,” Liaizon explains, “We play shows at Club Red, Valley Bar, and Crescent Ballroom, but we’ve also done community events on the reservation. [The nominations] show that my peers and contemporaries in the Native American music industry recognize [our work], but it wasn’t like I had to cater [our music] to them. I grew up with hip-hop rock, pop, and jazz just like everyone else. It’s on my own terms instead of pandering to the choir.”
“One thing we’ve never really said is that we are native hip-hop,” says Reflekshin, “We’re just hip-hop. We just happen to be Native Americans who do hip-hop.”
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“We all come from a different tribe and have our own extensive music history,” Bronze Candidate says. “As far as coming from [the Chicano] community, we have our own traditions of using the arts to express ourselves. I can see why [N.A.M.A.] did not include who I was because [Chicanos] is not an officially recognized indigenous tribe.”
This year’s Native American Music Awards take place in Niagara Falls, New York. Voting continues until right before the ceremony begins on October 14. Shining Soul will not be attending. The winners will be announced at the ceremony, and they will be recognized at next year's event. Liaizon is eager to attend in 2018.
“Bring us out so we can do what we do,” he says.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Wynona Larson as Wynona Laron.