Feminist Hero Friday: Nahko Bear
by Abaki Beck
Our first feminist hero for 2017 is Nahko Bear, a musician, activist, and lead singer of Nahko and Medicine for the People. Nahko - who is mixed Apache, Puerto Rican, and Filipino - is in many ways the epitome of the phrase “activist/artist.” Through his music itself, involvement with non-profits, and activism, he advocates for indigenous rights, environmental justice, and more. Nahko and Medicine for the People - who consider themselves a music collective - have released four albums, each with inspiring, folksy songs charged with political action and strong storytelling elements. As a collective, their mission is to not only make music, but engage their fans in activism and creating social change.
Nahko was raised in Portland, Oregon by a white, Christian family after his mother adopted him out at the age of nine months. His mother, Elisia, was a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 12, and became pregnant after being raped. Elisia’s mother (Nahko’s grandmother) had been a prostitute when she was a child - and both continued to work as sex workers through Elisia’s adulthood. It wasn’t until 2007 that Nahko met his mother and her family. Upon meeting his mother, Nahko became more active in learning about his mother’s cultural heritage and his ancestral roots. In an interview with Crixeo, Nahko reflected on his mother’s story:
“There’s so much strength in my mom’s story. There’s so much of an example of being able to come from where she did and turn her life around and forgive. She is inspiring and definitely has inspired me and my music. She is one of the strongest women I know. Her resilience, her positivity, is a beacon to many people — people search for a light in her face. It gives them hope.”
These stories of trauma, abuse, and family are all present throughout his music - making his songs often alarmingly honest, yet hopeful. His song “So Thankful” for example, tells stories of his family’s - both birth and adoptive. The song honestly discusses the pain of rape and trafficking, but also recognizes the role of intergenerational trauma and colonialism in bringing about these realities. Some of the lyrics in the song are:
“Mama never said it's okay
for this old man to touch her this way.
Grandma, well she got paid
and that's one thing I'm not proud to say.
I never thought I'd give thanks for rape,
but that's how I got here today.
Said, Oo so thankful, oo so thankful”
Listen to the full song here:
I first became acquainted with Nahko and Medicine for the People with their song Aloha Ke Akua, one of their most well-known and impactful songs. In it, Nahko discusses social justice on a deeply personal level: movement building, continual learning, questioning our role in the world, and the power we each have to make change. The song is a beautiful experience.
Some of the most poignant lyrics include:
“Got to wake up the people time to stand up and say
we know what we are for
and how we became so informed.
Bodies of info performing such miracles.
I am a miracle.
Made up of particles
and in this existence
I'll stay persistent
and I'll make a difference
and I will have lived it.”
Listen to the full song here (music video by Diego Pernia)
Today, we celebrate Nahko’s music as a powerful voice for healing and social change. His music deeply explores personal trauma, forgiveness, social justice, and healing. Art and music are pertinent in fighting for social change. They not only provide joy and community, but can be deeply inspiring and provide solace and inspiration for the future.