Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo Finds His Stand in Native Roots

"Rumble" Executive Producer/Co-Creator Tim Johnson (left) and Taboo 

By Sandra Hale Schulman 

News From Indian Country 

“I owe it all to my grandmother,” says Jamie Luis Gomez, better known as Taboo, an American rapper, singer, songwriter, actor and DJ, best known as a member of the hip hop group Black Eyed Peas.

His Shoshone grandmother showed him his heritage as he was growing up at fairs and powwows and Indian markets. He has carried that heritage onto an international stage, having won six Grammy Awards and sold an estimated 60 million records worldwide. His striking stage presence has always carried some beadwork or turquoise to keep him grounded, but the larger image of the group overshadowed him.

He had some well publicized problems with addiction but overcame it all over a decade ago. In 2008, Taboo was in the process of creating a solo album, but also focused on music he has co-written and performed that has been featured on many movie soundtracks, including Coach carter and Legally Blonde. His autobiography,

“Fallin’ Up: My Story”, was released in February 2011, but his real battle came after its release.

 He was diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer in June 2014, he went through 12 weeks of intense, aggressive chemotherapy out of the public eye. Taboo says he was diagnosed after going to the emergency room for what he thought was the flu. He now is cancer-free.

“I had pain but I never dealt with it. I didn’t listen to my body. I went on tour until it got worse. I had tumors in my spine that had come from my testicle.” The six-time Grammy winner had been suffering from chronic pain after  he fell off a stage in 2006. In 2014, he was feeling the pain intensify in his back and abdomen, and went to the emergency room. After a few tests, the doctor told him he had testicular cancer.

“The first thing I felt was shock and confusion. I could only think about my kids,” Taboo said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. The next day, he went into surgery, followed by an aggressive chemotherapy. “There were times I wanted to give up,” he said. “It was brutal.”

His cancer is now in remission.

This battle gave him new ammo to help provide better health care access on Native reservations. He’s also visits cancer centers to give patients emotional and mental support.

In May 2014, Taboo released his solo single, “Zumbao,” which is “all about having fun, being infected by positive energy.”

In November 2016, Taboo released the single “The Fight” about on his successful battle against testicular cancer. The track was made in partnership with the American Cancer Society, for which Taboo is a global ambassador. The ACS receives all funds generated by the song. Taboo said “I’m so proud to release The Fight because it’s truly an anthem of survivorship. I want to use this song and my story to inspire and motivate people all over the world to live their best, healthiest lives possible.”

Then Standing Rock happened.

“This was my call,” he said “this was something I could get behind and do something about with my people.”

Hip Hop Caucus, creator of People’s Climate Music, partnered with Taboo, to debut “Stand Up/Stand N Rock”. This song and video were created in support of the Standing Rock Reservation and the Sioux Tribe, when they lead a peaceful, powerful, and diverse movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The anthem song was produced by Printz Board, the video directed and edited by Johnny Lee.

Taboo created the song which features actress and activist Shailene Woodley, and the Magnificent Seven, seven Native American artists from across North America. Also making appearances is Wind River actor Martin Sensmeier. The song gave a rallying cry to the movement and was awarded an MTV Video Music Award on live TV last fall.

Taboo At Seminole Fair

Earlier this year at the Seminole Tribal Fair and Powwow Taboo brought the Mag7 for a live performance and to premiere another video song called “We Are One” that calls for unity in these current times of division. Taboo has his own traveling tribe now and they are making some serious noise, much like rapper Litefoot did before he became a national native issues advisor.

Marvel Comics has been doing a series of videos called Becoming Marvel where they show cosplayers putting together and donning their costumes. It shows a lot of the work that viewers don’t normally see that is put into the design and look of elaborate costumes. The latest one features Taboo who grew up a fan of comics, but didn’t see any Native American heroes when he was growing up. But upon when he learned of the Marvel character Red Wolf, he wanted to embrace the character but not by dressing as him or portraying him — Taboo wanted to become Red Wolf. With the help of costume designer Lauren Matesic of Castle Corsetry, Taboo got his chance.

Red Wolf first appeared in Avengers #80 (1970) as a man named William Talltrees. After the success of his first appearance and a move to incorporate more female and minority heroes, Red Wolf got his own nine-issue series, except it was set in the old west. He appeared as an Anachronaut in the Avengers Forever run, but Talltrees was still the Red Wolf of the modern era until now.

Taboo As Redwolf

In the video Taboo speaks about the character in a way that it means more to him than just putting on a costume. The character and the outfit represent his heritage and his grandmother. He caresses his sharp red claws and smears black across his eyes. This seems to be a test, and if Red Wolf were to ever appear in one of Marvel’s live-action films or television series, I think Taboo would be first choice to play the character.

In music, films and life, Taboo has hit his hip hop stride and found his native voice.

Wendy Red Star Gets the Last Laugh

by Sandra Hale Schulman

News From Indian Country

I first saw Wendy Red Star’s work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sprawling exhibit of native art that ranged from traditional – ledger drawings, headdresses- to wildly contemporary – video and photography. A large photo by Wendy Red Star made me look twice. Seated in a diorama setting with astro turf for grass and an obvious fake wallpaper backdrop, Red Star posed with a blow up deer and a sincere “I am one with nature” look on her beautiful face.

Red Star wore a traditional Crow elk-tooth dress. The elk-tooth dress, an iconic image of Crow culture  is adorned with hundreds of reproduced elk teeth. Traditionally, the teeth were a symbol of wealth, as only two can be harvested from a single elk. So the juxtaposition of the sincere with faux takes this image to an otherworldly realm.

“The look pulls people in, but as you look closer you can see the image deteriorate, and if you are more privy to Native history you can see it right away,” Red Star says.

Born in Billings, Montana of Crow and Irish descent, Red Star was raised on the Crow reservation, she uses humor to confront romanticized representations. She poses popular depictions of Native Americans with authentic cultural and gender identities. Her groundbreaking work has been described as brash and surreal.

Her mother was a nurse who encouraged her daughter to pursue the Crow heritage. Her father ranched and was a licensed pilot who played in the “Maniacs”, an Indian rock band. Red Star is a niece of the artist Kevin Red Star who creates much more conservative native themed art.

In 2004, Red Star received her B.F.A. from Montana State University – Bozeman, majoring in sculpture, then earned an MFA from the University of California in Los Angeles. She now resides in Portland, Oregon.

She has continued to expand the media she works with to include photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. She pores over archives and historical narratives to upend their perspectives, taking traditional norms and giving them an unexpected twist. The Four Seasons series, one of which was shown at the Met exhibit, is a prime example – you almost think she is just the model who doesn’t realize the absurd setting she has been asked to pose in until you realize she is the artist too and totally in on the joke.

Another series she created is the “White Squaw” a totally offensive line of mock magazine covers that mash up classic pulp images of noble savages with Red Star’s face smiling and leering in mock pin up mode.

She poses red and yellow painted coyotes with Indian blankets draped across their backs, and paints buckskin dresses black to take these traditional icons into a new unsettling realm. One series has gold deer with their heads cut off, gold tinsel streaming from the wound.

In an interview with Artnet about the Met show, Red Star said “I come from a humorous background, not just my Crow side, but my Irish side as well. I’ve always seen things through this ironic lens. I’m always laughing.

In my own Crow community, we have a whole policing system that uses teasing. To have that element in my work is quite Native, or Crow, and I’m glad that it comes through. It’s universal. People can connect with the work that way. Then they can be open to talking about race. As a brown person, as a brown artist, your work is political. Whether you like it or not. Even if you are doing abstract painting, as soon as someone finds out you’re brown they think, “This is about racism.” The first time I came across this was when I was in undergrad and I was erecting teepees around campus. I had discovered that Bozeman, Montana was Crow territory. I wanted everybody to know that this was Crow territory. I didn’t even think of it as political. I just thought, this is true. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they are saying it’s political because it’s against the colonial standard. I don’t aim to do political work, but it becomes political because it’s talking outside the colonial framework. There’s a whole notion of being ‘authentic. Your art is supposed to look like the 19th century, like we’re a dead culture that never evolved.”

“Wendy’s work isn’t about being a victim, or bemoaning colonialism,” says Terrance Houle, a Canadian artist of Blood and Ojibwe ancestry with whom Red Star has collaborated. “It has a definite Indian sense of humor, and it’s bright and beautiful, and that’s an aspect of indigenous culture people don’t often see.”

Red Star has exhibited in the United States and abroad at venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier pour l’ Art Contemporain, Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Portland Art Museum, Hood Art Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among others. She served a visiting lecturer at institutions including Yale University, the Figge Art Museum, the Banff Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Dartmouth College, CalArts, Flagler College, Fairhaven College, and I.D.E.A. Space in Colorado Springs. In 2015, Red Star was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. In 2016, she participated in Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy at the Portland Art Museum, and recently mounted a solo exhibition as part of the museum’s APEX series.

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Sandra Hale Schulman is an arts writer, curator  and film producer. She is also a spokesperson for Native American causes on TV and radio.