'Blackfire' Siblings Rock It Out

What do you get when you mix Navajo culture, social activism and punk rock grooves? The answer: Blackfire. Founded nearly twenty years ago, Blackfire is made up of three siblings who describe their music as “indigenous high-energy political rock slash punk.” Host Allison Keyes talks with band members Jeneda, Clayson and Klee Benally about their music, their mission and their new album.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

And finally, we want to lay some music on you, but we won't be putting you to sleep with a list of holiday favorites. Meet Blackfire.

(Soundbite of song, "Overwhelming")

BLACKFIRE (Music Group): (Singing) Harder, (unintelligible), why should I calm down, I know I've been to see you. I go through (unintelligible) all these questions rise. (Unintelligible) overwhelming...

That's the track Overwhelming from the group's latest album, "Silence As A Weapon." Really like that song.

This is a Dineh, or Navajo Native-American, rock band made up of three siblings, Jeneda, Clayson and Klee Benally. Their lyrics carry messages about government oppression, relocation of indigenous people, and human rights.

I'm joined now by all three siblings, big, little, and middle, from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Welcome to TELL ME MORE.

Ms. JENEDA BENALLY (Musician, Blackfire): Thank you.

KEYES: Clayson, let me start with you, and let's start at the beginning. How did you guys decide you were going to be a band?

Mr. CLAYSON BENALLY (Musician, Blackfire): Oh, the long, sad story. So we, of course, you know, as children growing up in an area where we didn't have a lot of resources, we, you know, had a lot of musical influences from our father who was a traditional Navajo singer, Dineh in an area where we didn't have a lot of resources, we, you know, had a lot of musical influences from our father who was a traditional Navajo singer, Dineh (foreign language spoken) and, you know, we always used our voice, you know, to sing and express ourselves in that way.

Then my mom, she's a folk singer/songwriter, quite the opposite of my dad growing up from the Greenwich Village music scene and bringing all those different elements together, you know, we always knew that we could express ourselves with music, with song, and we started writing our own material, and we just we just naturally became Blackfire.

KEYES: What's the name Blackfire mean?

Ms. BENALLY: In our language we say (foreign language spoken), which is a warning. And when the enemy was coming near a long time ago, you would put a blanket over a fire and that black plume of smoke sent up is called (foreign language spoken) which translates into black fire.

But also, where we come from on Black Mesa, there is a coalmine that sadly, we've grown up with. We've grown up protesting it. We've witnessed people having black lung, and the forced relocation of over 14,000 of our people since the 1970's.

Mr. CLAYSON BENALLY: So if you kind of...

KEYES: You know, it's actually very interesting that you said that, and I want to bring Klee in, because I don't want him to feel left out, but I'm curious as to whether your activism caused you to start the band, or if you had already started the band and then decided to use the music as part of your activism?

Mr. KLEE BENALLY: (Musician, Blackfire): When we first started playing music, we really didn't intend on, you know, a specific genre. But when we first heard punk music like the Subhumans, the Dead Kennedys...

KEYES: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. KLEE BENALLY: ...The Ramones, Crass, we could connect not only to the energy and the rawness, but the fact that there was political content. There was a message there that was being driven by emotional content we could connect to.

And growing up, faced with addressing forced relocation, faced with environmental degradation and hardly anybody outside of our own community was talking about these issues. So in order to challenge, to confront, and expose these issues, we chose to put it out there.

KEYES: I want to play another cut. This one's from your "One Nation Under" album, called "What Do You See?"

(Soundbite of song, "What Do You See?")

BLACKFIRE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) but how can you get anywhere (unintelligible) what you can. Take for granted what you don't understand. What do you see?

I believe we hear a man - well, I don't want to call it whooping, because it's not whooping, but the average listener might think, what on earth is that. Jeneda talk to me about what we're hearing in that song.

Ms. BENALLY: That beautiful sound that you hear is our father singing a traditional song in our language.

(Soundbite of song, "What Do You See?")

BLACKFIRE: (Singing) What do you see?

And it's talking about how it's important to be rooted in our culture, to understand who we are. So that way we know where we're going in life.

Mr. CLAYSON BENALLY: I think that - this is Clayson here - a lot of our culture has solutions to the complexities that we find ourselves in today, you know, from global warming, you know, if we look back to who we are, our cultural identity, we've lived in balance with this earth and environment as indigenous peoples for, you know, generations upon generations. And that link is still there. There's a connection that we have with our culture.

If we lose our languages, if we lose who we are, our identity, then a part of those teachings is lost forever. So that's one important thing that we've learned, in that we try to communicate with Blackfire.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dineh Navajo Native American rock band Blackfire, who are lead by Jeneda, Clayson and Klee Benally.

I want to play another song, and you guys didn't write this one. This is written by guitarist Woody Guthrie, and here is a little of "Mean Things Happening in This World."

(Soundbite of Music)

BLACKFIRE: (Singing) Look at people across the sea (unintelligible). There's mean things happening in this world. (Unintelligible). There's mean things happening in this world.

KEYES: So Klee, how did you guys end up recording this?

Mr. KLEE BENALLY: It's a wonderful story of connecting with Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's daughter, who has embarked on this project to bring new life into unpublished, unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics. Woody Guthrie, of course he wrote this song "This Land is Your Land." We always change the words to this land is stolen land. But he was a very prolific songwriter, and had only really recorded a handful of the songs that he had written.

So we had the great opportunity of going to the Woody Guthrie archives and finding a couple of songs, and this one really resonated with us because at the time, of course, you know, we were looking at the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, and this song was written over 60 years ago. It was actually an old sharecropper's song that was sort of reconfigured by Woody Guthrie, rewritten, and turned into an anti-war song. So we really felt that had a lot of meaning to us, and we needed to communicate it.

KEYES: How fabulous.

Mr. KLEE BENALLY: Especially because it doesn't - it's sort of depressing first, you know, that 60 years ago the song written and it has meaning today, but it also reminds us in a very powerful way that we're connected to a movement that didn't just start in the '60's or, you know, 60 years ago. It's a movement that's being carried forward today by people who care about healthy communities and peace.

KEYES: Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Is there a song that you want to go out on?

Mr. KLEE BENALLY: "Silence Is a Weapon" would be great because right now Leonard Peltier, a political prisoner, indigenous person who is warrior who stood up to defend his land and his people, has been incarcerated for more than half of his life for a crime he not commit. And that song is a reflection from words that he shared.

KEYES: Jeneda, Clayson and Klee Benally are founders of the rock band Blackfire, and they joined us from Flagstaff, Arizona. Thanks very much for coming and sharing your activism and music with us.

Ms. BENALLY: Thank you.

KEYES: To find out more about Blackfire, please go to npr.org, then to programs, and click on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of song, "Silence Is a Weapon")

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