(Soundbite of music by Radmilla Cody)
TONY COX, host:
The music of Radmilla Cody. She's a folk singer whose repertoire consists of songs from the Native American half of her heritage. I say half because Radmilla is also African-American. Her mother is Navajo, her father is black. And while Radmilla grew up negotiating the cultures of both of her parents, she told NPR's Farai Chadeya she feels closest to her Navajo side. And that, she says, begins, with the language.
Ms. RADMILLA CODY (Musician): (Speaking Navajo) My name is Radmilla Cody, and I am of the Redbottom people clan, born for the African-American. My maternal clans are of the Mexican clan, and my paternal clans are of the African-American and this is how I identify myself as a Navajo woman. I come from a community named Lupe (ph). My grandmother, who is 93 years old, named Dorothy Cody, raised me to learn the language and the ways of the Navajo people. My mother, her name is Margaret Cody. My father is Troy Davis, and my late grandfather who was a medicine man, his name was Archie Cody.
CHIDEYA: You mention that your grandmother, Dorothy, raised you. Tell me one of the things that first you remember about her.
Ms. CODY: Oh gosh. There's no - I mean, there's just just so many words I can describe her. But ultimately, she's a beautiful spirit, very strong spiritual woman, someone who has always worked very, very hard throughout her life. And I think it's kind of difficult, and it has been challenging for her at this age now, she's kind of still resenting it, you know. And she's still mobile, she still weaves rugs, but one of the things that she's always emphasized and stressed to me was to maintain the language.
I remember one time I was just stumbling on my words, as I was trying to explain something to her in Navajo and she got upset, you know, got upset with me, and she says, in Navajo - (Speaks in Navajo), which means, I don't ever want to hear you just saying walla walla walla walla because that's what English sounds like to her. You know, she's like, I taught you to speak Navajo, and you speak Navajo, you know, and so she's like don't ever forget that.
CHIDEYA: What was the first time that you realized that it made a difference to other people, if not to you, that you have both African-American and Native American heritage?
Ms. CODY: From my childhood. First and foremost, from my family. My uncles, how they would make me, you know, feel you know, alienated sometimes from the family by making, you know, remarks, racial remarks, or saying things that would make me feel, you know, like an outcast. And then, from there, you know, of course, leaving the home, I would get teased on the way to school, and on the way back, and also while I was at school you know. And then later on as I got older and visit my father's side of the family or just, you know, interact with the African-American communities, the same thing.
You know, it was, I, you know, I got teased from the African-American communities as well. I think it was during that time, you know, there from my childhood all the way even to present day. But I've grown to be more comfortable in my own skin now as a person and in understanding that I am who I am regardless of what other people may have to say or think.
CHIDEYA: There was an article in the Navajo Times that mentions that you were a runner-up in the Miss Black Arizona Pageant, and then of course, you also became Miss Navajo. What was it like being in those two different contexts, and having to represent what it meant to be a woman? And was it different in either case?
Ms. CODY: It was different. When I participated in the Miss Black Arizona Pageant, I actually took the Navajo side of me into that. I remember standing on stage, speaking Navajo. And reciting a poem in Navajo and you know, here were these, you know, black folks who were looking at me like, what is she doing or what is she saying? But at the same time, I stood up there very proud. I identified more with the Navajo side, because I was more - I was around the Navajo side more. And then participating in the Miss Navajo Nation Pageant, people were, I think, taken back by the fact that I spoke, you know, the language fluently and knew how to make fry bread and butcher a sheep. And, you know, people were very surprised by that.
As far as it making me a woman and just creating that bridge to really help myself, I understand more now that because I carry on my mother's lineage, my mother's clan, my grandmother's clan as a woman, that makes me the Navajo side and Navajo before I'm black. I really began to understand the importance of the matriarchal society in the Navajos.
CHIDEYA: It sounds like, in some ways, an idyllic life. You know, growing up outdoors and then becoming a beauty pageant contestant, winning. Going on to have a recording career, but you've also had some really rough moments. Like when you spent time in jail in connection with dating a drug dealer and not reporting the drug trafficking. That must have been a moment that you questioned what path your life had taken. How did you turn that around now to do the work that you do for teens, as well?
Ms. CODY: Well, you live and you learn, if you choose to. And one thing that my grandmother has always taught me is that you always turn your negative experiences into something positive. And so when I ended up in prison, it allowed me to finally stop and to look at myself and to allow myself to heal. You know, it's just all been a learning process for me, and I'm just happy that I'm able to share my experiences. You know, even if, you know, I am still dealing a lot of criticism, as a result of it.
(Soundbite of Ms. Cody singing the National Anthem in Navajo)
CHIDEYA: Back in 2002, you sang the National Anthem in Navajo at the Kennedy Space Center to commemorate the first Native American in space. And on your "Seed of Life" album you sing "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful." Why is it important to sing and record these songs in Navajo?
Ms. CODY: Well, for one, and again it goes back to preserving the language. And it's important, it's a very, very important, again, part of our identity. And even if it's difficult for some of our young ones to speak the language, you hear them singing it. And so, if that's a start, and you know, in the right direction for them to learn to connect to the importance of speaking Navajo and singing Navajo, we've done our job.
CHIDEYA: Radmilla, thanks so much.
Ms. CODY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of Ms. Cody singing the National Anthem in Navajo)
COX: NPR's Farai Chideya talking with African-American-slash-Native American singer Radmilla Cody. Radmilla's latest collection of music is called "Precious Friends, Songs for Children."
That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website, nprnewsandnotes.org. News & Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio consortium.