John Trudell died today. He was a man with a power that came with words – he spoke the truth without hesitation. I got to meet him a few times in past – most recently at the Emerald Cup, where he was a performer. The first time was back in 1993 when I interviewed him for a Eureka magazine, Edge City. Coincidentally, Chris Laurer, the publisher of Edge City (which with later was called Anthem Monthly) died last week. They both fell after a battle with cancer. I will miss both of them.
What follows is our conversation in 1993, titled:
John Trudell AKA Grafitti Man
John Trudell is an American Indian poet, activist, and actor. In 1992 he appeared in two films directed by Michael Apted detailing in different ways the plight of the Indian in modern American society. Incident at Oglala is a documentary examining the events leading to the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier following the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Trudell’s interviews shed light on this dark point in our history. He was the founder of the Peltier Defense Committee and at the time of the “incident” was the chairman of the American Indian Movement. In the film Thunderheart he plays the fictional role of Jimmy Looks Twice, Indian activist pursued by the FBI, not much of a stretch.
While he was the spokesman for AIM in the ’70’s the FBI amassed a 17,000 page file on his activities. According to them, “Trudell is an intelligent individual and eloquent speaker who has the ability to stimulate people into action..In short, he is an extremely effective agitator.”
In 1979 on the day after Trudell burned a flag in front of FBI headquarters an arson fire killed his wife, his three children, and his wife’s mother. He decided that politics were too dangerous for the people around him. He left AIM and started writing.
In 1985 he met Jesse Edwin Davis III, a Kiowa blues guitarist who had been part of Taj Mahal’s original band. Their collaboration resulted in a limited release tape called AKA Grafitti Man. Bob Dylan called it “the best album of 1986.” Rykodisc later released another album called AKA Grafitti Man, a cd collection of material reviewing most of Trudell’s career from the first sessions with Jesse to recent works like Bombs Over Baghdad. He doesn’t sing yet his words are lyrical songs. His poetry is accompanied by drums and chants combined with blues licks to create an ancient yet modern sound.
John Trudell and the Grafitti Band were part of the line-up for Reggae on the River ’93, a Tribute to the Indigenous Peoples of the World. I spoke to him about his film and music career starting with his involvement in the fight for the rights of the American Indian.
Bob Doran (for Edge City Magazine with EC as initals) – What brought you to Alcatraz?
John Trudell – That was in ’69, by then I had tried getting an education, whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t there. I went in the military and whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t there. And then after the military I went to college and whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t there.
EC- What were you looking for?
JT- I don’t know… I was looking for something in America, but I saw America didn’t have it. I was in this holding period and then (the Indian occupation of) Alcatraz happened and I went there. What I was looking for was there… It was a consciousness that refused to validate the American hypocrisy. It was people with spirit.
EC- Was that the beginning of the American Indian Movement?
JT- No. The Alcatraz occupation was Indians of All Tribes Alcatraz. That was it’s own community and group. AIM was an organization that was starting in the Midwest around that time, out of Minneapolis. They were always two separate things.
EC- How did you connect with AIM?
JT- I met the AIM people when I was with Indians of All Tribes. They said, “something is wrong and we’re not going to pretend it’s not.” That’s what I was looking for. We are not going to pretend any more.
EC- What was your role with AIM?
JT- At that time I worked with them on different things because I was representing Alcatraz. After the occupation, I went into the Midwest and I worked in the different tribal communities. A lot of those communities became part of AIM. I was working with them because they were doing something that I agreed with. In 1973, I became chairman of AIM and I remained chairman til ’79 and then I stopped being chairman and continued on my own way.
EC- What was AIM trying to do?
JT- Same thing Indians have been doing for five hundred years, trying to say to America, “Hey, knock off the genocide, right?” That is the reality that cannot be minimized by other terms. America commits genocide against the indigenous people continually, and continues to do it today.
EC- Why did you leave AIM?
JT- It was time to go…. Then I started writing.
EC- Writing poetry?
JT- I just started writing and it got identified as poetry. The first thing I did was just reading them, doing readings. At some point I started taking the spoken word lines and putting it with music. The first move with the music was with the traditional drum, that’s the Tribal Voice series. A couple of years after that I had the opportunity to work with Jesse Ed Davis and I took the spoken word and put it with the electric music.
EC- How did you hook up with Jesse?
JT- I was doing a poetry reading and Jesse came. He had heard the Tribal Voice tape. He came to this poetry reading and he told me his name, and then he said, “I can make music for your words.” That’s how I met Jesse.
EC- Was his band called Grafitti Man?
JT- No, Jesse didn’t have a band. Grafitti Man was put together after we made the album in ’85. We recorded it in an eight track studio in Culver City in the summer of ’85. Jesse put the band together a year later. These were all people Jesse knew and had played with before.
EC- Why did you call it Grafitti Man?
JT- I don’t know, it was the name of the album and it just kind of stuck. Of my own I would not have named the band Grafitti Man…Jesse and I made two albums.
EC- Heart Jump Bouquet…
JT- …and AKA Grafitti Man.
EC- What about, But This Isn’t El Salvador?
JT- I made that with Quiltman and Jesse came in and laid some guitar tracks over three of the songs.
EC- That was part of your Tribal Voice series. Are you planning more?
JT- At some point yeah. What were doing now, rather than running the Grafitti Man-electric/Tribal Voice-traditional, we’re going more towards mixing the two.
EC- I think they work well together.
JT- On But This Isn’t El Salvador, Jesse overdubbed his guitar after we already had the drums and singers in there. It was an experiment just to see how we could float the guitar through there without altering the traditional music.
EC- Is there anything from those sessions on the Rykodisc album?
JT- Only one song, Beauty In a Fade. The Ryko stuff is basically a compilation drawing from the earlier period. Now we have more songs with traditional aspects incorporated.
EC- Now that you’ve put this collection from your tapes out on Ryko, are you still distributing the tapes?
JT- No. I didn’t want to be in the distribution business, that’s why I made the agreement with Ryko, so that I can take care of other things.
EC- What are some of the issues that you deal with in your new material?
JT- I don’t think the issues ever change. That was one of the things that disgusted me about political things and mentalities. People have a tendency to be cause oriented and issue oriented. What I see is the whole American way of doing things is wrong, totally out of balance. It makes no reasonable coherent sense to me. That is the constant issue. What ever my work is, it’s always within the context of that. Bombs Over Baghdad well, they happened to be fighting that war at that time. It was a statement, just like Rich Man’s War is a statement.
EC- In your song Baby Boom Che you connect rock & roll with revolution. Do you think rock music can change things?
JT- Yes…It helped to change things once. But the system has kind of absorbed the artist, so what it needs is a new infusion of human energy and it can help to change things again. In some way, rock & roll and the whole Civil Rights movement are deeply interwoven, but nobody really connects it. The intensity of white support in the movement increased when people got to see Chuck Berry and Little Richard on Bandstand and hear them on the radio. Rock &roll was an imitation of what the black music was. It opened many doors. Presley came in and woke the whites up about it. They challenged the Fascism of music. There was all this energy, it was just about energy and using the music as a part of that energy, not depending on the music to be the energy…But the music industry kind of stepped in and before you know it they were all cleaned up. There was Frankie Avalon and the boys all cleaned up. The rowdies were made to cleanup too, but the potential was there.
EC- You feel that it was co-opted?
JT- Everything is. If it’s there long enough, the system is going find a way to absorb the parts of it that are most dangerous. (laughs)
EC- How does that relate to what’s happening now? It seems like black music is again laying out a message.
JT- I think that the music industry…I think that Big Brother has it under control. The music that the mass audience hears is definitely under control and has been for years. It has been since the 70’s. People just fool them selves if they think it’s different. Look what happened to Ice T. He wrote a song and he got kicked off his label. He has to go fend and struggle for himself. They took him out of that major distribution system, didn’t they? Same with Sister Soulja. We got to look at the reality of this thing. As long as they can make money out of it and keep the anger and prejudices and emotions stirred up, they don’t give a fuck what people think. It’s in their best interest if people think that they’re getting somewhere because they can be mad or they can swear or do this or do that. It’s all a big game.
EC- You think rap music is under the control of the industry?
JT- It’s an authentic voice of the black community, alright? But, the business decision making process is under control. It’s a way of the white music world exploiting the black community and turning a profit by manipulating their rage and their frustration and anger. It comes out through their art and culture and you’ve got a white dominated and controlled business industry manipulating that.
EC- As an artist working in that context, what can you do?
JT- Just recognize those realities (laughs) and continue on, but not fool ourselves about it.
EC- You mean by thinking that you are talking about revolution when you’re just boosting record sales.
JT- It’s like this. Maybe revolution doesn’t work. Maybe it never did. Maybe all revolution does is just make new oppressors out of those who chase away the old oppressors. Maybe that’s the factual actual history of revolution if anyone really truly looks at it.
EC- The word actually means to turn something around.
JT- That’s right. Maybe revolution isn’t the thing we really need to be looking at. This is what I mean when I say Big Brother’s got it under control. Maybe Big Brother wants people to stay angry, because Big Brother is in the business of selling weapons and controlling people. Maybe they’re trying to create fertile ground so they can kill the poor. In the name of law and order they get rid of the most radical dissent because you know they’re running out of prison space. About the “New World Order” and economic debts all of these things, we really need to consider the practical realities. What do I consider as an alternative? My alternative is to think about it. We can create solutions to these problems, but it’s about evolution. We’ve got to evolve around and through this situation to change it.
EC- Do you feel that the recent change in administration in Washington will change things?
JT- We’re the Baby Boom Generation. The money’s real tight. Everybody’s feeling desperate. There’s no way our generation was going to accept any more lies from the generation before us. They knew it, so they put one of our own amongst us. We will listen to the lies from him because he’s going to say it completely different. He’s lost in himself enough that he believes everything that he says, so he’s not lying when he says it. He just has to change what he said a little later on, but to him he’s not lying, he’s being pragmatic. He’s the perfect politician, that’s all he’s wanted to be all of his life. This may be the most controllable person that there is, much more controllable than an ex-CIA head….People have to understand the economic reality. He can not do what he told everyone he was going to do, because the money’s not there. The people that stole the money aren’t going to give it back to him so he can fix it. And no one’s paying close attention at all.
EC- People are waiting to see what’s going to happen next…
JT- That’s what I’m saying, why wait to ask questions? People should be asking questions as the thing goes along. There’s too many people taking the attitude of, “don’t really ask him anything too real because we want to give him time.” Nobody wants to talk about anything real. This relates back to the music thing. In many parts of this country, I see all this energy that is starting to come through music, dealing with real consciousness and things. This hold that I say Big Brother has on the music, I don’t necessarily mean that we can’t get through it and it can’t be changed, but we have to be real about it within our own minds. There’s a level of energy that can be communicated, that’s real, that’s the essence of who we really are. When we look as clearly as we can at what’s going on around us it increases our ability to communicate from our essence more than just from our logic. Presley communicated from essence not logic, so did the Beatles. It’s about putting things in harmony or synchronicity.
EC- Are you going to continue with your film career?
JT- I don’t know. (laughs) It’s not up to me… It is in a way and in a way it’s not. I would be interested in doing more if it turns out that way.
EC- I was told that the character Johnny Looks Twice in Thunderheart was a lot like you. Would you agree?
JT- No. Let’s say Looks Twice is part of me. I’m more than that.
EC- So you’d say it’s just one of your facets.
JT- Yeah, that’s more accurate.
EC- How do you feel about the way the American Indian is portrayed in film?
JT- It’s what I call “Fascist Romanticism.” It’s the prison that the industry tries to hold us in.
EC- Like the “Noble Savage”?
JT- Kind of. It’s like it’s in the past, it isn’t like that now…Anyway I don’t watch the movies. I don’t pay any attention to it.
EC- But you were involved in these two projects…
JT- They were contemporary stories. The Incident at Oglala was a documentary. It wasn’t a Hollywood type thing, although Hollywood was there doing it, and Thunderheart was a contemporary story, but you know I saw the Romanticisms through it too but it was a bit more coherent.
EC- You mean because it wasn’t totally a true story.
JT- Yeah, well they couldn’t tell it as a true story. They had to fictionalize it in order to tell it. (laughs) This is America, man.