Raye Zaragoza weaves indigenous and ecological activism into her music



Raye Zaragoza wants you to know that her second album is Woman in color, is not just for women or people of color. “For me, it’s all about togetherness,” she says. “It’s an album for everyone, and that’s my ultimate message.”

While the folk singer explores her identity as a multi-ethnic woman in her music – her mother is Japanese, her father is Native American and indigenous Mexican – she refuses to assign herself a label. Zaragoza wants to be seen as an artist in order to let her nuanced works speak for themselves. And it does.

She sings her dreamy melodies with a rich voice that evokes the colors of the setting sun or the amber falling from a tree. Every song is beautiful and singable, which makes their music wonderfully subversive. The listener walks away with one of her melodies on her mind, and then her words – challenging and educational and invigorating – really begin to work.

Raye Zaragoza sings in front of a live audience at Red Rocks. (Photo: Parallax Creative)

Zaragoza first stepped into the spotlight in 2016 when it began to bond with the indigenous part of its identity. She was deeply affected by the environmental injustices that took place in the Standing Rock Sioux community over the water threat posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline. When she saw the violence of the demonstrators, she wrote a song. In the river, supports the movement. The song went viral.

She traveled to Standing Rock in December of that year and describes it as a life changing experience. “I felt like I found my voice in this movement and I was really woken up by so many things,” says Zaragoza. “I want to spend my whole life, my art and my voice and my songs fighting this injustice.”

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This spirit of resistance permeates Woman in color. The most striking track on the album is Red, about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Zaragoza says the song was created after speaking at the Indigenous Music Awards 2018 in Winnipeg. When she was leaving the event late at night to return to her hotel, a man warned, “Sister, have someone take you home with you. Don’t go walking alone at night. ”When she asked why, he said,“ They found native women in the Red River. ”She was shocked.

Zaragoza grew up in New York City, detached from her indigenous heritage. Little did she know about the epidemic of indigenous women and girls missing across North America. When she returned to her hotel room that evening, she spent hours researching the problem.

red was inspired by this new knowledge, says Zaragoza, combined with the terrifying image of a red river. The text also mentions the Highway of Tears, a stretch of British Columbia’s Highway 16 known for enforced disappearances.

“I have no answers on how to fix this terrible problem,” she says. “But if I could write a song about it that would spark more conversations like the one we’re having right now … I’ll do my job.”

At a time when there are so many social upheavals, we need more protest music. Thankfully, Zaragoza seems more than ready to take on the mantle. She uses her words and music not only to share the challenges of indigenous people, but also to challenge mainstream definitions of beauty and raise marginalized voices.

“There is so much wrong in the world and I want to create art in a place that recognizes that darkness,” she says. “And I want to make something beautiful out of it, hopefully to wake up other people as well.”


Glynis Ratcliffe is a freelance writer based in Whitby, Ontario.

This story first appeared in Broadviews Issue June 2021 with the title “Anthems of Awakening: Raye Zaragoza’s Dreamy Melodies Carry a Message”.

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