photo by Ryan Young

With a moccasin on one foot, a boot on the other and a guitar in her hands, Kelly Jackson is a soulful, award winning songwriter who discovered at a very young age the medicinal power of music. By the time she started the 4th grade, Kelly already had notebooks filled with lyrics and wrote her first full length song at the age of eleven. She found that music had the power to invoke a full spectrum of human emotion, the power to inspire and the power to heal. It was that medicinal power that fueled her lifelong passion for songwriting and performing.

In 2010, Kelly began to compose her debut album and wasn’t sure what the end result would be since her musical style is an eclectic and inspired fusion of traditional native sounds, rock, blues, country, jazz and folk. As she allowed the music to flow, what she ended up creating was Spirit of a Woman, an album inspired by the most character defining moments of her life and her struggle to embrace and protect her indigenous heritage. The brilliance and honesty of her debut did not go unrecognized. In 2013, Kelly’s album was nominated for four Native American

Music Awards: Album of the Year, Best Female Vocalist of the Year, Best Folk/Americana Recording and Best Historical/Linguistic Recording of the year. She took home the award for Best Folk/Americana Recording.

The Woman Behind the Music

Aaniin! Waaswaagoning endungibaa. I am from Lac du Flambeau; Lake of the Torches! A member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. I grew up just south of the reservation in Wausau, Wisconsin. I was raised by my mother, a strong, independent and resourceful woman of primarily German and French Canadian decent. My father is a full-blooded Ojibwe man from Lac du Flambeau, Stanely Jackson. He was taken from my life when I was still an infant – killed at the old age of 23 years old. I spent only summers on the reservation but moved back in 1995 where I raised my children, started a career in cultural and environmental preservation and reconnected with my roots.

The Early Influence

Photo by Ryan Young

Music has been an influential part of my life. I can remember the flailing sounds of a powwow drum and my dad’s and uncles’ relentless guitar festivals. I can remember sitting around the kitchen table watching them sing and play until the sun came up; singing every old country song that existed. Every now and again, one of them would bust out an old 49 song, beating on the back of the guitar as if it was the most magnificent hand drum on earth. Little did I know their influences would carry on through me, to produce and record my own music collection. The most influential musician though is my uncle Larry Jackson. He taught me to play guitar and gave me the soulful inspiration to be me and nothing more.

The Music

Music molds all of our lives. Have you ever heard a song on the radio that immediately brought back a memory or brought tears to your eyes? It’s a part of life whether you create it or just appreciate it. Music has the power to mend a broken heart, sooth a restless mind, tend to the worries of life, provoke the spirit to dream, cater to the desire to move and sometimes gives you a whole new groove. Music is truly my medicine! It has undeniably shaped who I am and given me an outlet to express emotion and passion in ways I have never imagined. I only hope that my music offers the same inspiration and passion that I have gained from enjoying the creation of other musicians.

On Finding Inspiration

My music is inspired by some of the most character-defining moments of my life. Often times I pull from experiences that have shaped who I am, inspired by my sense of self. I really never know until I pick up my guitar and start to feel, to create and give back. I think I have placed a lot of who I am into my music and sometimes I leave it there. My song “What if” is all about celebrating who you are, what you have experienced; even the bad or ugly are critical parts of who we are. It’s better to look back and realize that all we experience and conquer makes us who we are as an individuals, as communities, and as nations. Yet nothing is worth dwelling on; it’s best to look back and learn and move forward. I would like to think that my music inspires people to move forward no matter what obstacles. I would hope that they would remember that nothing is too big or too hard to move past, that everything one has endured is yet another accomplishment. Mostly, I hope that the native women in my world realize their worth and realize that we have so much to offer one another simply by encouraging and supporting each other. Let’s lose the “crabs in the bucket” mentality that often plagues our communities and push one another to succeed.

I have no idea what another person may take from what I create, but one of the greatest moments of my music career was when a woman shared how my song touched and changed her life. She approached me this last year, telling me that my song “What If” invoked so much realization and inspiration that she decided to start a business and focus on her own dreams despite what others thought of her abilities. She has since opened a bakery and started her own path. She has opened her future to something she never thought was possible and when she hits a tough spot she simply plays my song.

On Giving Back

Having worked in cultural preservation for nearly two decades, I feel as though my largest “give back” if you will, is my passion for cultural preservation; whether it’s through the work I do with celebrating the perseverance of my people or delivering inspiration through music and media. I give back by making sure that my audience walks away with a piece of our history and culture and by sharing pieces of our history that are rarely found in history books. I give back by including native musicians throughout my region in my showcases and music and by sharing what I have learned in this industry with others.

Advice to Future Generations of Musicians

Follow your dreams, create, celebrate and most importantly share your music with yourself and others. If there is one thing that has been rewarding, it is the feedback and support I have received from people who have been touched by my music; it’s such a powerful medicine.

I would also say, that the music industry is business and you should treat it like a business. Understand it, appreciate it and learn it. It is a great outlet but in order to be successful you have to be willing to treat it like an investment.

About The Author

Johnnie Jae

Johnnie Jae is of the Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw tribes of Oklahoma. She is the managing partner of Native Max Magazine, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, and contributor to Native News Online. She is the manager and producer for the Success Native Style Radio Network, where she hosts the Indigenous Flame and A Tribe Called Geek radio shows. She is also a founding board member of Not Your Mascots. Known as the "Brown Ball of Fury," Jae seamlessly shifts from humor and pop culture to advocacy and digital media, which has made her a much-sought after speaker and commentator. Her work has been discussed in many media outlets, such as Indian Country Today, ATPN, CBC, USA Today, BBC, Global Post, Women’s E-News, and Upworthy. She has been a guest on several radio shows, including Native America Calling, Native Trailblazers, BBC World Have Your Say and ICI Radio.

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