How Rising Appalachia is forging connections with activists and ancestors, one community at a time - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

World travelers, unwavering activists, truth-seekers, and sisters Leah and Chloe Smith have borne an unprecedented genre steeped in folk, bluegrass, spoken word, hip-hop, vintage jazz, and global influences. The two sisters were raised by parents devout in their study of traditional Appalachian music in Atlanta, when its hip-hop scene was beginning to flourish.

Leah and Chloe absorbed the mountain music and urban rhythms that followed them through childhood and wield both to address issues of justice that span locational dualities in their band Rising Appalachia. They never strategized to become a full-time, official group, and didn’t even have a name when they recorded their first album over a decade ago. With their seventh album Leylines out now, Rising Appalachia is still rooted in the autonomy and an underground aesthetic that characterized their independently funded, marketed, and produced first record.

The Key: In 2015, Rising Appalachia founded the Slow Music Movement, which fosters a cultural shift in slowing down the pace of touring to intentionally connect with the communities you play for. Can you tell me more about the evolution of this movement?

Leah Song: Yes, we have a project called the Slow Music Movement which is a way that we’ve brought some context and some more rooted touring into our lives. It’s a way to just have conversations around a more sustainable practice in the music industry, which is really unsustainable. It’s just incredibly fast-paced and you don’t get to know a place when you’re on the road, you’re just moving all the time. So we started this music movement to create a blueprint where we would be able to stay in regions longer. And then we do a lot of direct action work kind of on the ground with a lot of urban farms and urban justice coalitions.

We try and bring in local food into the green rooms, which is fairly, you know, not a, not a novel idea, but amazingly tricky to get venues to agree to do that. And then we make a lot of space for the local folks, local nonprofits to come and set up information. There’s a lot of pieces to it and also every now and then we’re able to actually physically tour slower. We’ve toured by sailboat, by train, and done some long-distance walking, We’ve talked a lot about touring by horseback.

TK: That’s awesome. It’s almost ironic that the simplest way of touring is a novelty in the music industry. Do you have any plans to honor the Slow Music Movement when you’re in Philadelphia?

LS: Yeah, we try and honor it at every show. So at every show it’s a little bit different looking. Maybe sometimes it means that we’ll have local food at the at the venue, maybe other times it means that we spend a little bit of time in the region doing a hike and directly connecting with the landscape. Sometimes it’s homeless youth education and sometimes it’s art activism. The folks doing good work on the ground are who we want to connect with and whose stories we want to hear

TK: It seems like a tenant of the Slow Music Movement is conscious activism. What ignited your passion for activism and public service?

LS: The whole band was involved in activism before we were involved in performance. So it was a natural swing for us. I was doing a lot of work around indigenous communities. I spent a lot of time in Southern Mexico studying the Zapatista Movement and learning about art as a tool for social justice. My sister did a frontline eco-activism work in the redwood forests. Our drummer spent a lot of time studying and working in West Africa.

I think that it was hard for me when Rising Appalachia started. I really wanted to spend more time on the ground, and I felt like the stage was a little too glittery for me. But slowly I realized that it’s a really powerful tool to be able to provoke and ask questions and really encourage dialogue amongst our community, our fan base, and it’s a more nuanced form of activism. Music has been a driving part in many historical movements. It felt like we could shift our focus and still be very deeply involved in change.

TK: I think we have this idea of what an activist looks and musicians aren’t typically categorized as such. You mentioned that you travelled to Mexico and I wanted to ask you more about that. What drew you to this region and what was the most important thing you learned while there?

LS: I spent about six years living in Latin America. I was born into a family that was lower middle class. We didn’t have very much money. Our father was a working artist and our mother, a flight attendant for many years. But they understood that one of the biggest tools they could give us was travel, and that it is a powerful way to learn a massive number of things that a fancy education would never get you. A big part of our upbringing was just to be curious about the world and people who had different beliefs and backgrounds and stories than us. 

When I graduated from high school, I started putting together my own sort of independent travel project and I found a position in Southern Mexico where I could volunteer in exchange for my room and board. I took Spanish lessons and I lived for about a year in Southern Mexico alongside a lot of amazing travelers and educators. I wanted to be involved in the revolutionary spirit of the movement that was happening then. It was not too long after the very public revolution. I wanted to sort of witness how the community was growing, changing and stabilizing. I really wanted to learn the language as well.

I feel like it’s a strange thing as citizens of the United States that we don’t speak other languages. In most nations, you learn the languages of your neighboring countries. And it felt really important to me to be able to speak with our neighbors. So, there were many things that drew me down there and I stayed for a year and then I went from there into Guatemala. I spent some time in Columbia and I ended up staying for the bulk of my early twenties into my mid-twenties, living in and loving and immersing myself in Latin America. And I never thought I would come back. Rising Appalachia started after that, I think as a way to bring us back into an understanding of our home as southerners.

The Key: Wow. In your TEDx Asheville talk, you said something that, in essence, suggested we’re always walking in the direction of our work and that we never get to a place where our work is done. So, I was wondering, what is the “work” of Rising Appalachia?

LS: I think what’s really valuable for us is to be using traditional music and folk music both from the American South but also from all around the world, you know, the front porch music, as a tool for storytelling, connection and cultural curiosity. Music is an interesting hall pass into different communities. I mean it’s something that we all have access to. I think we’re very in love with studying all kinds of folk music and then taking parts of it and writing our own music that feels alive and contemporary and relevant to what’s going on around us in this day and age.  

Another piece of it is using the power of the stage and the power of the masses. The power of a microphone to really be a catalyst as best we can. And I don’t think anybody knows the answers of how to navigate our incredibly chaotic world right now, but I think we want our music to be provoking people to ask questions of their own communities, of their own families, to figure out how to get more involved, how to get a more nuanced perspective of what injustice might look like around you. And what equity might look like. We can provoke those conversations in a gentle way to get people to connect a little deeper with who they are and where they come from and how they want their lives to move.

The Key: I like what you said about gentleness. I think that music transfers its affect to listeners.

LS: It’s been fairly proven that that humans and animals don’t learn from brutality. Like everything tightens up and shuts down if things are brutal. And I think we’re living in really brutal times and actually we need to find ways to soften and feel the capacity and the compassion to make change.

The Key: In addition to your Appalachian heritage, I’m curious about the other ancestral influences behind your music. In your writing, you’ve touched on a Western tendency to latch onto indigenous cultures, which often looks like people going into the Amazon to learn practices that are accessible. You shared that there is power in learning about our own indigenous roots and that we all come from ancestors who had relationships with the earth and traditional medicines and rituals. What rituals and practices, if any, have you discovered through your own bloodline and how have they influenced Rising Appalachia’s music?

LS: Yeah, totally. I think that’s a really hot topic and triggering for a lot of people, and rightfully so. We’re living in a country that has had such a horrific relationship with genocide and also a really rootless people. And so I think there’s a lot of conversation around roots and culture and indigenous rights and cultural appropriation and the incredibly complex and painful pieces of all of that. I think, from my work in indigenous justice and as an ally, and also in studying my own ancestry, so often what is wanted and needed is for people to know who they are and know where they come from. And from there you really can stand up and be an ally and in partnership with all kinds of different historical backgrounds and different movements. There’s also an important conversation around what an enormous lack of identity has come out of the colonizer culture. That the people who are the ancestors of the colonizer culture don’t know their own traditions and don’t know the bedrock of where they’ve come from. It’s a long and hard and complicated conversation and there are people doing it as their life work.

I’ll try and tell one of the most amazing stories that I know in a Cliff Note form. We work with a community based out of the Dakotas and Colorado. A man named Paul Soderman Harney and his best friend Philip Little Thunder. Paul got involved in Lakota culture as a white man and then started doing his ancestral research. He realized that he was a living descendant of a general who had done a massive amount of massacre hundreds of years back. And so instead of denying it and kind of going into to the massive amount of mourning and guilt that would come from that, he went straight in to learning more. He then worked in the Lakota tribes where his ancestor had carried out a massacre. And they collectively brought an appeal to the U S government to take the name of his ancestor off a piece of public property in the black Hills. And the us government didn’t want to do it.

It was called Harney’s Peak. He wrote a letter. He said, “I’m a living descendant of this person and I would like my name, my ancestor’s name, removed, and I would like the rightful name of the Lakota community put back onto this piece of property.” It was pushed through and approved and this whole piece of land was renamed. For me, this represents how finding out about your ancestry gives you the tools to repair. You know, it gives you the ability to make good relationships and to repair damage and to know your history. I think that’s what the world wants from us, to stir up those stories and use them, use them for betterment.

TK: Thank you for sharing that. It makes me think about how these wounds exist, whether we decide to interrogate and repair the psycho-spiritual damage of them or not.

LS: Yeah. It’s a good way to put it. Like they’re there and they’re sort of the ghosts of our country and they’re not going away. It’s a challenge. it’s a huge undertaking, but it’s not disappearing.

TK: Right. The individual wound is the collective wound.

Rising Appalachia plays World Cafe Live on Thursday, November 21st. Tickets and more information on the concert can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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