tribes of Native America were making music on the North American continent
for centuries before the Europeans arrived. The drumming of pow wow
music was considered the heartbeat of the nation, a deep pulsating
sound often parodied in cowboy films. Like many marginalized cultures,
Native Americans developed their own style of music, often incorporating
the sounds of blues, European folk, classical music, and more recently,
rock n roll. Like African American music before the advent
of phonograph records, the sounds of Native America were developed
outside the attention of mainstream American culture, with notable
exceptions. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson, R. Carlos Nakai,
Grammy-winner Rita Coolidge, spoken-word artist John Trudell, and
jazzman Jim Pepper have all broken through, but despite the initiation
of a Native American Grammy category in 2000, most Native American
artistsrockers, rappers, reggae singersreceive little
attention from the music industry.
That situation will change in the next
few years if Micki Free and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have anything
to say about it. Free won a Grammy for Dont Get Stopped
in Beverly Hills, a song he co-wrote for the Beverly Hills
Cop soundtrack in 1985. He recently signed on as the Director of
Promotions and Special Events for the Seminole tribe of Florida,
owners of Hard Rock International, the company that runs the Hard
Rock Café chain. With the power of the Seminole tribe behind
him, Free is initiating several measures that will give Native American
musicians a shot at national exposure.
The Seminoles acquired the Hard
Rock brand [except for the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas] in 2005,
Free explained from his home in Hollywood, Florida. Ive
been working with them for six years. When the tribe took over,
the Hard Rock brand was dying. They worked with Hard Rock CEO James
Allen and rescued it. Today, Hard Rock Cafés are hotter than
ever. Hard Rock Calling, put on by the Tribe and Live Nation, has
been the biggest festival in London for the last five years with
artists including Aerosmith, Clapton, McCartney, and other superstars.
The tribe has also initiated new programs that will help bring more
Indian musicians into the public eye.
Those programs, put together with Frees
help, include packaging Native American artists together for the
Native Music Rocks tours that play Hard Rock venues around the world,
the Star Search talent contest, the Star Search Talent Camps, and
the Native Music Rocks record label, distributed internationally
by Fontana/Uni music.
We book the Native Music Rocks shows
into Hard Rock Cafés to showcase the best Native musicians
around. We call it Native Music Rocks, not Native Rock, for a reasonbecause
all Native music rocks! Weve got blues artists, rappers, drum
groups, singer/songwriters, rock n rollers
name it. This year Im going on the road with my band, the
Micki Free Electric Blues Experience. The opening acts will be Casper
Lomayesva , a Hopi reggae artist that I signed to Native Music Rocks
Records; Keith Secola, a rocker that some call the Native Bruce
Springsteen; and Shay, a Cherokee blues singer who is just amazing.
Ive got a stack of CDs in my office from hundreds of independent
[Native American] bands from all over the country. They all want
a shot, and as we expand the program, were going to give every
good act a chance. Were doing a huge promotional campaign
that will bring a lot of attention to the Hard Rock Cafés
and Native Music Rocks.
We started the Star Search talent
contest in 2008, and were just gearing up for Star Search
2011. The contest is only open to Seminole tribe members at the
present time, but were hoping to develop it into a nationwide
talent search. When I created it, I modeled it after American Idol,
but without the negative feedback. Every year we pick three winners
and take them into the studio and produce their music. We do a couple
of singles on each artist and upload them to iTunes, Amazon, and
other digital retailers. Young people dont seem to be buying
full albums anymore; downloads are the wave of the future. We dont
sign everyone to a label deal, because the music biz as it once
was is gone. If you cant perform live or get some action on
the internet, it aint gonna happen, baby. Radio only plays
the huge artists, so we have to build things slowly. Its just
like the old days. You have to bring it live to get noticed. With
the Hard Rock Cafés around the world, we have venues to help
make that happen. It gives us a forum for the Star Search winners
to get more attention.
The Star Search contest is still developing,
but Free and a panel of judges visit several Seminole reservations
every year. The process is compact with auditions, semi-finals,
and finals all during one long, grueling day. The finals take place
at an evening show, and the winners are announced immediately. The
contest is open to all genres and ages, from 10 years old and up.
There is also a special Elders category for artists over 55. I
produce a couple of tunes for the winners, and for now, Im
the in-house producer, but thats going to change as this thing
takes off. Well be reaching out to other producers or let
the winners produce themselves. Preston Osceola, one of the winners
in 2009, is a guitarist with a great ear for music. Im letting
him produce himself. Hes 17, and he can already do it all.
To help young entertainers get ready for
their auditions, Free developed the Star Search Music Camps, daylong
workshops that teach stage presence, image, hip-hop dancing, songwriting,
technical skills, and stagecraft. We show kids what they need
to make it, besides luck. Markie D of the Fat Boys teaches hip-hop
songwriting, Jon Brant (formerly of Cheap Trick) teaches guitar,
and we groom the contestants for the Star Search finale. Its
open to all Seminole Tribal members. It used to be, on the Rez [reservation],
you had two choicessports or drugs. When the tribe hired me
to develop a music program, I told them it would be for all the
black fingernail kids. Theyre the creative minds, the artists
and musicians. I want the choice to be between sports and music
and the performing arts, and, so far, it seems to be working.
Right now, its a small operation,
five to 12 students at the camp, five or 10 contestants in the Star
Search. It works well because of its size, but tribes all across
Native America are asking us about creating similar programs. That
got me thinking about the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus. Its
an educational vehicle that travels around the country teaching
kids how to record music and video. It has three recording studios
and a video producer on board and shows kids how to use the equipment,
but it doesnt go near the Rez. So were launching a Native
Music Rocks Educational Bus with the same technology. Well
teach young Native musicians the things that the regular
people know. I have a mixed-blood son, and I want him to have the
same access to state-of-the-art tools that the white kids have.
With the power of Hard Rock International behind us, we can go where
the Lennon Bus wont go. Well use the bus as a launching
pad to start Native Music Rocks programs in schools for Native kids.
That excites me more than winning another Grammy. Giving back to
my people is my number one job right now.
Free is serious about wanting to help
give other Native kids some of the advantages he had growing up.
My dad died before I was born, but my stepdad was in the Army
and gave me the platform to experience life and music outside of
the states. I didnt grow up on the Rez. I saw Jimi Hendrix
in Germany, along with Clapton and the Stones. When I visited Oklahoma,
my fathers people kept me in tune with my Native side.
Ive been playing guitar since
I saw Elvis and the Everly Brothers, mainly to get babes. I didnt
know it was possible to make a living playing music. I made my first
guitar from a Cheer detergent box, using rubber bands for strings.
When we moved back to the US, my uncle bought me an acoustic guitar.
The first song I learned was Secret Agent Man. I only
took one day of lessons, cause they wanted to teach me Mary
Had a Little Lamb. I wanted to play Sunshine of Your
Love. I sat by the record player and taught myself by playing
along with Cream. I picked up block chords from hanging around other
Free also taught himself bass, Native
flute, keyboards, drums, timbales, and harmonica. By the time he
was a teenager, he was playing professionally in a rock band called
Smokehouse. They got booked as an opening act on a monster tour
with Kiss, REO Speedwagon, Rush, and Ted Nugent. When Kiss bass
player Gene Simmons heard him play, he told Free to quit the band
and come to LA. Simmons became Frees manager, but he was often
on the road, so Free had to hustle up his own gigs. In 1984,
Shalamar asked me to join them. I was into rock and didnt
know anything about R&B groups. I went to Tower Records and
listened to one of their albums and hated it. Gene told me that
if I wanted to be a rock god, I should join the band. He said it
was a guarantee of instant stardom. [Shalamar] wanted someone who
could play rock guitar and add a bit of Prince-like flavor to the
Free stayed with Shalamar until 1990.
He won a Grammy for Dont Get Stopped In Beverly Hills,
toured the world, and lived the life of a rock star. At one point,
Prince asked Free to join a new band he was putting together called
Mazarati, but he chose to stay with Shalamar. After I quit
Shalamar, I joined a band with Jean Beauvoir of the Plasmatics called
Crown of Thorns, but grunge came in and bitch slapped us into oblivion.