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Cherokee Artists Are Preserving Their Language Through Music

 Lillian Charles (IIA) at the album launch party for Cherokee-language music album, ANVDVNELISGI

Cherokee creators making a contemporary album entirely in the Indigenous language.

 

With 2,000 fluent Cherokee language speakers still alive, the Cherokee Nation is looking for unique ways to preserve the language. 

"An Indigenous language is lost every two weeks around the world,” said Howard Paden, executive director of the Cherokee Nation Language Department.

Cherokee filmmaker and creator Jeremy Charles, in collaboration with nonprofit Horton Records, recently announced the production of a groundbreaking contemporary album of original music performed entirely in the Cherokee language.

Jeremy Charles speaks at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ
Jeremy Charles speaks at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, featuring original contemporary music performed in the Cherokee language. The compilation album celebrates the Cherokee language and is proof that the Cherokee culture continues to thrive and adapt. / Photograph by Josiah Jones

The debut album, titled ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ (Anvdvnelisgi, pronounced Ah Nuh Duh Nay Lees Gi), represents diverse contemporary genres, including Folk/Americana, Country, Pop, Reggae, Heavy Metal, and Hip-Hop.   

ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, which translates to performers in English, is being led by citizens as part of a wide-ranging commitment to preserve and expand the Cherokee language.

The album will be distributed by Horton Records, a non-profit 501c-3 dedicated to providing support and tools for Tulsa-area musicians to broaden their reach, and funding was provided by the Zarrow Families Foundation Commemoration Fund.

"This music will shine a spotlight on Cherokee artists and speakers, and increase exposure to our culture and language on a worldwide scale."

“This music will shine a spotlight on Cherokee artists and speakers, and increase exposure to our culture and language on a worldwide scale,” Charles said.

“Most importantly, we’re hoping this album is an inspiration to Cherokee language learners that will lead to more Contemporary music being made in the future.”

Slated to launch in conjunction with the 2022 Cherokee National Holiday over Labor Day weekend, ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ will feature 12 Cherokee emerging and seasoned artists ranging in age from 14 to 50 years. More information about the artists may be found at hortonrecords.org/cherokee

Lillian Charles (IIA), an eighth-grader at Tulsa’s Carver Middle School and the daughter of the album’s producer, Jeremy Charles, contributed the Goth-pop song, “Circus,” a song she originally wrote in English when she was 12 years old.  

 Lillian Charles (IIA) at the album launch party for ANVDVNELISGI
Lillian Charles (IIA) performs at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, featuring original contemporary music performed in the Cherokee language. The compilation album celebrates the Cherokee language and is proof that the Cherokee culture continues to thrive and adapt. / Photograph by Josiah Jones

“It's an exaggeration of what goes on in my mind because I would describe my mind as a circus. It's always filled with silly stories and characters that I put into songs or short stories,“ she says.

IIA, who knew a few words in Cherokee prior to this project, worked with translators Kathy Sierra and Bobbie Smith to express her lyrics in Cherokee. She was pleased with the results. “There weren’t any revisions, and it really did flow,” IIA, says. “I have realized how beautiful the language is. It's amazing.”

Born and raised in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, 25-year-old Zebediah Nofire worked with producer Kawnar to find the perfect beats for his hip-hop song, “The Baker.”  

Zebediah Nofire performs at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ
Zebediah Nofire performs at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, featuring original contemporary music performed in the Cherokee language. The compilation album celebrates the Cherokee language and is proof that the Cherokee culture continues to thrive and adapt. / Photograph by Josiah Jones

A fan of the genre since childhood, Nofire is a comedian who regularly incorporates original hip-hop parodies in his standup routine. He considers this to be his first “real” musical venture. 

A graduate of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program and an employee at the Cherokee Immersion School, Nofire enjoyed the experience of writing lyrics in the language.

“It's the first song I've written in Cherokee, so that was an interesting experience,” Nofire says. “The rhyme schemes are different, and the rhythm of the language is different, so it was really challenging, but fun.”

For Nofire, crafting a Cherokee hip-hop song is not only a chance to express himself musically, but also a chance to show others that the language is contemporary and relevant. 

“I think it’s not only the outside people who have put us in a box culturally. I think we have put ourselves in one,” Nofire said. “This project is a good way to show people that we can do different things outside of just hymns, which is about as far as our musical genres go in the Cherokee language. I hope that maybe I'll help get the ball rolling, and someone could say, ‘Hey, I can write a song,’ and it would be good and outside of the genres, as well. I hope to expand different outlets for our culture.”

Although there is a rich history of gospel music in the Cherokee language, original contemporary music performed in the Cherokee language is a rarity. The songs on this compilation album will remind listeners that the Cherokee language endures, and the Cherokee culture continues to thrive and adapt. 

While two artists are Cherokee speakers, 10 artists worked with fluent Cherokee speakers over 10 months to develop their language skills for the album. 

“The Commemoration Fund is proud to support Horton Records and Jeremy Charles on this historic project. Founded in 2020, the Commemoration Fund was established through the Zarrow Families Foundation to boldly respond to racial injustices in our community. Injustice can be social, political, or economic, but it can also be cultural. Our Board especially seeks to focus its grantmaking on innovative and collaborative projects, and the ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ album is a one-of-a-kind collaborative,” said Clarence Boyd, Program Officer of the Commemoration Fund.  

Clarence Boyd speaks at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ
Clarence Boyd speaks at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, featuring original contemporary music performed in the Cherokee language. The compilation album celebrates the Cherokee language and is proof that the Cherokee culture continues to thrive and adapt. / Photograph by Josiah Jones

“When the Commemoration Fund was presented with the proposal for this project, it was an opportunity to represent many core values within our original mission. Since its inception, this project has captured the Board's interest, and we are so excited to see this come into reality.”

“A lot of people are going to hear the Cherokee language in a new context for the first time. I hope ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ will spark an inspiration for Cherokee citizens and artists alike,” Charles added. 

“I imagine people singing along as they blast the album in the car, reading along with the lyrics with their headphones on, and it reinforces that being Cherokee is special, and it’s cool. And I hope projects like this will contribute to the Cherokee Nation’s expansive efforts to preserve the language into the future.”

Horton Records will provide artist support, promotion, and distribution of the album. Charles is seeking additional funding to produce future compilation albums, music videos, and full-length releases by individual artists. 

Brian Horton speaking on stage at the album launch party
Brian Horton speaks at the debut of album ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ, featuring original contemporary music performed in the Cherokee language. The compilation album celebrates the Cherokee language and is proof that the Cherokee culture continues to thrive and adapt. / Photograph by Josiah Jones

“Many artists on the Horton Records label are Cherokee citizens, and we are honored to support both established and emerging Cherokee musicians through the launch of ᎠᏅᏛᏁᎵᏍᎩ,” says Brian Horton, president of the Tulsa-based nonprofit label. 

“Our focus has always been: musicians first, community always. We believe this project embodies that.”

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April 19, 2022 8:34 PM
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