Strengthening K’é: An Interview With Radmilla Cody

Photo: John Running Photography

Radmilla Cody is an award-winning international performer, activist, and advocate of Diné/Navajo and Nahiłií/African American descent. Her albums of traditional music have received multiple Native American Music Awards nominations and a Grammy nomination for Best Regional Roots.

A former Miss Navajo Nation, she is passionate about her activism, which includes cofounding the Shimá Storytelling Literacy Program and founding the “Strong Spirit: Life Is Beautiful not Abusive” campaign, which brings awareness to teen dating violence. She also cofounded a radical space called K’é Infoshop based in Window Rock, Arizona, where direct work and action is prioritized to educate, organize, and strengthen k’é/kinship with all oppressed relatives. Her music and advocacy work have been a form of resistance against multiple colonial forces such as patriarchy, anti-Blackness, and anti-Indigeneity.

This September, CMN has the great honor of welcoming Radmilla as the Keynote Speaker of the 2022 Annual Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Pass It On! invites readers to get to know her better through this interview, conducted by email with questions from the Keynote Committee (Katherine Dines, chair; Lisa Heintz; and Stacey Peasley) and PIO! editor Ginger Lazarus.

PIO!: What was the role of music in your childhood? What were a couple of experiences you had growing up that have helped shape or guide your musical career?

Radmilla: I spent my childhood singing to my first audience: the sheep, goats, and land at my grandmother’s home and surrounding area in Tsiizizi/so-called Leupp, Arizona. I grew up living a very simple life as a child, so the radio was my entertainment, and Whitney Houston was my idol. My grandmother was a Christian, and I enjoyed listening to my older cousin sisters sing during church service. My grandfather was a Diné/Navajo practitioner and I enjoyed hearing his songs while he made offerings and collected traditional plants for ceremonies. Many beautiful influences shaped my love for music.

What does strengthening k’é/kinship mean to you?

As Diné our identity, foundation, and original governance are based on the beautiful concept of k’é/kinship and community. K’é is our connection and relationship to all that we coexist with on Nahasdzaan Nihima/Mother Earth, Yadilhił Nihita/Father Sky, our nonhuman relatives, and all five-fingered people. K’é encompasses love, hope, compassion, and strength, and is inclusive of all people regardless of race, gender, orientation, class, and belief. K’é does not discriminate. This is the teaching Shimasani/my Grandmother Dorothy raised me with as she lived it and practiced it in every aspect of her life.

What can others do to support those efforts?

Be a good relative and challenge others to do the same, so that all oppressed relatives can live a just, free, healthy, and dignified life. Support and donate to grassroots organizations, like the K’é Infoshop, that do work at the community level.

What work have you done with children as a musician and/or activist/advocate?

Since becoming Miss Navajo Nation 1997–98, my advocacy work with the youth has been ongoing. Advocacy that involves teen dating violence, racial violence, cultural presentations, motivational talks, co-founding the Shimá Storytelling Program as well as the K’é Infoshop.

Radmilla with grandmother
Radmilla and her grandmother (Photo: John Running Photography)

What songs do you sing to/with your own child or children you work with?

I primarily sing songs in the Diné language. It is important to encourage the youth to learn our original language and to also be a part of that revitalization and reclamation process. As Indigenous peoples, our language is also our form of resistance as it aims to preserve our identity and lifeways.

What are some of the ways your multicultural identity has influenced the music you create?

I come from a line of singers in both heritages, so that plays a important role. Both heritages as Diné/Navajo and Nahiłií/Black naturally flow through my singing and vocalization as a singer. The songs that I sing are all based on k’é/kinship, which is also an important foundation in both heritages.

What have you learned about being a woman of color in our world today versus what our ancestors faced?

We still have a lot of work to do as global relatives in order for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to live a just, free, and dignified life. We need to slay the monsters of Capitalism, Colonialism, Racism, and Patriarchy! We must bind our futures together for total liberation.

What would you like to see more of in the American music scene? In children’s music in particular?

Indigenous representation. Indigenous music still is not recognized nor understood within the music industry, other than what the larger society appropriates it to be. Indigenous music is more relevant to children today because they are the original people from here singing about a good life. It’s a healthy effect to see someone like you singing about the beauty in all that we coexist with.

How can teachers incorporate Indigenous music into their curriculum in meaningful ways?

There is a lot of Indigenous music, globally. Research, introduce the music to the students, and have Indigenous musician(s) present and perform at the schools and share their culture, songs, and lifeways.

What feeds your soul?

My little family, good relatives, Diné lifeways, ceremonies, songs, the land, our nonhuman relatives, and the fight for liberation.

What do you see as your legacy?

The work I do is not done with the intent of leaving a legacy. I carry forward the teachings of Shimasani/my Grandmother Dorothy to remain strong in the Diné language and our lifeways, and to continue the good fight for all oppressed people, the future generation, land, and our nonhuman relatives. It is our ancestors’ legacy that we remain strong and hopeful with.

Portrait of Radmilla Cody
(Photo: Robert Doyle Photography)

What words of advice would you share with young people?

I see the youth as our modern-day monster slayers and encourage them to be good relatives and slay the monsters of Capitalism, Colonialism, Racism, and Patriarchy!

What do you think or hope might happen in children’s music during the next ten years that will help effect positive environmental, social, and cultural changes?

That music will be more diverse for our children to enjoy and learn from. Much of which will include Indigenous music and collaborative work with Indigenous musicians of all genres.

What role will music play in our lives as the digital world continues to expand?

Digital music is creating a space where music is more accessible globally. Artists and genres can increase visibility, create our own marketing campaigns, etc. It’s great to be a part of the digital world where we can strengthen k’é/kinship across cultures globally.

What projects do you have in the works?

A children’s book and an album are currently in the works, along with other projects.

Anything else you would like to add?

I’m looking forward to strengthening k’é/kinship with everyone in September! Be a good relative, stay safe, and take good care.