Northern Arizona musician Klee Benally has a new acoustic album out called The Unsustainable Sessions. It’s a departure from the music he’s perhaps best known for, the all-sibling Navajo punk trio Blackfire. But it’s equally powerful in its messages of environmental and social justice. In the latest installment of KNAU’s series Eats and Beats: Stories about Food and Music on the Colorado Plateau, Benally talks about the new album and punk rock as a tool for social change. He’ll perform at an album release party Fri, Dec. 20 at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff as part of A Winter Solstice Indigenous Acoustic Revue.
Klee Benally: My mom is a rabble-rousing folk singer and songwriter who grew up in the ’60s singing protest songs. On the other side of that, you have my father, Jones Benally, traditional Diné Hataałii, or healer, and growing up we sang in ceremonies and understood music not being separate or compartmentalized away from life and natural expression. So, there’s no dichotomy between art and our lives as Diné people. So those teachings that songs can heal were very powerful and so we sort of put those together.
This body of work was started with a song called “If It Ends Tomorrow.” I’ve always had a contention with the notion of hope. It should be an action word, a verb, but a lot of folks sometimes just sit on their hands and wish that things will change, but really it takes hard work. That word hope sometimes I think it falls short of really addressing the challenges that we face ecologically and socially.
When I wrote the song “The Unsustainable” I sort of focused on—I had all these critiques of the climate-justice movement. Why is it our responsibility to sustain unsustainable ways of life? Shouldn’t we all collectively be looking at what we can do to radically change our relationship to Mother Earth and each other to ensure a healthy and just, sustainable ways of life for future generations. I don’t have love songs per se; I have love songs for a future that is within reach.
Sometimes you can get lost in the noise of distortion with a full band and you miss nuance sometimes. When you’re up there with just a guitar and your voice there’s something raw and it’s like having that real conversation face-to-face. There was an interesting moment [when] unplugged music was really widely celebrated, but Woody Guthrie [was] extraordinarily punk rock for his time, had been doing that for years.
As artists, at a time that we face grave injustices it is part of our responsibility to step up and tell the truth. So, I speak to those experiences. We’ve messed up the land and messed with each other and other non-human beings for so many years that obviously this way of living isn’t working. It’s clearly not sustainable so what can we do to work with each other, work with the land? As my father says our real teaching is to understand how to work with nature; how to be part of nature in a way that we ensure that we have a good, healthy, harmonious future. And that’s not a complicated issue. It just means actually taking the time to have these really hard conversations and really sometimes radically change what we’re doing. Sometimes these ways don’t need to be carried forward. That’s what this album really is about.