Learning guitar from Nirvana and Hole videos, Black Belt Eagle Scout finds (and shares) freedom through rock

Black Belt Eagle Scout — Jason Quigley

Black Belt Eagle Scout was scheduled as part of Mission Creek Festival, which has been postponed.

At the Party With My Brown Friends, released last year by Omaha’s Saddle Creek label, is something of an aspirational album title. “I was just trying to think about metaphorical worlds in which I would feel the most safe. Living within Portland, Oregon, it’s a very white city,” said Katherine Paul, or KP, who records and tours as Black Belt Eagle Scout.

KP was born in 1989 within the Swinomish tribe on an Indian reservation in the Puget Sound region of Northwest Washington, along the coast. She was raised by artsy parents and was involved in a lot of powwows while growing up, and her family also had a drum group that traveled around the region.

Although KP maintained strong ties to her cultural roots, by middle school she began to discover 1990s alternative rock groups like Nirvana. This eventually led her into the indie rock world that Black Belt Eagle Scout inhabits — a scene that is still largely white, though she is actively working to change that.

“Kind of being a little bit of a loner and having to search for community,” KP said, “it ended up being a very important thing for me to have people of color in my community and wanting to create that space for people of color. So, At the Party With My Brown Friends is, like, ‘We’re at this metaphorical party where I want to have my brown friends there with me. I want to have people of color. I want to have my non-black people of color there with me, my indigenous people there with me.’ I want to uplift those people so that spaces can be more harmonious.”

KP started getting into grunge and riot grrrl music as a young teenager, something that was a constant presence for someone growing up in the Northwest. “I was like, ‘Ooh, I really like this kind of music,’ and so I got really into the angry, emotional, political side of music. I started listening to Nirvana, and so I was at this age where I just was like, ‘I need this music. I need this angry music.’ And so it started this domino effect. Then I found out about Bikini Kill, and I found out about riot grrrl, and I found out about the DIY music.”

She already had a solid foundation in music growing up around Native American music — which was like the air she breathed — something that made her comfortable enough to start playing rock music. In 2004, around the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, MTV had been airing vintage Nirvana performances that she taped on a VHS recorder, which she watched again and again.

“It was at the time I’d been wanting to play guitar and wanting to figure out how to learn guitar, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I hadn’t had any lessons though, and I was, like, ‘Well, how do I learn how do I play?’”

KP returned to the VHS tapes she made of Nirvana, Hole and other bands and carefully studied the screen with her guitar in hand.

“So I would pause the tape and then look at how their fingers were placed, and then that’s how I learned the first kind of chords that I played — by watching on TV.”

Having already played percussion since she was young, KP started as the drummer in a local Portland band. After they broke up, she began playing guitar in another band she started with a friend until finally hitting a wall.

“It got to a point where I felt like I wasn’t being creatively fulfilled,” KP said. “I felt like I could do more within music, and I wanted to have more control over my creativity. I like being collaborative with people, but sometimes I feel like I just want the freedom to do whatever I want. So with Black Belt Eagle Scout, I was like, ‘Oh, I can make these decisions and I can have creative control over this, I can be an autonomous person, I can be independent.’”

Starting out as a solo project, Black Belt Eagle Scout stayed on KP’s backburner until she decided to quit that other band and strike out on her own.

“That’s gonna be my band,” she recalled thinking, “and I’m gonna write all of the songs and I’m going to have my friends play with me. I’ll teach them the parts.”

Not only did KP take charge of her own creative direction, she is also heavily invested in working to alter the largely white, heteronormative orientation of indie rock. For instance, although she personally knows many indigenous queer musicians on the scene, most of them do not have access to a publicist, booking agent or indie label.

Pointing to the Asian women who front Jay Som and Japanese Breakfast, KP acknowledges that this is changing, slowly, but she hopes to speed up the pace by actively working with trans, queer and non-binary indigenous artists on music videos and other creative projects.

“Within marginalized groups,” she said, “if there is somebody with a platform that can open doors for other people, that just makes it better. If there are more voices that can be heard, and there’s more diversity, then people can get to know one another. I want there to be space where other people can feel like they can step up and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can. I can do this. I have this opportunity.’”

“I think that that comes from the dominant society telling queer, indigenous people that this world wasn’t built for you,” she added. “So it’s a resistance to that, where I’m trying to try to balance things out a little bit more.”

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Kembrew feels fine. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 281.

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