Joy can strengthen our resolve, help us unlock creativity, and bolster our resilience. In Fix’s Joy Issue, we explore the importance and power of finding joy in the face of grief, anger, and a changing climate.
Mali Obomsawin was performing with their indie-folk band, Lula Wiles, one night before the pandemic when they decided they’d had enough. After almost six years performing protest songs and discussing politics from the stage, Obomsawin had come to dread facing detractors who lodged uncomfortable questions, brought narrow-minded perspectives, and engaged in devil’s-advocate arguments. Racist remarks and demands that Obomsawin “stay out of politics and stick to singing” had become mentally and emotionally unbearable. As an Indigenous person, Obomsawin wanted to advocate for issues they believed in, like the injustices of capitalism and colonialism, but had come to realize performing folk music wasn’t the way.
“I don’t want to put myself in that position anymore because it is really alienating and scary, and sometimes you get really messed-up feedback from audiences or online,” Obomsawin says. “I discovered that for me, it’s not sustainable to spend every night yelling at people from stage trying to get them to wake the fuck up.”
This wasn’t a decision they made lightly. Obomsawin, a bassist and singer-songwriter, has always drawn inspiration from music’s ability to affect social change. In Lula Wiles, they resolved to use songwriting and performing to educate audiences about things like climate change and how it intersects with poverty and other issues. Obomsawin, who is Odanak Abenaki, found it difficult being a Native artist in a genre where musicians and audiences are overwhelmingly white, but that only emboldened them. “It made me want to be even louder about things,” they say.
Feeling emotionally and physically unsafe while expressing themself authentically created tremendous cognitive dissonance. The only way to resolve it, Obomsawin decided, was to trade the anger of protest songs and live performances for the joy of actively building a better future.
In the two years since, Obomsawin has focused on community organizing and launching an Indigenous land trust that serves the burgeoning landback movement. Although they no longer perform with Lula Wiles, Obomsawin continues making music with jazz, rock, and string bands. They also are the composer and leader of a sextet that plays jazz and traditional music. Obomsawin believes finding joyful outlets for their advocacy and artistry has made them a more effective activist and allowed them to express their true self without fear.
“I feel a little more aligned and whole now than I have in the past,” Obomsawin says. “I feel so much more balanced.”
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It was perhaps inevitable that Obomsawin, who is 26, would embrace activism and music. Their parents met in a Vermont courtroom in the late 1980s while fighting for tribal sovereignty. Their father, Thomas Obomsawin, was an Indigenous rights advocate and member of the Odanak Abenaki Nation. Their mother, Daisy Goodman, a queer Sephardi Jewish nurse practitioner active in New York City’s social justice community, was there to support the tribe.
Thomas also was a professional guitarist and singer who played everything from blues and rock to jazz and funk. As a child, Obomsawin would go to bars with their mother to watch him perform, an experience that instilled a love of music. At home, there were always Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald records on the turntable, and their hometown of Farmington, Maine, was a hub for traditional Quebecois and Cape Breton Irish tunes.
Obomsawin took up the double bass at 10 so they could jam with their father and five siblings. That fostered a love of entertaining people, both as a musician and by making them laugh. Being onstage became a way to spread joy. Obomsawin had found their calling. “There was never anything else that I wanted to do as much as perform,” they say.
As a teen, Obomsawin spent summers at Maine Fiddle Camp, tucked away in the woods learning music by ear, without sheet music. That’s where they met Eleanor Buckland and Isa Burke, planting the seeds of what would become Lula Wiles. The three of them clicked and began exploring the music that would define the band. Like many young folk artists in New England at the time, they were influenced by the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the band Crooked Still.
The three of them went on to study music at Berklee College of Music (Obomsawin later transferred to Dartmouth College), then began performing around Boston in early 2013. Obomsawin’s musical style started shifting at about the same time. They lost interest in “fetishizing the past” and singing folk standards with little relevance to their current world. “That’s how I got into writing more politically conscious songs,” Obomsawin says. “I found a lot more inspiration in people, like Buffy Sainte-Marie, who are really pushing boundaries and singing about topics that are uncomfortable to confront. And my vision for the sounds I was making changed a lot from acoustic to more rock and incorporating other influences.”
Lula Wiles released its self-titled debut album in 2016. Two more albums followed with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The band was, in the words of Paste magazine, “provocateurs of the best kind, rabble-rousers with the purest intentions” and “stirring up folk conventions for the better.”
The band’s indie-pop-folk songs address everything from heartbreak to taking down the patriarchy. Later, as the country reckoned with the murder of George Floyd and its history of systemic racism, Lula Wiles also took on race relations. The records sold well enough to support international tours. But as the only Indigenous member of the band, Obomsawin found herself taking heat from a portion of the band’s audience for discussing Indigenous issues from the stage, and they grew increasingly frustrated by the racism they experienced (and are still uncomfortable discussing years later), on the road.
Obomsawin — a generally cheerful and upbeat person — also worried about being pigeonholed by fans as “the angry one” in the band. They felt indignant about being expected to conform to stereotypes of what Indigenous musicians should look and sound like. And they were tired of being expected to explain the history of colonialism on demand, and of wondering how much space their personal politics should take up within the group. When people started harassing them at the merch table after shows, Obomsawin asked their bandmates to take over.
By that point, the rigor of touring was impacting everyone’s physical and mental health, Burke says. “Of course, that toll was all the greater for Mali, who was also dealing with the racism of the folk/Americana scene and understandably felt alone as the only person of color in the band,” Burke says.
She says she and Buckland wanted to help uplift Obomsawin’s voice, along with those of others experiencing racism, but struggled to find the best way of doing that. “I tried to support Mali by being in vocal agreement with her advocacy onstage and off, but there were many times where I missed the mark, or was too afraid or uncomfortable or uninformed to say something,” she says. “Like most white people, I was so ignorant of the depth of racism Indigenous people experience, and the particularly pernicious ways that racism operates in the folk/Americana scene, which prides itself on being progressive.”
The three of them spent a lot of time in difficult conversations in an effort to understand one another and be more vocal in their support for Obomsawin. For her part, Burke called it “a messy process,” one that required more time, education, and reflection that she needed to do on her own, “outside the intensity and confines of the tour van.” Given that, Lula Wiles decided to go on indefinite hiatus.
“There are a lot of things I wish I’d done differently,” Burke says. “It makes total sense to me why Mali needed to pursue activism outside of Lula Wiles. We may circle back on Lula Wiles in some form or another in the future, and I am certain Mali and I will make music together again, but for now I’m really happy to see all three of us finding new projects that are a better fit for where we’re each at in our lives.”
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Obomsawin’s experiences performing and the criticism they endured online prompted a deep reflection on how they might transform the nature of their activism and connect with a more generative emotion: joy. That led Obomsawin to grassroots, community-based activism to advance the landback movement. They are excited to see it taking off across the country and inspired by studies confirming what Indigenous people already knew: that Native Americans are particularly adept at ensuring the health of ecosystems, and returning land to their stewardship while respecting their sovereignty is among the best ways to fight climate change.
Obomsawin’s contribution to the movement was founding the nonprofit Bomazeen Land Trust in 2021 to help the Abenaki and Wabanaki people reclaim, protect, and restore their land in what is now western Maine. “I started it because that was what my community needed and suddenly I had time to really dig into the work, not just write about the work and critique all the things that were holding people back from doing the work, which was my previous M.O.,” Obomsawin says.
Indigenous land practices can heal the land, but we must first return the land to Indigenous peoples, Obomsawin says. The land trust supports that goal by acquiring and managing land for tribes that cannot. “There are a lot of amazing allies now who are interested in that,” they say. “We are just receiving our first land return now, and we’re so touched by that.” In March of last year, the Passamaquoddy tribe and the Indigenous advocacy organization First Light raised $355,000 to buy 143 acres of culturally significant land on Kuwesuwi Monihq, or Pine Island, on Big Lake in Maine.
Rematriation — in which women and two spirits reclaim ancestral land through their cultural practices and traditional caretaking roles — is a key principle for the land trust. “You can’t have land rematriation without landback, because we need to be with the land in order to remember our ceremonies, practices, and traditional ecological knowledge,” Obomsawin says. The organization has largely focused on agriculture during its first year and seeded the land with the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Obomsawin ends many days with dirt beneath their nails and an ache in their body, but their heart is full of joy and satisfaction.
“Every time we’re learning to grow the traditional foods or identify them, you just feel like you’re getting a piece of yourself back,” Obomsawin says.
Obomsawin still believes musicians have an important role to play in supporting social movements, but they are no longer interested in trying to affect change through performing and songwriting. “I can do so much more on the ground,” they say. They’ve found peace with knowing “it’s not necessary that I be writing political songs. I can just write about my experience.”
These days, Obomsawin plays jazz and traditional music with artists of different backgrounds who come together to create safe, empowering spaces. These musicians share the experience of regularly staring down the white gaze and offer each other support. Performing in these inclusive environments frees Obomsawin from worrying about racism, stereotypes, and how to present their indigeneity. They can show up as their complete, uncensored self and feel good about it. “We want to celebrate Indigenous ingenuity, freedom, chicness, ruggedness, humor, and joy not simply as a rejection of the stereotypes we are assigned, but because that is who we are,” they say.
During a cold January night in Hartford, Connecticut, Obomsawin took the stage in a community art space with her jazz combo, the Mali Obomsawin Sextet. The vibe in the room was warm and welcoming. “We’re going to do another movement from this suite; this suite is called Sweet Tooth,” they told the crowd. “It contains songs from my community and original compositions in the language of my community that I wrote with other members of the Wabanaki nation. And this is my debut as a composer and band leader with this suite.”
The music, a blend of improvised and traditional, felt both ancient and timeless. It offered a vision of spiritual peace and undeniable levity and delight. You might even call it joyful. “It’s so empowering to feel like you can play a set of entirely instrumental music and have made a really profound statement about who we are,” they say.
Explore more from Fix’s Joy Issue:
- What joy does to your body
- How climate organizers are making joy part of their toolkit
- Happy Climate is on a mission to show what we gain from climate action