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Indigenous musician goes — reluctantly — for Oscars glory

Scott George spends his weekdays providing affordable housing for Native American families in Oklahoma, and his weekends singing at traditional Osage dances.

AFP

That schedule will have to be interrupted next month as he travels to Hollywood for the Oscars, where the song he wrote for Martin Scorsese will compete with tracks from Billie Eilish, Mark Ronson and Jon Batiste for an Academy Award.

“I guess you could use the word surreal. But I don’t really know what that means any more compared to this,” George told AFP.

“Music is — even though it’s something I wake up with every day — it’s something we pursue on the weekends,” he said.

George is a proud member of the Osage Nation, whose often tragic history forms the subject of Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The movie, which is up for 10 awards on March 10, tells the story of how the Osage struck enormous oil wealth in the early 20th century, only to be exploited and murdered by their duplicitous white neighbors.

The film was made with the deep collaboration of the Osage people, and filmed on location in their heartland.

Its lead actress Lily Gladstone has Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage, and the movie’s musical score was composed by the late Robbie Robertson, who also is of Native American ancestry. Both are also Oscar nominees.

Scorsese also was determined to have an authentic Osage song at the finale of his epic drama.

George recalls one of his fellow musicians spotting the director in the stands at a ceremonial dance, as they took a break between sets.

“It was like, ‘Oh wow, so he’s watching us,'” said George. “So when he asked us about the song, or about putting a song in there, we knew what he wanted.”

Even so, the initial answer was no. Many Osage songs contain the names of old warriors from two or three centuries ago.

“These are ours. This belongs to us,” explained George.

“And so we said, ‘Well, we can’t give him that. We can do something close, but we can’t give him that.’

“So that’s where that came from. We started composing our own song for him.”

‘Poems’

The result was “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People),” a powerful six-and-a-half minute anthem featuring thunderous drums, and lyrics encouraging the Osage people to stand up and be proud after surviving so many ordeals.

The movie and song came at a perfect time for tribal elders, who were embarking on a campaign to educate younger members about their history, and to remind them that “we’re still here, we are not relics,” said Geoffrey Standing Bear, chief of the Osage nation.

“We’re not that trusting of outsiders given our history. But Scorsese and his team showed that trust to us, and us to them,” he recalled.

“So when you see our ceremonies, and you see all the different activities, and you hear the music? That’s Osage… these songs are poems.”

Having made the 15-strong Oscars shortlist, the track was not considered a favorite to earn a best song nomination, meaning the announcement last month was greeted with euphoria by many attached to the film.

“Isn’t it great? For me to be nominated for playing an Osage character, it’s so important that an Osage person has also been nominated,” best actress contender Gladstone told AFP.

But for George, describing his Oscar nomination as an “achievement” does not sit well, because it was “not something I aspired to do.”

“I’m comfortable providing music for my people,” he said. “Outside of that, it gets a little touchy.”

Having now seen his song embraced by Academy voters, George does see it as important that a form of music that had often been “comically depicted in cartoons” is now being recognized.

“I just want the world to see it and understand it, maybe develop an ear for it. Because it’s out there. You can go to YouTube and listen to powwows,” he said.

“We understand it’s got its niche and probably will always just have that niche. But hopefully people will get to hear it, feel the power that’s in it.

“Because there’s power in it.”

Though not yet confirmed this year, it is traditional for all five nominated songs to be performed live during the Oscars ceremony, typically by their original singers.

George has already attended starry events including the Academy’s annual nominees luncheon in Los Angeles, where he rubbed shoulders with his “rivals” such as Eilish and Batiste.

“We were on a Zoom call the other day with all of us, and I was a little starstruck. ‘Who are these people and what am I doing here?'” he recalled.

“My wife put it best — ‘You’ve been singing for 45 years, that should put you somewhere.’ I guess so.”

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