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Agalisiga Mackey reflects on writing songs in his native Cherokee language

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Sometimes, it's not the meaning of a song's lyrics that get to you. It's the emotion in the singer's voice. That holds true even if the song is in a language you don't understand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSITSUTSA TSIGESV")

AGALISIGA MACKEY: (Singing in non-English language).

My name is Agalisiga the Chuj Mackey (laughter). You don't have to put Chuj if you don't want to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSITSUTSA TSIGESV")

MACKEY: (Singing in non-English language).

RASCOE: Mackey was one of the entrants to this year's Tiny Desk contest. And though he didn't win the top prize, his song really captured our ears.

MACKEY: And the song is called "Tsitsutsa Tsigesv," which means, when I was a boy.

RASCOE: Mackey is from Kenwood, Oklahoma, a Cherokee community, and he sings in his traditional language.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSITSUTSA TSIGESV")

MACKEY: (Singing in non-English language).

RASCOE: Mackey sings about his upbringing, about the importance of water, and the pristine creek he swam in as a child. He also talks about the centrality of seasons in nature and in life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSITSUTSA TSIGESV")

MACKEY: (Vocalizing).

I talk about respecting our elders and to, you know - it doesn't say this in the song, but this is what I think - treat them as if they're libraries that have hearts.

RASCOE: And like I said, you don't need to know the language to understand the heart of this song. But when you do, it really unlocks something special.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSITSUTSA TSIGESV")

MACKEY: (Singing in non-English language).

RASCOE: When you hear Mackey's thoughtful lyrics and his soft, knowing tone, you might confuse him for an elder yourself. But he's a young father who says after his son was born almost two years ago, his mission to preserve the Cherokee language and pass along his love of country-western music became personal. His son was by his side as he spoke to NPR.

MACKEY: Whenever he was first born, you know, to get him asleep, I would sing all kinds of...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible.

MACKEY: ...More ceremonial songs...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible).

MACKEY: ...Kind of like as his lullabies 'cause they have, you know, steady rhythm, and they're peaceful. They'll knock you out really easy. But then on top of that, you know, I sing - coming from a background of culture, I believe that we need to hang on to the things that have been passed down to us. I also have the realization that in order for us to be relevant and to keep up in the world, we're going to have to grow. So we need to hang onto what we have, but we also need to add to it. And so for me, doing songs in the Cherokee language is my way of saying, hey, look, even though this language is old, it still has importance to this day.

RASCOE: And Mackey says he doesn't want to keep that kind of joy to himself. He wants anyone with an open heart to get a chance to experience and understand this culture.

MACKEY: It doesn't matter what kind of blood you got or what your skin color is or who your family is, you know? If you really want to learn Cherokee stuff and the Cherokee language, you just got to commit. That's really it, you know?

RASCOE: At the end of the day, Mackey says, the themes he sings about really should relate to everyone. And music, after all, he adds, is a universal language. So why build any more artificial barriers?

MACKEY: I do believe that music, of itself, is just its own language for many reasons. I think it's just a natural, I don't know, part of ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TSITSUTSA TSIGESV").

MACKEY: (Vocalizing).

RASCOE: Agalisiga Mackey - his song is "Tsitsutsa Tsigesv." He participated in this year's Tiny Desk contest, and he has a full album of songs coming out later this year. This music moment was produced by Ryan Benk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 23, 2024 at 9:59 AM CDT
An earlier headline for this segment misidentified the name of the artist behind the song Tsitsutsa Tsigesv. His name is Agalisiga Mackey.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.