Raye Zaragoza Paints A Vivid Self-Portrait on Woman In Color

Photo Credit: Cultivate Consulting

“Who am I without touring?” That was the question most on Raye Zaragoza’s mind last year. Pre-pandemic, the folk musician had been on the road for three years, nonstop ─ and like many, coping with suffocating isolation in lockdown was a challenge. Forced to reckon with her identity off the road, and finding more time than ever to be creative, she looked inward to reassess her place in the world and what she had to say.

As jarring as it was to stay home, Zaragoza first learned the truth about how constant touring was wearing down her body and morale, Going forward, she says, “I definitely want to have more balance and more time for solitude, writing, and travel.”

This realization brought deeper understanding that her worth and value as an artist “isn’t just in the shows you play. It’s in everything you do,” she adds. “So often, as artists, we feel like we’re only working when we’re touring, releasing, or actively promoting something. We’re artists at all times.”

She then soon learned the beauty in songwriting and the liberation she felt when she wrote without purpose. “[It] became freer for me. Over the spring and summer, I was writing every day because I wanted to. I wrote so many quarantaine songs,” she says with a laugh. “I made writing a practice again. I fell back in love with writing and remembered why I started doing this.”

In October 2020, Zaragoza released her second record, Woman in Color, a provocative depiction of what it means to be a Japanese-American, Mexican, Indigenous woman living in America. She combs an anxiety-riddled childhood, during which she always felt isolated and alone because of her mixed heritage, racism that’s contaminated the folk music scene, and definitions of femininity. 10 songs encompass her entire life’s journey, and she’s finally taking up space.

“[This album] was so much a reckoning with my racial insecurities,” she shares with Audiofemme. “I felt disassociated from all my racial backgrounds and always very alienated. I didn’t feel welcome in any of the communities, and I wasn’t welcomed in mainstream American society because I was not white. I always felt really alone as a kid and like there was something wrong with me. I would wake up and wish I could be just one race ─ or white. It was tough.”

Along her journey, she soon “realized I was not the only young girl who felt that way,” she says. Woman in Color (produced by Tucker Martine) brims with all her blood, sweat, and tears and reads like a collection of “love letters to my 12-year-old self,” she surmises. She also calls to her mother’s story as an immigrant from Japan, who came to this country with a faceless passport ─ because she was also Taiwanese and “no country claimed her for their own.”

Such an inherited identity crisis is the lifeblood of Zaragoza’s intensely probing new record. “There is a part of [my family] that wants to be proud of who we are, but there’s a part that’s been pressured to fit in and assimilate,” she remarks.

She casts her family’s collective misery right into the flames etched out of her songwriting. Songs like “Warrior,” “Fight Like a Girl,” “Change Your Name,” “The It Girl,” and “Ghosts of Houston Street” ignite from the inside out, with Zaragoza’s imposing vocal presence glowing red-hot like iron.

Woman in Color also excels with its sweeping instrumentation and hooks that seem to crawl under the skin. Zaragoza admits she can’t take all the credit; although, the choruses are so wholly her own, they would never work in someone else’s hands. “I would have these little melodic ideas or snapshots, and the co-writer [would] help me bridge them to the full song. I collaborated with some really incredible songwriters [namely, John Lardieri, Joseph Pisapia, and Ben Wylen] who took my melody writing to the next level, while also letting me take the reins on lyrics. It was amazing to get pushed in both directions.”

Zaragoza’s journey has been a fascinating one. She first confronted her pain with 2017’s debut, Fight for You, and “In the River” was the catalyst for the introspective voyage. It was the self-inflicted shove she needed, and the floodgates burst open. “I’d written songs out of need before,” she says, “but in terms of this specific place of healing, it’s the first time I’d ever written a song where there was something big happening in the world and I was feeling very distressed about it.”

She knew that in “order to heal others, I have to first heal myself. I can’t write a song with the intention of ‘I’m going to write a song to make someone feel better.’ It doesn’t work that way for me.”

As she’s reached greater levels of healing, either through songwriting or meditation, she has gained confidence in not only her work but her willingness to have difficult conversations. In a TalkHouse piece with fellow folk musician Lizzie No, the two openly discuss what it’s like being women of color in folk music, and the harmful effects of tokenization.

Three months later, Zaragoza is floored by how “powerful and cutting” that moment was and is for her. “What makes it [that way] is the fact that me and Lizzie were so comfortable talking. We felt we had such a safe space,” she says. “To see it all in writing was like whoa. I’d never experienced this. We do experience these things, and we never talk about them. It was almost out of my comfort zone in the best way possible. I feel like I need to be talking candidly about this more and more.”

2020 also saw the performer writing music for a documentary called Gather, an intersection of indigenous wisdom and food. Director Sanjay Rawal (who previously helmed 2014 agricultural labor doc Food Chains) approached Zaragoza early 2018, and she quickly started studying transcripts to get a complete understanding of the project. “It was really powerful,” she reflects. “A lot of times in American culture, we have a lack of respect for the food we eat. We process it like crazy and are [always] looking for the cheapest way. This film is so much about this slow, meaningful way of harvesting, making, and consuming food. It’s really beautiful.”

For her part, she co-wrote a song called “Mother, We’ll Meet Again” with Ben Wylen and performs the moving number for the film’s credits. “[The song] is about food and my own experience of being a member of modern day society and learning how to return home,” she explains. “That’s how I feel as someone with indigenous ancestry ─ learning about what it means and returning home, whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally. Food is one of those ways of reminding ourselves what home is. We’re human beings. It’s us and Mother Earth.”

Zaragoza absolutely beams when talking about her work. Now, as she closes a chapter, she looks forward to a year full of promise, personally and professionally. She eyes a possible children’s book, honing her producing skills for her own music, and continuing her role as a composer for Netflix’s forthcoming Spirit Rangers, an all-Native fantasy/adventure animated series.

“I write songs for the characters. There’s a song in every single episode. There are so many characters, so I’m writing songs for so many voices and circumstances. It’s spectacular,” she says.

The show is greatly inspired by Indigenous stories with a “modern day twist,” she teases. “I’ve never composed for television before. I haven’t had a boss in music ever, really. I’ve always done things independently, so I have someone to answer to and I have deadlines. I have notes. It’s definitely a different pace for an indie artist.”

Follow Raye Zaragoza on Twitter and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Raye Zaragoza Reclaims Playground Taunt “Fight Like a Girl” for Latest Protest Anthem

Every one of Raye Zaragoza’s songs has a political message. It’s sometimes a very specific one, as in “Driving to Standing Rock” and “In the River,” both about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and often a broader one, as in “Fight for You,” a call for people to speak out about injustice and stand up for the oppressed.

Her latest single, “Fight Like a Girl,” falls somewhere in the middle, advocating for intersectional feminism with lines like “grandma nature, mother moon/show me what to do/they are taking our rights away/policing our bodies.” For the folk singer-songwriter, who is of Native American, Mexican, Taiwanese, and Japanese descent, inclusivity has always been paramount.

Zaragoza has been performing professionally since she was 19, starting off playing two-hour sets in exchange for a piece of pie at an LA pie shop. She worked restaurant jobs until age 23, and for the past four years, she’s been pursuing music full-time, putting out her first album Fight for You in 2017. Later this year, she plans to release her sophomore LP, recorded with Tucker Martine (who has worked with The Decemberists, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, case/lang/veirs, and others). With the quarantine limiting her ability to produce a more elaborate video, she recorded and shot herself performing “Fight Like a Girl” in her own home.

We talked to her about the message behind her latest single and the role of political activism in her music.

AF: What inspired the song “Fight Like a Girl”?

RZ: I wrote this song because I wanted to write an anthem with marginalized women at the center. The voices of women of color have not historically been at the forefront of feminism, and I think 2020 is an important time to change that. I wrote this song around the time that I met Deb Haaland, one of the two first Native American women in congress [D-New Mexico]. It’s women like her that remind me that women are capable of anything. I also really wanted to reclaim the term “fight like a girl” as an empowering term rather than what it meant on the playground when I was a kid.

AF: What do you hope people take away from the song?

RZ: I really hope the song will comfort those who have ever felt disempowered by their gender. I feel my greatest way of contributing to making the world a better place is comforting souls within it. I felt like such a lost misfit for most of my life, and music has given me so much solace. I hope this song will do that for others.

AF: What does fighting like a girl mean to you?

RZ: For me, it means to view the feminine energy within me as a strength rather than a weakness. We all have feminine energy, no matter our gender. And I feel that society has conditioned us to think that this part of us is our weakness. So “fighting like a girl” to me is channeling this energy and using it to become strong, brave, and vulnerable. It also means to reclaim my voice as a woman and stand up for myself!

AF: You describe “Fight Like a Girl” as a call for feminism to include all women. In what ways do you see it falling short of that right now?

RZ: Women of color, trans women, and disabled women have been left out of the conversation of feminism for a long time. These voices have been under-represented in media, politics, events — you name it. It’s important to fight for women’s rights, but it’s also important to fight for the marginalized voices within that identity.

AF: Activism plays a big role in your music. Why do you think it’s important to use your voice this way?

RZ: Sometimes I feel silly calling myself an activist. So many of my “activist songs” are really just me singing about my life and experience. Sometimes it feels that as a woman of color, my very existence is politicized in a way. So, the deeper I go with my own self-discovery and songwriting, the more “political”and “activist” the songs get. Really, I’ve never thought of it as important or something I should do. It just is what I experience and observe in song form.

AF: What issues are you trying to spread awareness of right now?

RZ: Right now, I am most concerned about spreading awareness in regards to indigenous communities in need. This virus is devastating tribal nations. I urge people to learn more and donate at Return2Heart.org.

AF: What are you working on now?

RZ: Working on an album release that will be happening later this year! Also always writing new songs. With all that’s going on, there is so much to write about and reflect on.

Follow Raye Zaragoza on Facebook for ongoing updates.

#IndigenousWomenRock: 5+ Contemporary Artists You Should Know

How many Native women have you supported today?

If the answer is none, think about why that might be. Do you interact with Indigenous populations? Are you spending time and energy learning about Native organizations and movements?

If Indigenous women aren’t popping up in your timeline or on your street, it isn’t because they don’t exist; rather, the lives of Native Americans, particularly Native American women, are specifically overlooked by institutions of power, including media outlets, health organizations, universities, and more. But whether we are looking or not, Native Women are living and creating in the current day. Contemporary Indigenous art is filled with innovative women making work worth watching, reading, and listening to.

Whether you are spending today with family or friends, take some time to invest in the lives of Indigenous women by viewing, sharing, and paying for their art. Aren’t sure where to start? Check out our list of five contemporary Native American artists to watch below.

Raye Zaragoza

Zaragoza released her debut album in June of this year, but she’s been playing and writing music since childhood. Fight For You is a breezy eight-track collection, brilliantly highlighted by Zaragoza’s clear, relaxed voice. The album’s content is deeply impacted by Zaragoza’s multi-ethnic and national background, as well as the Native Peoples’ fight for clean water and against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Of the album, Zaragoza says: “My goal with this album is to inspire people to fight for what they believe in. Our voices can be heard – we just have to choose to use them!” A portion of the album’s proceeds will be donated to Indigenous rights organizations.

Miracle Dolls

Twin sisters Dani and Dezy are based in Southern California, but they regularly tour the country to mentor youth through the Native American Youth Music Program, which they founded. The two strive to bring guitars to every Native American reservation, alleviating the pressures of historical trauma on Native youth by providing a creative outlet. Their recent video “Sweet Grass / Water is Life,” influenced by the impacts of oil pipelines on their Hidatsa Waterbuster Clan community, was screened at the 42nd American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

Princess Nokia

Destiny Frasqueri, known as Princess Nokia, recently went viral when she was filmed throwing soup at an aggressive man shouting slurs in a New York subway car. But Frasqueri’s advocacy work goes far beyond subway intervention. Outside of her work in the studio, Frasqueri heads “Smart Girl Club,” a collective which seeks to provide safe space for and encourage collaboration between women of color, through the lens of “urban feminism.” Her first studio album, 1992 Deluxe, reflects this message of informed and inclusive feminism: tracks like “Brujas” highlight Frasqueri’s connection with her Afro-Indigenous family and their traditions, while breakout hit “Tomboy” centers her experiences as a New York youth. 1992 Deluxe, which was released in September of this year, is already making year-end lists, and for good reason.

Samantha Crain

Crain’s 2017 album, You Had Me At Goodbye, is decadently instrumental: confessional and emotionally compromising music which devastates at the same time that it uplifts. Next time you feel like treating yourself to a good cry without, you know, having to listen to Sufjan Stevens, take a trip through Crain’s oeuvre. Crain is barely 30, but You Had Me At Goodbye is her fifth full-length album; after recording music for more than ten years, her album notes state that she “wanted to have some fun.” Though You Had Me At Goodbye isn’t exactly dance music, there’s a noticeable level of play within the artist’s enigmatic lyrics and sound choices.

Laura Ortman

An accomplished composer of independent film scores, Ortman’s own music is visceral and compelling, drawing on her skill as a classical musician as well as a love of experimental sound composition. She’s a prolific artist, with 22 releases on bandcamp alone, as well as a number of prestigious awards under her belt, but manages to make each release pleasantly surprising. Her latest album, My Soul Remainer, was released in June of this year.

And because the “Americas” extend north of the border as well, here are a few Canadian artists I can’t stop listening to.

Tanya Tagaq

Tagaq has been making waves since winning the Polaris Prize with her 2014 album, Animism. Her latest, Retribution, is breathtaking. It’s the type of album you listen to once, and then send to everyone else you know.

Sonia Eidse

Eidse’s bandcamp describes her music as “mellow alt-pop,” but frankly, I don’t find anything about her voice to be mellow. Her self-titled EP, released in 2016, is dreamy; with each note stretched as far as possible, Eidse’s vocal performance lands like a silk parachute, or a slow-rolling fog.


On The Fight Within, released earlier this month, Iskwé pairs modulating vocals with lush, electronic beats. Dissect it or dance to it–Iskwé’s music is moving, both in its content and message, and in the music’s heavy, visceral sway.