Initially, Tchiya Amet had no idea she was a) part Native American, and b) a fiery roots-reggae crooner in the making. Growing up on Chicago's South Side in the early '70s, she actually had lofty ambitions of becoming the first black female astronaut, long before Mae Jemison became a household name. After earning a physics degree at Brown, Amet moved to Austin to study astronomy at the University of Texas, with an eye on entering the prestigious NASA astronaut training program. Instead, she soon quit school and met her future husband (whom she says she had dreamt about and drawn pictures of, sight unseen, since age thirteen) at a reggae show. "It was a big transformation for me," she recalls. Bigger surprises were yet to come.
When Amet was around 25, she discovered her Native American heritage. A discussion at a family gathering sparked by the televised miniseries Roots led to the revelation that her bloodline, which she'd assumed all her life to be entirely African American, also included Cherokee and Lakota strands. All of a sudden, she realized she wasn't just black, but red as well.
With a new history comes a new set of problems, of course. "There's racism within the Indian community," Amet says bluntly. "A lot of native people want black Indians to register as black or Indian." She points to a lot of people nationwide with similar circumstances: "Too white to be black, too black to be red, too red to be white."
Thus was Northern California's preeminent black/Native American reggae diva truly born.
She had to get here first. A Texas stay-at-home mom at the time, Amet had studied the piano since the age of eight, and her husband regularly gigged in various Austin-area reggae bands, yet she says she had no designs on being a performer herself initially. However, "After my daughter was born, all this music came out of me," she recalls. "I didn't know I could write songs. I didn't know I could sing." In the early '90s, she joined the all-female reggae band Irie Jane, then became a backup singer in her husband's band, One Nation. Inspired by the field of "cultural astronomy" -- relying more on the indigenous astrological beliefs than the tenets of Copernicus and Galileo, with a touch of Sun Ra's metaphysical theories -- she eventually emerged as the lead singer for the newly christened Dogon Sirius.
Her lyrics, written in native tongues as well as English, took on a political bent as well: "I felt like there was a message that had to get out to black Indians," she says. Although Dogon Sirius wasn't what Amet would characterize as "wildly popular" in Austin's small world-music scene, the band kept plugging away. In 1999, Amet released her first album of all-original material, entitled Rise Again Truth; by then her name was also the band's name, not because of vanity, but thanks to a constant revolving door of musicians. "Every time we took a band photo," she recalls, "the band broke up."
Amet and her husband sent off copies of the CD to "every festival in the Reggae Festival Guide," and, in 2002, scored invites to play at two of California's most prestigious red-gold-and-green-flavored events: Reggae on the River and the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. Yet just when her big break arrived, her father became terminally ill, leaving Amet with the tough decision of whether to further her career or be there for her dad in his final hours. She almost pulled out of the festivals, but decided to go through with them, which catalyzed yet another life change: After soaking up the lush greenery and organic NorCal vibes, she and her husband decided to relocate.
"We were like, 'We can't go back to Texas,'" Amet recalls. The couple and their two daughters had plenty of motives to relocate: a closeness to the Native American community, a similar proximity to the medical marijuana movement, and the overall "feeling we could be a part of something." Friends had told her about the El Cerrito World Music Fest, and after securing an invite, Amet made the decision to replant her family in the Sonoma County native enclave of Covelo, home to as many as twelve tribes -- she describes it as a "mini-Oklahoma." Two years later, she is at peace with the decision. "I like living out in the country with people of color ... we've found our community," she says. "They've accepted us for who we are."
Now, getting back to the music. Amet's new album, Black Turtle Island, is a surprisingly solid and original entry from NorCal's roots-reggae contingent, known more for live shows than quality studio material. Combining a "First Nations" (i.e. Native American) perspective with Rastafarian sensibilities, flavoring the mix with a touch of New Age metaphysics and ancient folk tradition, and seasoning the musical potion with mellow yet conscious lyrics, Amet evokes a chill but simultaneously revolutionary feeling, eschewing the overly commercial direction of many female reggae artists and coming directly from the heart. With another album in the works, an endless series of well-received performances at world music and reggae festivals, and an upcoming appearance at Oakland's Black August celebration, Amet's star appears to be in ascension. Despite a few tangents, she still made it into orbit.
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