Indigenous singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza wants to ‘lift up women of color’

For Indigenous singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza, who is of Akimel O’otham descent, standing up for women has become an anthem in her indie folk music.

With songs like “Fight Like a Girl,” which touches on reproductive rights; “Red,” which spotlights domestic violence and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women advocacy; and “The It Girl,” which champions brown-skinned girls as cover stars rather than sidekicks, Zaragoza takes on so many of the challenges that women of color in particular face at home and beyond.

And that’s on just one of her albums. She currently has another one in the works.

“What inspired me was really wanting to write something that was a feminist body of work,” Zaragoza tells In The Know by Yahoo about her sophomore album, Woman in Color, “but also primarily focusing on lifting up women of color.”

As a woman who was raised by a Japanese-Taiwanese mother and a Mexican-Indigenous father, the 29-year-old folk singer has a nuanced perspective on representation that champions inclusion on every level.

“I’ve met a lot of people in the communities I’ve grown up in that were very much dedicated to feminism and dedicated to women’s rights and what it means to be a woman and what it means to fight for our rights,” says Zaragoza, who grew up in New York City but now lives in Long Beach, Calif. “But I feel like being a woman of color, an Indigenous woman, is something that’s so often left out of what feminism has been historically classified as.”

In fact, a Pew Research Center survey released in 2020 found that many Americans thought that the feminist movement had benefited white women more than other races in the country.

“When I wrote this song ‘Fight Like a Girl,’ to me it was an anthem to acknowledge all the women of color, like the unsung heroes of feminism,” Zaragoza says, listing among them her grandmothers, great-grandmothers, the Indigenous women in her life as well as the “not-famous women” whom she considers her personal champions.

“I just wanted to create a body of work that honored those feminine energies in my life,” she says.

‘The It Girl’

While Zaragoza is an Indigenous “it girl” herself, as the composer for the animated kids’ series Spirit Rangers on Netflix and a song that premiered on last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy, her song “The It Girl” came from a place of feeling anything but.

“When I was a kid, we were all child actors,” she says, referring to herself and her sister Danielle and brother Román, who is an actor on CBS’s Ghosts. (Her father, Gregory, is also an actor.) “And I remember going into a casting office with a manager, agent or something, and they said, ‘Girls like you will always be the best friend. So we need to focus on making sure you’re peppy and quirky and the funny sideline girl, because you’re never going to be a lead.”

At the time, the songwriter says, she didn’t think anything about the open discrimination. It was only years later when she thought about people of color landing only the “best friend” roles that she reconsidered.

“Looking back on that, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s like really messed up,’” she says.

With lyrics like “I could be the it girl, can’t you see?/ I could bе the face on the magazinе/ Paint me like a debutante, your prom queen/ Pretty little it girl, yeah, that’s me,” Zaragoza flips the script and puts girls of color center stage.

Advocating for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Zaragoza has also given voice in her music to the reality of domestic violence and advocacy for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), which has evolved to also include girls, those with a two-spirit gender identity and Indigenous people of every gender.

“More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime,” according to a 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the murder rate is 10 times the national average for women living on reservations.

“I think we all just need to understand that first, and then realize that we need to have more systems in place to protect Indigenous women, because it’s something that is an emergency,” she says.

Zaragoza addresses this crisis most pointedly in her song “Red,” with lyrics that call to mind the symbolic red handprint painted on faces of those who are speaking out about the movement.

“‘Red’ is one of those songs that I honestly don’t even play it live as often, because I get so emotional playing it,” she says, “but I try to, I try to play it as much as I can, because it’s a very important topic.”

As far as advocacy goes, the songwriter champions organizations such as the Sovereign Bodies Institute and Rising Hearts, which support MMIW efforts.

What’s next

Zaragoza isn’t taking a break anytime soon. In addition to touring and her work on Spirit Rangers, she’s also been in the studio recording.

“I am working on a new album right now, and it should come out this year,” she tells In The Know. “I’m really excited about it. And this album, actually, was created entirely by women.”

While the songs themselves are under wraps for now, the songwriter, who will be turning 30 next month, shared her excitement to further champion women.

“To have an album where 100% of the producers are women is really special, and most of which are women of color,” she adds.

To that end, Zaragoza shared that she’s also keen to mentor aspiring musicians. She even answers DMs on social media from fans who need “words of wisdom.”

“You need to see someone who looks like you or who comes from a similar upbringing to feel like it’s possible for you,” she says. “And I know as a folk Americana musician, a lot of my heroes are amazing. I love them so much, but they are white and I’m like, it’s great, it’s fine. I love Joni Mitchell so much forever. But I think that it is amazing that we have someone like Buffy Sainte-Marie, and I’m so glad I have those folks to look up to and to follow their footsteps.

“And so if I can be that for a woman, a Native woman or mixed-race woman, then, yay, I’m so glad about that.”

In The Know by Yahoo is now available on Apple News — follow us here!

More from In The Know:

Native TikTok calls out Balmain hairstylist for cultural appropriation after he renames Navajo bun the 'Balmain Vertibow'

6 affordable alternatives to Birkenstocks that are perfect for summer

Peshawn Bread is breaking Indigenous female stereotypes, on the big and small screens

NDN Girls Book Club, created by Gen Z poet Kinsale Drake, centers Native American 'book nerds' and writers

Listen to the latest episode of our pop culture podcast, We Should Talk: