This story first published on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

At first listen, the music of the hip-hop artist “Blue Flamez” appears to be fairly typical of the genre. There’s the fast rapping, electronic samples and loops, galloping rhythms and catchy hooks that linger.

But it’s what Blue Flamez is rapping about that distinguishes his music and his roots. He grew up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where he still lives and draws upon for inspiration in songs like “Rez Life,” which won a 2016 Native American Music Award.

His lyrics celebrate Native American pride while acknowledging the past trauma and current struggles of many Indigenous communities, including his own.

“Blame it on the boarding school days for people in the haze with the alcoholic days, time to wake up, warriors ready to fight, ignite the warrior spirit inside,” he raps in his song “Warrior.” “Lightning bolts strike, the eagle of the light, fighting for Native rights.”

Blue Flamez is the musical persona of Scott Kalama, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs who works by day as a certified prevention specialist to mentor youth and raise awareness about the risks of drugs and alcohol.

He credits his older brother, Gilbert Kalama Jr., for his love of hip-hop and a musical journey that started with hand-me-down mixtapes and CDs of West Coast rappers like Too Short, Ice-T and Tupac Shakur.

“He gave me a tape of Ice-T’s ‘Colors’ and it just changed my life,” Kalama said. “Just the stories that they’re telling that kind of made me relate to them, made me realize that I wasn’t the only one that was struggling. I wasn’t the only one that was looking around and questioning, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Kalama now has an opportunity to bring his personal stories and uplifting message to a wider audience.

Last November, Kalama got a call informing him he had won a 2024-2026 Fields Artist Fellowshipfrom Oregon Humanities and Oregon Community Foundation. Stung by the memory of past grant rejections, he was bracing for bad news. But this time would be different as he stepped outside his office to take a call from the foundation.

“As soon as I opened my front door to go outside, I see the sunlight and it was sun shining down and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is like from a movie,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘No way.’ I just wanted to hang up the phone and just wanted to jump for joy.”

The fellowship includes $150,000, awarded over two years. Kalama hopes to use the money to pay for concert merchandise, advertising on social media and expanding his presence on streaming platforms like YouTube and Spotify.

“I’m hoping I can create more music, build a bigger audience and go on a Northwest tour,” he said. “And be able to pay some local artists and regional artists to open up and to perform.”

Kalama also has a new album which he plans to release this spring.

“People want to hear a positive message,” he said. “I’m trying to bring that balance on the positive side … I chose my side and that’s the good side.”

But choosing to carve a path of positivity hasn’t come easy in a life shadowed by grief, loss and recovery from alcoholism.

In 1997, his brother Gilbert was killed by a rival gang member. Another brother, Rupert, had died years earlier in a car accident. In 2012, Kalama’s older sister, Faron, was kidnapped, beaten, sexually assaulted and murdered on the Warm Springs Indian reservation.

Kalama recalled being filled with anger at the time and blamed himself for not doing enough to prevent her death.

“My mom told me we need to pray about it. We need to turn it over to the Creator,” Kalama said.

So they erected a tepee and held a religious ceremony to pray for guidance, protection and answers.

“And in that ceremony, my sister spoke to me and told me she was OK and told me that she was in a better place,” Kalama said. “And she told me not to worry and she told me to not be afraid to sing. And in this ceremony, there’s an empty spot next to me. And they say when there’s an empty spot next to you, your loved ones are sitting next to you. So when she spoke to me, I felt her presence. I felt her lean against me and it just made me happy.”

But it was what happened the next day as Kalama looked at the still-burning fire that would provide him with the musical and spiritual direction he was seeking.

“The medicine man, the roadman, was talking and the fire turned all blue … And I asked him, what does that mean? And he said, ‘Scott all these times I’ve been doing these ceremonies, I never seen an all-blue fire. All that means is your ancestors were in here with you last night and everything we prayed for last night is going to come true. Your family is going to be ok. And I smiled and I told myself I’m going to call myself ‘Blue Flamez,’” Kalama said.

“I was thinking violence, but the Creator showed me a different way. And with that, he told me, ‘Scott pray for a positive mindset, a good heart, speak good about your future’ … And after that day, that’s what I’ve done.”

Despite the loss Kalama has experienced on the reservation, there’s also resilience and solidarity there to be found and be reminded of.

“As Native Americans, we believe we’re all warriors,” he said. “Even though we was beaten down in history, you know, the assimilation and the genocide, we still stand tall and represent for our people. Who’s going to protect us but ourselves?”

Scott Kalama is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and a hip-hop artist who performs under the name “Blue Flamez.” He appeared at the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB for an interview and performance on “Think Out Loud” on Feb. 7, 2024. Jessie Sears / OPB

Sheraz Sadiq is the managing producer of Oregon Public Broadcasting's “Think Out Loud.” He is an award-winning producer and journalist who has created television, radio and digital content for over...