Psychedelics, human trafficking, and song

US singer-songwriter Nahko shares his experience of psychedelics, human trafficking and turning pain into positivity, with Graeme Green

Nahko. Photo: Josué Rivas

You’ve said having a ‘thumb to hitchhike’ is one of the most important parts of your life. Why do you like to travel so much?

I was 17 when I left home. There’s an element of escapism when you’re young, when you run away from your parents or you’re looking for a new life. You get caught up in the excitement of the moment; you don’t need to plan where you’re going. As you get older, you have to figure out how to survive or make money. Back then, I’d live with pennies in my pocket, my guitar and the clothes on my back.

For your new album, My Name Is Bear, you revisited your teenage years, on the road, taking psychedelic drugs. What did you learn from those experiences?

The last three Medicine For The People [the musical collective Nahko plays with] records were really focused on identity and me understanding my cultural heritage, my ideals. This album is from a completely different era. I was 21, and this was before I met my birth mother. I was running from religion, from a Republican Christian family, and I was trying to break free of the archetype that had been built for me. It was revealing.

What role do psychedelics have for you?

I’ve had friends and family go through addiction. I respect that, but I was always able to know where my edge was. I sometimes went beyond it but I was able to rein that in and understand how I wanted to use plant medicine as a journey and in a shamanic way. They were a big part of my teenage years.

Your mother was forced into human trafficking by her mother and your birth was the result of rape. Your biological father was later murdered. How have you turned that trauma into something positive, rather than going off the rails?

I try to remind myself it’s all good, because it is. I’d prefer to live in a positive manner, regarding where I come from, rather than sit in sorrow and sadness about it, because that’s just not the kind of person I am.

You work with anti-human-trafficking organizations now. Is that because of your own experiences?

Absolutely. I recently performed at a prison in Colorado to about 50 indigenous Americans. They were all sex offenders. It was intense. I told them about my dad being a sex offender. It was powerful to share the other side of the story, from the perspective of a victim’s kid.

It reminded me how important it is to be an advocate in that way. My mum has had trouble recently with being my partner in that. But she’s coming around. The mother-son duo is super potent for victims to heal, to hear from us. Not only will that really heal our relationship and our past, it will help inspire other people.

You also work with on climate change awareness. How frustrated are you that some people, including the US President, are deniers?

If we don’t work on climate change, nothing else matters. Some countries are doing great work, switching over to solar, hydro and other power. It takes steps, and some countries are much more focused on it. But it’s very frustrating to live in a country where a pipeline is considered more important than the rights of indigenous people.

Where do you feel most at home?

In Hawaii. I believe that there are certain places you can live, in terms of latitude and longitude, where the channels are most strong to receive songs. I can attest to that. Hawaii brought me so much understanding and I’ve translated it through music. There’s no other place where I get that much peace.

Nahko’s first solo album My Name Is Bear is out now. He will be touring the UK April 2018. See

Graeme Green is a journalist, travel writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @greengraeme and Instagram