What’s really in a name? For some, a name is an arbitrary label. For musicians Shomari Huggins and Coleman Hunter, better known by their stage name Wakanda, it’s more than a simple way to identify themselves. It’s a mission statement.
“We want to empower our community to overcome the turmoil,” Huggins says. “It’s about who can we reach that really needs the help or the message.”
Huggins and Hunter met in the third grade at Springville Elementary School where their mutual affinity for music was evident. They joined forces for the third and fifth grade talent shows, covering the likes of Carlos Santana and Jagged Edge. Eventually, they came together again after a performance in 2015, when the two decided to officially join as a group under the moniker Wakanda.
“Wakanda really chose us,” Huggins says, looking back at the inception of the group and how its name was inspired by Native American culture. Often spelled “Wakonda,” the word translates to “Great Spirit” or “Creator” in indigenous Omaha, Ponca, and Osage languages. The sacred word is present in Lakota, too.
In light of the blockbuster film Black Panther, Wakanda has also become synonymous with the fictional African country of the Marvel comic book hero. “The obvious Black Panther connection was deep too because our precious resource that we are protecting is our vibrations, our music,” Huggins says, explaining the correlation between Wakanda, Africa, Black Panther, and Lakota spirituality.
“There’s a Great Spirit that’s in us that comes out when we create our music. Wakanda is a creative spirit,” Huggins says. “With the musical gifts we’ve been given we know we must say something that’s for our people and not against our people, so [we’re] selective about what we say with our platform.”
Given the importance of Native American culture for the Great Plains region, the duo (who do not claim tribal heritage) have chosen quite the name. Less than a year after officially becoming a group, Wakanda found themselves using their musical gifts on the front lines alongside the Lakota Sioux in a fight for human rights.
They stood with native tribes and thousands of other protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline. Accompanied by other local artists in 2016, Wakanda performed at the Love Movement music festival, which was organized as an artistic counter to the negativity, and sometimes violence, the protesters faced.
“We were able to connect ourselves deeper with the global civil rights movement and human rights movement,” saxophonist Hunter says. “Personally, everyone’s lives were changed. The trip made us more aware of the need for music that was able to reach people’s spirit and make them vibe but also make them think.”
For Wakanda, the Great Spirit of change and community upliftment doesn’t stop with their music. Since their transformational trip to Standing Rock, the duo has continued to create and inspire, staying true to their mission of empowerment. They are currently working on youth mentorship and college prep projects as well as planning an arts and agriculture festival for this fall.
“Whatever will bring our community together around positive energy is what we plan to be doing. We want to create as much as we can for our community, local and international,” Huggins says. “We want to inspire the youth. We want to help young artists find their passion and influence them to use their whole mind to create without fearing what others will think.”
The group was nominated for a 2018 Omaha Entertainment Award for Best R&B, no small feat considering they haven’t released an album yet. Although they did not win, they say the experience was a win for the local arts community as a whole.
“Whenever art [or] artists get a platform in our city we clap for it,” Hunter says. “We understand how tough it is sometimes to get people to respect many art forms, so we are glad the OEAAs provide the platform. Ultimately, we lost, but our category was full of great artists.”
To learn more about Wakanda’s music, visit facebook.com/wakandaone.
This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of Encounter.