Nearing graduation, musician Byron Nicholai looks to college and new challenges

Byron Nicholai began posting fun, silly music videos on Facebook when he was 14 years old. Now, the Toksook Bay musician is 18, and his drumming and singing is celebrated for sharing traditional Yup’ik culture.

Byron Nicholai sings and drums at the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel. (Photo by Laura Kraegel, KNOM - Nome)
Byron Nicholai sings and drums at the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel. (Photo by Laura Kraegel, KNOM – Nome)

Between releasing his first album and performing across the country, Nicholai has accomplished a lot in the last few years. But with high school graduation fast approaching, he said he’s ready for the next challenge: going to college and making even better music.

Backstage at the 2016 Cama-i Dance Festival, Byron Nicholai is thinking about his future. He has just finished performing with the Toksook Bay Traditional Dancers, the hometown group that first taught him to sing and drum. Soon, though, he’ll take the stage for his solo act, “I Sing. You Dance.” Looking around the crowded high school gym in Bethel, Nicholai knows he’s come a long way from his early Facebook videos.

“It was just something I did for fun. That’s it,” Nicholai said. “But now it’s like I need to give these people a message — something that they need to hear.”

His music is still fun, but it’s based on big ideas about Yup’ik culture and identity. Nicholai said most songs are inspired by the lessons he learns from his parents and the elders in his community. And just as they motivate him, he says he wants to share a positive message with the many kids who are now his fans.

“What they see me doing, they will do,” said Nicholai. “It’s almost like ‘monkey see, monkey do,’ but with people. So I’m trying to help our culture grow song by song, dance by dance, and these little kids are into it. While I’m up there and they’re watching, they’re learning the songs, the dances, part of my culture. It’s just a part of them now as it was a part of me.”

Midway through his set, Nicholai performed his signature song, “I Am Yup’ik.” The crowd sings along faintly for the first half, but then their voices swell enough that he steps back and lets his audience finish the final refrain.

“I heard these little kids singing in front of me, singing along with me, and I was like, ‘Whoa. They know the song. Maybe I should back away from the mic and have them sing with me,’” Nicholai said. “So I do that and while I’m drumming, I hear them singing and I had that feeling of being a good role model. That’s why I’m trying to be.”

That attitude extends beyond music, too. Early in high school, Nicholai planned to study computer science in college. But after everything that has happened in his music career, he said he feels called to do something else, especially after a memorable experience last year in the Bristol Bay community of Igiugig.

“I was there to teach the people how to sing and dance,” said Nicholai. “The looks on their faces are what made me feel that I was doing something right for the people. The determination on their faces — they wanted to learn. I was like, ‘Wow. I was doing a good job at that. Maybe I could become a Yup’ik teacher.’”

In the fall, Nicholai will start at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He said he’ll major in elementary education and minor in Alaska Native Studies. His goal is to teach Yup’ik language and culture at a school in rural Alaska. Until then, though, he’s doing his best to finish senior year strong, prepare for life away from home, and stay on top of his song writing. He said it’s not always easy.

Byron Nicholai performs with the Toksook Bay Traditional Dancers. (Photo by Laura Kraegel, KNOM - Nome)
Byron Nicholai performs with the Toksook Bay Traditional Dancers. (Photo by Laura Kraegel, KNOM – Nome)

“If I was someone else looking at me, it would be a fun life. But it’s not always fun because I feel like a lot of weight is put on my shoulders,” Nicholai said. “These papers, these deadlines, the emails, the calls — How am I going to keep that up when I’m doing things at school? When am I going to find the time? When am I going to have a break to do what I want?”

This summer, Nicholai will get a short break. He said he hasn’t made too many plans beyond playing basketball, playing music, and spending time with his family. But that doesn’t mean he’s looking to slow down.

“There’s this word that my teacher said. He says I’ve accomplished a lot, but I want more. Ambitious! Yes. I’m just ambitious. I want more,” said Nicholai.

Which leaves the big question: When can fans expect another album? Nicholai said he doesn’t have a timeline for releasing new music, but it’s certainly on his mind. He’s writing songs and experimenting with a loop station. He said he wants to continue growing — maybe mix some modern beats into the traditional style, maybe even add a new instrument.

“I have a guitar at home. Maybe I could use it one day,” Nicholai said. “Maybe I could have a harmonica. Just keep my music growing and entertaining.”

While his music evolves, though, Nicholai said he doesn’t want to stray from his message of empowerment or his connection to Yup’ik culture. No matter what, he hopes his songs always resonate with his people.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or how old you are. You still have the power to make a difference,” said Nicholai. “It’s just all in the mind. I mean, growing up, I thought I was just going to be a regular, teenage boy. That’s all I thought I was going to be. But with all of this happening, I realize that I am much more.”