Seventeen-year-old Byron Nicholai of Toksook Bay, Alaska, was always an overachiever.
He learned traditional Yup'ik drumming when he was in sixth grade, became leader of the Nelson Island High School drum group when he was a sophomore, is a star on the school basketball team and works to help his single mom with her five other kids. But Nicholai never thought he would be anything more then a regular teenager from a remote Alaska village.
So the response to his Facebook fan page, "I Sing, You Dance," from teens all over Alaska -- and worldwide -- was unexpected.
"My Facebook page, like all things, it started out small. It was just for my real friends to look at," Nicholai said.
He posted a video of himself singing to his Facebook profile and it took off. That's when the idea for "I Sing, You Dance" came about. It was a way to share his singing with Alaska Native kids while encouraging them to get involved in cultural traditions.
"You see a young person making a change and you want to do that too. Like, monkey-see, monkey-do. So if they see me making a change for my community, all the Alaska Natives, they're going to get inspired. They're going to start going to dance practices."
Nicolai mixes his video feed with traditional songs, songs he's improvised and pop covers.
"I try to mix the traditional with the modern, because teens today are so modern," Nicholai said. "They're starting to think the traditional way is boring. So what if I mixed them? They would still be into the modern but they would learn more about the traditional way, too."
And it's working. Nicholai is reaching teens. "I Sing, You Dance" has more than 15,000 followers on Facebook. He receives fan mail daily -- videos of kids playing traditional drums, notes that he has inspired them to go to dance practice. During the recent Cama-i Dance Festival in Bethel, Nicholai was followed around by teenage fans who couldn't get enough of him. Many of the girls were swooning after taking photos with the young singer.
"A lot of young people I seen out there had their full attention on him, with their eyes wide open," Cama-i organizer Peter Atchak said of Nicholai's solo performance at the festival. "They were really attentive, and that was really good to see."
Nicholai is just happy his music is having an impact.
"You find out that people are talking about you positively, and it makes my heart smile. It tells me that I'm doing very good, tells me that I'm giving back to my community," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing