The sound of a baseball clapping into a leather glove — the sound of a million American childhoods — echoed through the concrete tunnel in the bowels of T-Mobile Park. Ducking in from the field, where a minute earlier Travis Thompson posed for pics and hammed it up with Mariner Moose while his coolly glistening “Parked Cars” blared over the stadium speakers, the Burien rapper sneaked in a few warmup tosses to his father before throwing out the first pitch as part of the Mariners’ Native American Heritage Night last month.
Wearing a custom Mariners jersey stitched with his Navajo name, which translates to “little black bear,” Thompson grinned wider than the hole on the left side of the infield when opposing teams put the shift on M’s fielder Jesse Winker, strolling to the mound under the field lights. A former ballplayer who made varsity his freshman year, Thompson gave an emphatic fist pump after putting the ceremonial pitch over the plate. “Didn’t even move his mitt,” his proud mother gushed later over a slo-mo replay.
It was a “top five moment” for the local luminary, who used to arrive at the ballpark two hours early to watch batting practice as a kid. Thompson, who is half-Navajo and half-white, has never been shy about his heritage, but over the years, it’s an aspect of himself that he has grown more comfortable sharing in his music.
Growing up a mixed-race kid in suburban Seattle, Thompson was often seen as one of the few white kids in his friend group. Thompson would take road trips to visit his father’s side of the family in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation reservation there — the largest reservation in the United States, spanning portions of Arizona, New Mexico and southeastern Utah.
“In the beginning, I didn’t really press the Native thing hella hard, because I didn’t want to feel like I was pandering or trying to be something,” Thompson said in the stands, surrounded by so many friends and family it felt like half of White Center was in Section 119.
“I started putting out music and then things in my life happened where people were calling for me to represent, so I’m like, ‘OK, bet. If you want me to represent, I’ll tell you exactly what I saw on the reservation, what me and the homies grew up like, what was cooked in my house, what languages were spoken in my house — I’ll tell you all about it.’
“So, to be here for [Native American Heritage Night], it almost feels like I’m being recognized and accepted by my people, in a weird way.”
The game-night honor also previewed Thompson’s first foray into the acting world, a cameo in the second season of “Reservation Dogs.” To mark the occasion, Thompson is throwing a premiere-night screening/Q&A Wednesday in the Crocodile’s Here-After theater, followed by a release show for his new EP in Madame Lou’s, also under the Crocodile roof (literally). (The screening is sold-out, but tickets for the show were still available on Tuesday.)
While Thompson has long had a proclivity for ambitious music videos, he never dreamed of adding “actor” to his résumé. When he first saw the trailer for the hit FX/Hulu series, centered on a group of mischievous teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation, Thompson reached out to co-creator Sterlin Harjo, who was already familiar with his music, thinking maybe they’d want to use a song or have him appear as an extra.
“Six months go by, he hits me up: ‘I think we might have an audition for you,’ ” Thompson recalls. “I’m like, ‘What the [expletive] are you talking about?! What?!’ ”
Thompson got a crash course in acting through a week’s worth of “little [expletive] YouTube videos” and eventually landed the role of Tino, who Thompson describes as a “rowdy-ass boy from the reservation” and a struggling young father with a good heart who bonds with one of the main characters. Tino first appears in the second season’s seventh episode, alongside another guest star in Marc Maron.
Evidently, those YouTube videos paid off. Thompson’s first day on set went so well, including an off-script forehead kiss that had “the whole cast and crew … dying,” that they wrote Tino into a second episode later this season.
“The coolest thing the show is doing is showing that Native people are hella funny,” Thompson said over occasional roars from Mariners fans. “Native American humor is on the forefront right now and I think that’s really dope.
“I feel like when you talk about Natives, a lot of time it’s just trauma and sad [expletive]. Don’t get me wrong, the show goes there. But the show also shows funny, normal, neighborhood reservation [expletive] that everybody can relate to.”
While the focus is on Thompson’s first acting role, the hometown rapper did land a song in the “Reservation Dogs” soundtrack, which has become one of the most talked-about in television since “Insecure.” (Coincidentally, his song “I Might Jump” appears in the Season Two premiere alongside tracks from fellow Northwest artists Beat Happening and Black Belt Eagle Scout, the Portland-based indie-rock project from Katherine Paul, who grew up on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reservation near La Conner.) Thompson’s selection was the first single off his new “If I’m Alive, That Is.” EP — his first since parting ways with Epic Records this year.
There’s a screw-it-all whimsicality coursing through the breezy, five-song set, which Thompson describes as sort of a warmup project ahead of a full-length album with heavyweight Seattle producer Jake One due early next year.
“The world’s crazy,” Thompson said. “You wanna make plans six months from now? Where’s the world going to be? That’s the whole idea behind the project. It’s really the energy of saying [expletive] it and doing our own thing.”