Taína Asili is a Puerto Rican singer, songwriter, bandleader, and activist. She performs with la Banda Rebelde and her music is a fusion of Afro-Latin, reggae, and rock sounds. Asili has written social justice songs on mass incarceration, climate injustice, equality, and more. She was recently awarded the 2016 Jim Perry Progressive Leadership Award on demonstrating commitment to community activism and leadership.
Sabrina Sultana: Can you tell me a little about your background?
Taína Asili: I am a Puerto Rican and I grew up in Upstate New York in Binghamton. I was raised by my parents who were musicians and dancers. My father was an Afro-Latin jazz conductor. My mother was a salsa dancer. Besides that, my parents were very interested in social justice and decided to be the founders of the Latin Organization in SUNY Binghamton. I was raised in a home that was not only musical but also socially conscious. Living in this type of household made me think about Latinx identity and that was interesting considering how I grew up in a white area; I encountered a lot of racism, sexism, and homophobia. This environment was definitely where my music and social justice started to intersect.
SS: That’s very interesting. When did you start taking playing music seriously?
TA: Well, I ended up in a punk band at the age of 16 and played for 8 years in this band that changed my life because I was able to express the feelings that I have been expressing as a queer Latina in the white area I grew up in. I started to write about social justice for 22 years since then. My journey has taken me to so many places and I toured the nation. I left the band after the eight years I played in the band and moved to Philadelphia. I became a spoken word artist with other women of color. In 2006, I began to perform in this project with the La Banda Rebelde, which produces a fusion of Afro-Latin and punk rebellion ideologies together. My music in itself is a combination of my training in opera from the ages of 14 to 22, my time spent in the punk band, and my Afro-Latin background. There’s a lot going on there but they’re all important to what I who I am today as an artist.
SS: You perform social justice songs as a solo artist as well as with your band La Banda Rebelde. What were some of your influences in writing social justice songs?
My first album was War Cry and I was living in Philly at that time and it was an interesting time of my life because I was part of an intentional community I started made up of folks part of the African diaspora of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and more. We were all living together but in the same time we were working and exchanging our experiences. We tried to understand our different backgrounds and languages. That experience was the major turning point in terms of my art. I wanted to create something that included the complexities of working together but also honoring each other’s differences and being able to collaborate. I wrote that album as a mother of a black child and I wanted to highlight the obstacles of raising a child. Working to dismantle barriers and expressing how I felt as a mother were the major influences.
Other than that, my political experience influenced my work. I was involved in organizations that fight against mass incarceration. At that time, I was working on freeing Mumia Abu Jamal who is a political prisoner still in prison. There’s a song called “Prison Break” in my first album and it’s about understanding how my liberation is connected to his liberation.
SS: How is Jamal’s liberation connected to your liberation?
So, Jamal was incarcerated because he was framed for killing the police officer but my belief is that he was framed for being a journalist and political activist. He became more of a threat once he was incarcerated. As I wrote to him, I realized that his inspiration was connected to mine. Mass incarceration is something I take personally. I know loved ones who have been incarcerated. This is something that can affect any person of color even if we are not the ones being incarcerated. We see this in the Black Lives Matter movement and even now in Standing Rock. Activists are unjustly incarcerated and these people are literally dying behind bars. Seeing loved ones and these unfortunate events that have been affecting innocent people of color has been a big influence for my work.
SS: How does the album War Cry relate to you as a social activist?
My music is about motivating people and push them to show interest in social justice. It’s also for people who are already doing advocacy. War Cry brings up issues on political imprisonment, environmental justice, raising a black child, etc. Music has always been a way for people to keep moving forward. Bomba is a traditional music style in Puerto Rico that uses the folk drum used in slavery. The drum was a way to to organize slave revolts and Bomba was a reminder of our traditions and pre-colonial time period. I see my music, work, and tradition as reclaiming our humanity and opportunity to organize slave revolts. In a way, my work is to deconstruct these systems of oppression and understand them through music and poetry.
SS: And your second album Fruit of Hope?
For the second album, I definitely shifted in terms of really bringing my whole self in my work in a way that I have not done before. I’m talking again about my kids, ancestors, grandmother, mass incarceration and connecting them with my own experiences and what I’ve seen in my family and in the world. This time I focused on bringing my authentic voice in expressing how I felt.
SS: You held workshops that are named “Reclaim the Thunder: Songs for Social Change”. Can you tell me a bit about these workshops and the purpose of them?
Yes, this workshop looks at history of social justice songwriting. It looks at examples of different genres and movements such as Nina Simone to Sweet Honey in the Rock. These workshops are designed to raise resistance to the regime and to teach artists how to use words as power to influence social change. Later, I started to develop new workshops to dive more into topics such as mass incarceration.
SS: How is your music a form of dismantling barriers? What outcomes do you look for?
I would say that — in terms of dismantling barriers — my music is an opportunity to talk about an issue. For example, “Freedom” is a song that brings the issue of mass incarceration into dialogue with my audience. Being able to talk about mass incarceration and continuing to keep that conversation is what matters. The messages and ideas expressed in music that can touch people is one thing. But actually feeling that music is taking it to another level. One outcome I pray for is that people can experience that and develop compassion for what they’re interested in when hearing my music. “We Walk” is a song about climate justice and I released a music video about it. Now we see what’s happening at Standing Rock and this is a perfect example of how my music can shed light on people of color affected by environmental injustice. I hope that social justice music like mine can influence all of us to use our physical bodies to interrupt the violence against people of color.
SS: Do you struggle being a social justice singer? Have you felt pressured to make your music “mainstream” and marketable?
A lot of my songs are very political. I’ve felt that struggle in the sense that I’m making music for topics that are controversial and inevitably can turn people away. Though listening to my music sounds relaxing, I think people would be offended by the themes of my work or criticize it for not being marketable from a capitalist perspective. In terms of my musical career I’ve accepted that as a part of my reality. I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t true to my beliefs. This life is so short and precious and I want to use this time to make something that’s more than just making money but making impact. I need to stay true to my messages.
SS: What do you have to say about those who do not care or relate to finding solutions for social justice issues?
I think it’s about tapping into the personal and the political. For me at least, the personal is political. I’ve come from a place where I was abused for being a queer Latina. Everyone’s been impacted by injustice and oppression. Some have subtle experiences and privilege has impacted them differently than others. The one thing we can do is what my elders told me in the past. “The most important thing to be is be the example.” We don’t have power over anyone and we can’t change them for who they are or what they believe in. But we do have power over ourselves and the decisions we make to combat injustice.
SS: Do you have anything else you would like to share as an artist?
I would say that art is a powerful tool and I believe human beings are born with creativity that come in different forms. I encourage everyone who is reading this to try to tap into their creativity. It can be writing a poem, sketching a piece, singing a song or even dancing. Doing so will help us think more about solutions for world problems and the possibilities we have for ourselves.
To learn more about Taina Asili and her work, visit tainaasili.com.
Interview by Sabrina Sultana