An Interview with Taína Asili
by Noah Adaikkalam
I was lucky enough to interview musician, poet, and activist Taina Asili this last week. I asked her about her musical background and influences as well as the way she incorporated her activism into her art.
I read that you grew up in a very musical household. I was interested in how that manifested itself in your music, more in terms of lyricism and subject matter.
Definitely, musically, it has influenced me. In terms of the subject matter, I would say that my parents were very much inspired by the Young Lords and the Black Panthers: the social movements of their era. Ideas of celebration, of culture, and our history and lineage, that was very much a strong part of growing up. Yes, it reflected musically, but when you are growing up as a Latino family in upstate New York, in a very white, predominantly white area, to claim that culture and that history is a part of that resistance to racism… that’s definitely a huge piece of what's influenced me. It really influenced me in terms of experiencing the racism and the sexism and the homophobia that I experienced growing up and looking for tools and ways to resist that. So it wasn’t necessarily in my home, in that sense, just through survival as a young person growing up in a school where I’m being bullied physically and emotionally bullied.
My first musical movement was punk rock, so punk was a way to be like “well if you don’t like the color of my skin and if you don’t like my gender and my identity as a whole then how do you like this?” Screaming into a microphone and letting out that rage is like a huge piece of it for me.
Do you feel like you had to have an outlet for that rage before you could create the music that you are currently making?
I think it is natural in our teen years to go through a more aggressive, rebellious time period. As I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to change the way that I process through those emotions and those feelings. So my music really reflects phases of my life. It was really important for me to have that time period as a young person to be screaming and resisting in this particularly aggressive way. But also, there was a lot of sexism and racism in the punk scene that I had to deal with, and so in another way, that was very hard. And there was a sense of having to disconnect with my cultural roots and our folkloric traditions and our music, like having to compartmentalize who I was. So I think that the music that I do today is about reconciling all of that and bringing all of those pieces of me together.
It is incredibly ambitious to blend as many genres as you do and it’s even more ambitious to do it well. Were there moments when you doubted that?
People often say to me, what genre of music do you play, what style of music do you play? And it’s gotta be in this particular box… and if you’re not one of those it’s like “Oh you’re a world music artist” and what does that even mean? It definitely has been challenging to not allow myself to be defined by a genre but more defined by whatever authentic voice needs to get expressed.
So I don’t think I’ve had an issue just writing what needs to be written or worrying about it... I think it’s more about when it’s done and how do I explain it to people? You know what I mean?... How do I help people to understand what this is when it’s not in this nice and neat box that people can understand. It’s about social justice and really explaining the content behind the songs rather than the musical styles. So I lean into talking about the different meanings behind the songs, and I think that video has really helped me in this area. So being able to really show through the videos what the songs are about, that’s really helped the songs a lot.
I have had some inspiration over the years. There was a band that I was a part of called Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a Puerto Rican punk rock band that blended a lot of our Puerto Rican musical styles with punk and so that was like the first entryway for me into thinking more expansively about my music. That was a very short time in my life... After that, there was a lot of Ozomatli. Ozomatli was and is this amazing group out of California that was doing a lot of Chicano musical styles, but they were blending hip-hop and rock and different types of Mexican folkloric music into it and I just loved it.
I was wondering if you wanted to speak to the theme of intersectionality in your music or music videos?
I, being a woman of color, have experienced the intersection of multiple oppressions, sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression that I have experienced throughout my life. That’s going to inevitably be reflected in the music that I write and the videos that I create. I guess thinking about the continuity of all the videos that I’ve created, I like to represent my community, represent where I come from, and that again comes from my parents. In college, my parents were the founders of the Latin American student union at the college they went to, Binghamton University. So, for me, this bringing of people together in community and working together is something that comes naturally to me.
So in my videos, I try to really show that through the imagery. If we’re looking at “No Es Mi Presidente” which is literally friends of mine from my community and we’re just doing what we normally do but in a more intentional way for the purposes of the video. I mean what you see is what you get. That is quite literally what we do and the same goes for “Freedom”. It is literally just the activist from our movement against mass incarcerations and were just kinda replicating a demonstration, with the same banners.
So with the new album, today, what hit me is that there are these really amazing stories behind all of those faces in the previous videos that I made. In “No Es Mi Presidente” for example, it features Barbra Smith, who is a renowned Black Feminist Activist who has written so many important books, who has done so much profound work. When people watch the video, some people might know who she is but a lot of people might not, especially younger people. And so for me with this new album and with the upcoming videos it’s about going deeper into these stories to really understand who these songs are about and really lifting up their struggles which are inevitably intersectional.
With your last album, the one from 2014, Fruit of Hope, until now, there was a four-year gap- What took place in between those two projects?
I think there is a lot that takes place before an album is made, and as an independent artist, I’m not on a record label, I’m not being represented by anybody in that way, everything is DIY. Every element of it, from getting the funds, to recording. I produce my own albums. I compose music with my partner and together we have to teach the musicians the music and all that stuff. But with this project in particular, I started by doing interviews. The past three years were spent collecting information, I traveled and I interviewed people and from those interviews, I had to take the time and really listen to them and think about what music would really lift up those stories. And sometimes it meant shifting around things and trying things. So you know, we did put out, in 2017, our first single from this album, which is Resiliencia, and a music video documentary, and that happened after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. And we went to Puerto Rico, I was already planning to go to do interviews, but I went in a more urgent manner to go collect those interviews. Originally we were just going to make these ten-minute music video documentaries, but with the footage that we got from Puerto Rico and what was going on there, we decided to make a longer 35 minute documentary about resilience.
I ended up interviewing four women, artists, and an activist about their stories. From that, we edited and put together this film… I’ve been using these videos during the in-between time as an opportunity to have these conversations about No Es Mi Presidente… to Puerto Rico, and what does Puerto Rico have to do with Climate Change and justice.
Is that where you got the name for this album?
Originally I was going to call the album Resilience, and then I decided after we made that documentary and that song, as you mentioned earlier the song has all these different elements to me, which really encapsulate who I am musically and what I wanted to express with this album. So I decided to make that the title track.
I cannot thank Mrs. Asili enough for this opportunity to speak with her about her latest project. She is doing her part to make the world a better place and is doing so through music that seamlessly blends all sounds of the Caribbean diaspora with her own punk influences and life experiences. Check out her latest work below, especially her new album Resilencia which was just released.