Resistance and Resilience: Taina Asili on merging music and activism
Tonight, Philly welcomes back Taina Asili, a musician, activist, and documentarian whose group will be rocking the Rotunda with their highly spiritual, amalgamated blend of merengue, cumbia, reggae and DIY punk.
It’s an amazing mix of styles fully realized on the new album they’ll be celebrating, Resiliencia. Support for the band will be provided by the equally eclectic Afro-latin future fusion band Interminable. We sat down and chatted with Asili about power of music, culture and spirit.
The Key: Your music is steeped in tradition, but you’ve opened up vast conversations about futurity and modernity, particularly how women of color navigate the modern world through the lens of their respective cultural traditions. Why is this important to you? How does the modern world overlap with a more traditional approach?
Taina Asili: I see my work – including my art and activism – as a continuation a legacy of resistance and resilience. If I look back to my Puerto Rican roots, I see that we have used art, music, poetry, dance, and drawings, as powerful tools of resistance from the oppression that we have endured as African and Taíno people. Folkloric traditions such as bomba were used as a way to reclaim our humanity in the face of inhumanity, and were also used as an important time to organize slave revolts. As centuries pass we see these artistic traditions of resistance manifest into new art forms like Nuyorican poetry, Latin jazz, salsa and hip hop. But our ancient wisdom holds strong and is still so relevant. When I went to Puerto Rico just four months after Hurricane Maria – at time when there was still little access to electricity and running water – I witnessed people still practice our bomba puertorriqueña as a powerful tool to heal from that traumatic experience. My work seeks to a reach back to that ancestral knowledge in any way can, while simultaneously offering the knowledge that myself and others in my community have gathered for today, and offer this legacy to our future
TK: Visuals seem very important to your work. What came first, the idea for the documentary Resiliencia or the album? How does the documentary and interviews inform the album? What are some of the more powerful stories told in the documentary Resliencia that impacted the record?
TA: Three years ago I started working on the idea of filming interviews with women of color from my larger community about their stories of resilience, and translate these stories and teachings into songs and a series short documentaries. During this process Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico, and I decided to go there about four months later and interview women in my community there. We travelled from one side of the island to the other and formally interviewed four women, as well as conducting informal interviews with other people on the island, including my family members. It was a heart breaking and transformative experience to witness this home that I love so much in such devastation. But what I was most impacted by was the resilience of the people. The stories of coming together to build and share resources, to protect one another, and to protest the economic injustices that people were experiencing at as a result of corporate corruption and U.S. colonialism. This resilience was so visceral. So I decided to write the song “Resiliencia” inspired by what I learned, and later the 30 minute documentary to share this experience and their stories. As we were wrapping up the album, I decided to make Resiliencia the title track of the album, because the song is so important to me. I also think it is a perfect blend of my music expressions from the Afro-Latin roots to the punk rock rebellion.
TK: You’re a punk rocker! From the opening title track and its intricate cumbia-inspired intro that turns into a hard rock rager, to your time in legendary crust punk band Antiproduct, it seems heavy rock is still a part of you. How does / did the punk movement inform what you do today? Do you think it’s important for punks of color to connect to their cultural roots? Why or why not? What are some ways they can do that and still navigate a sort of white-washed indie-punk-experimental music scene?
TA: I will always love punk rock, and being in Antiproduct was an important experience in my life. I became involved in a lot of the activism I am involved in today through the punk scene. And I learned how to be an independent artist while simultaneously building community support and exchange. And musically, I learned the power that comes from screaming my truth on a mic. But those years in the punk scene were also a painful time for me as a queer women of color in the scene, trying to be seen. Like many other queer and / or people of color I knew in the scene, I often felt a constant pressure to cut out pieces of my identity in order to fit in, or face the consequences. Of course, there were many exceptions to that. There were safe havens of queer POC punks and bands, particularly in New York City and on the West Coast, with whom I felt a sense of refuge and visibility. However, I made a choice in the early 2000’s to take space from that scene in order to figure out how to make art in a way that was more authentic to who I am. Today, I really don’t care much about genres or scenes. The music I make is shared in whatever way Spirit calls me to do so. And in this way, I feel truly free.
TK: What was the album writing process like? Did you ever feel that at any moment on the album your ideas were too disparate, too eclectic? Who did you draw inspiration from?
TA: This album was unique from my songwriting on previous albums, because for the most part, I was writing from the intersection of someone else’s experience [combined] with my own. The interviews I did addressed a lot of different and connected issues: surviving hurricanes, colonialism, immigration, sexual assault, body hatred, transphobia, and breast cancer, just to name a few. I would comb the interviews over and over again to listen deeply to the stories being shared. And sometimes I would even make drawings from the teachings before I even began to write the songs. Sometimes I would hear rhythms or musical lines, before writing the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics came first. But I truly believe that each song was born from the Spirit of the wisdom of the women of color I interviewed. I think the continuity comes in the form of my voice, and also the instrumentation and the way I arrange songs, which allows the album to have a feeling of musical connectedness while also being eclectic, and I think that people who are fans of my work expect and enjoy this aspect of my music.
TK: How is the live performance different from the recordings? Do you have a band or a rotating group of players? What were the most important factors in choosing people to play with?
TA: To me, my performances are the ceremony, the “bombazo” from the tradition I spoke of earlier. Live music has an energy that just can’t be replicated in a recording, and my performances often have an energetic and spiritual quality to them. Generally, I have the same musicians performing with me, with occasional rotations of certain players. But after many years of playing in an all straight white boy punk band (except for me), I make sure that my musicians are the opposite of that – women, trans, queer, and / or musicians of color who are in line with the music and message. And we are truly a band-family.
TK: You spent time in Philly, how is the music scene here in Philly different from the music scene in Albany? Is there a difference in ethnic cultural make-up or political/economic culture between the two cities? How has Albany informed your music?
TA: First, let me just say that I miss Philly all the time! Philly was and will always be an important home to me. It was where I truly came into my own as an artist. This is why I knew that I had to have my album release there. However, it has been over a decade since I lived in Philly, so I know that the music scene has probably changed a whole lot since my time there. Even in my recent visits to Philly, I see the way gentrification has changed parts of the community that I once lived in and loved. So I can’t speak to the music scene there today. But what I remember of Philly that influenced me the most was the vibrant Black music and poetry scene during that time. From poets like Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker, to jazz at Ortleibs, to radical curated music events at The Rotunda, to powerful Puerto Rican music and art at Taller Puertorriqueño. There was such an amazing array of talented artists in every corner of the city. And some of us have left and still continue to perform together, like my work with musician Spirit McIntyre who is now in New Orleans. I moved to Albany for many good reasons, but artistic inspiration was definitely not one of them. Though I love this city too and have met some incredible artists here, it just doesn’t have the electric vibe of Black art that I experienced in Philly. But from here, I am able to travel easily to many parts of the Northeast, from Boston and Providence to Philly and DC. So in that sense, I am able to find artistic inspiration and people to collaborate with in so many more cities around the Northeast and all over the country as I tour the nation, which I do throughout the year.
Taina Asili celebrates the release of Resiliencia tonight at The Rotunda; tickets and more information on the all-ages event can be found here.