Recording artist Taina Asili has spent her career infusing her songs with social justice advocacy, but this year has been monumental. In January, she released her song “Freedom,” featuring Detroit hip-hop artist Michael Reyes, which Mic.com lauded as an “anthem” of the Black Lives Matter movement. The song’s music video compares today’s mass incarceration of African Americans to the historical slavery that preyed upon human lives to build a global economy.
Recording artist Taina Asili has spent her career infusing her songs with social justice advocacy.
Asili, who was born in upstate New York to Puerto Rican parents, has crafted a lasting singer-songwriter career of more than 20 years. Trained in opera, she got her start as the lead singer of punk band Anti-Product, which released four albums and toured the globe. Now, she facilitates poetry workshops, teaching intergenerational, multiethnic groups to express themselves through song, poetry, and personal narratives.
The latest music video from her band Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde, “And We Walk,” was released in July, and is a poignant commentary upon society’s need to prioritize environmental justice.
Asili will be a featured performer at Rock Against the TPP, a series of concerts opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership with headliners including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Talib Kweli, Anti-Flag, Evangeline Lilly, and punk legend Jello Biafra. I spoke with Asili recently about her latest video and using her music as social activism.
This interview has been edited.
Steve Furay: Do you see yourself as a part of a tradition of socio-political music?
Taina Asili: My parents were involved in social justice work, particularly around Latino identity. They were the founders of the Latin American Student Union at Binghamton University, and they were always an important part of organizing in the Latino community in upstate New York. That was the environment I was raised under.
Ultimately, the fuel for social justice and my music is my own experience and personal understanding of oppression as a queer Latina, growing up in upstate New York and the experiences of racism, sexism, and homophobia that I endured throughout my life.
“The fuel for social justice and my music is my own experience.”
The tradition is about being part of a lineage of people who have used art and music to bring healing. My parents were also what we call Bomberos, people who are a part of the Bomba tradition, which is a Puerto Rican folkloric practice that brings together drumming, dancing, singing. It’s been practiced in Puerto Rico really since Taino Puerto Rican people were enslaved. It was used to reclaim our humanity in the face of inhumanity, as a way to pray and connect to our traditional roots, and also as an important time to organize slave revolts. So as the slave masters would go away to church, we would use that time to organize slave revolts.
Furay: You’ve engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement. What are some of the questions raised by participants that you feel deserve further exploration?
Asili: I think that Black Lives Matter has done a powerful job of thinking through the root causes of why Black oppression exists—why systemic racism exists. We’re constantly in the process of not only thinking through strategies of survival, which is a huge question right there, but also how do we continue to survive as Black people in the midst of this violence, whether it’s emotional or physical. How do we survive? How do we thrive? How do we continue to raise our children and give them hope? How do we give each other hope?
“How do we give each other hope?”
The platform that Black Lives Matter just introduced has some pretty powerful calls within it, which help to answer some of those root questions. I can’t speak for the movement as a whole, but I can certainly speak for myself in that every day I wake up and think, “How can I create a hopeful world for my children in the midst of this type of violence?” When my Black 13-year-old son walks out this door, I think, “How do I contribute to a world where I feel like he can come home to me safe?” That’s the question that I sit with on the daily.
Thankfully, I feel like I’m not alone in thinking through this. That’s the power of Black Lives Matter—that we’re doing this together. I’ve seen already a powerful shift in consciousness with all people that I interact with, and that to me is the starting place of hope.
Furay: Most if not all social justice movements intersect—from racial justice to climate justice. In what ways have you observed the intersectionality of those issues in the United States? Latin America?
Asili: I think that the burden of climate change in the United States is disproportionately shared by communities of color as a result of systemic racism; those two are intimately intertwined. Examples include increased cases of asthma in Black urban areas due to pollution and toxic materials, the lead issue in Flint’s water, Hurricane Katrina, the rising ocean’s encroachment on Puerto Rico’s shorelines, and the lack of recreational green areas in urban working-class neighborhoods.
Environmental racism is huge, and contrary to some popular narratives, people of color are and always have been on the front lines of addressing it. I would say that the concept of climate justice was founded as an intersectional organizing tool in the communities of color most impacted by climate change.
Furay: In some parts of the African American and Latino communities, many folks do not see the connection between racial justice and climate justice. In what ways, through your music and otherwise, have you connected the dots for your listeners?
Asili: Absolutely, that is definitely an intention of my work, and I have songs that connect them specifically; “And We Walk” is one of them. I have another song called “Survival,” which addresses both climate justice and racial justice, not that two terms are necessarily opposed to one another. I think that they’re very much one and the same. I also have songs that look specifically at issues for our children, like racial violence, police violence, and other forms of racist violence that young people have had to endure.
“Environmental racism is huge.”
Some of my songs might address issues more specifically, some might be more personal, and, of course, my personal experience is that I sit within that intersection as well. Definitely as a whole, I would say that me carrying that peace message is a part of that intersection. People see me as a woman of color talking about climate justice. That alone is bringing those intersections together.
Furay: The opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has brought together activists who focus on many different issues. Does this enhance each of these issues, or would you see this cross-sectioning as a distraction?
Asili: I think that there is a part of cross-sectional organizing that can be powerful. We have these workshops that happen where we discuss the TPP, and we’ll have representatives from different parts of the community that we’re visiting who are talking about the ways these types of trade deals have negatively affected their communities. That has been a powerful experience for me.
When I’m talking with a cattle rancher in Colorado, I know nothing about that experience. But [when] we’re both talking about the ways that the Trans-Pacific Partnership can affect our lives, we start to see each other more clearly and start to have more empathy for the other aspects of injustices that are affecting us. We realize that our struggles are not so disconnected. I think that has a lot of power.
Furay: Have you witnessed any collaboration between the grassroots and the corporate sector in opposing TPP? Any cases where there’s been an understanding by people in the corporate world as to why TPP needs to be opposed?
Asili: I would say that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is absolutely by and for corporations. But I would also say that corporations are built of people, human beings with children, and if they want a planet for their children to live on, then they might want to reconsider the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I would call upon their humanity and ask them to look at themselves beyond the corporation, to look at the impact that the TPP can have on this planet and all beings on it.
Do I think that that is necessarily going to be what will push them over the edge? No. I think that’s going to be the power of the people that pushes them to do what’s right. Certainly, my prayer would be to touch upon that place of humanity. The impact the TPP could have on the environment could be absolutely devastating for all of us.