Tag Archives: indigenous

Fostering Communities of Anti-Abuse: A Conversation with Kris Harper

For many of us, music—listening to, discovering, writing, playing—is inextricable from the meshwork of other things that form our core values and identity. Inextricable from every other outlet we find that moves us, in some unique way, toward a deeper engagement with this world. It often matters little the style of music, the stance or tone of lyrics or performance, or the aesthetics of the sound and dynamic movement—you simply know by feel when you have been struck by an artist whose music evokes a deep and vast web of consciousness, experience, and interrelatedness; a web of community, ancestry, pride, trauma, suffering, language, the earth and its scales of time. And you can’t help but be ensnared. Perhaps this seems lofty. Sure, but it is only because, as an artist curating the work of other artists, I am drawn toward some other plane of consciousness when I find, am struck by, and give in to music whose gift of immersion offers me a new world to experience with the senses, and also a newly informed sense of how to navigate this world. How to be in these diverse communities, in this body, with this blood and brain, with the gifts that are its ethical considerations, anxieties, privileges, burdens, opportunities for growth.

Recently, I have had the extreme privilege of connecting with such a musician whose work spans genres and styles with as much sincerity as musical dexterity, with as much humility as urgency. Kris Harper, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, and vocalist, from amiskwaciy on Treaty 6 territory, which in English is called Edmonton, Alberta, joined me for a virtual discussion about his past and current musical projects.

From 2017-2020, Kris played guitar, sang, and wrote lyrics for nêhiyawak, a genre-bending three-piece act whose debut record was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s biggest music awards. With him were Marek Tyler on drums and Matthew Cardinal on synth and bass. Kris has since been collaborating with Jason Borys, together composing, among other stunning recordings, the soundtrack for the documentary miniseries “Voices on the Rise.” Also with Jason Borys and Courteney Morin, Kris contributes to a rich tapestry of ambient music under the banner Ag47. In their most recent project, Ag47 supplies the swirling, meditative backdrop to a man named Mr. William Quinn, a nêhiyaw elder and artist, as he gives a sweetgrass smudge and orates about his life, experience in residential schools, and, among other things, the urgency of passing on ancestral knowledge to younger generations. Kris also collaborates with bUDi, a.k.a. Nick Dourado, who has made music with Aquakulture, Fiver, Beverly Glenn Copeland, Kathleen Yearwood, and many others. bUDi’s new record, /WORLD/GO/DUH/, on which Kris contributed to the mix, was released a little over a month ago. I am humbled and delighted to share our conversation with the Shouts! community.

Nathaniel Youmans: nêhiyawak’s first and only album, nipiy—the nêhiyaw word for “water”—was shortlisted for the 2020 Polaris Music Prize. At times the lush shoegaze sound (or, rather, “moccasingaze,” to salute a growing genre tag used by contemporary Indigenous musicians who are forging distinct, compelling, reverb-drenched musical paths rooted in Indigenous identity and worldviews) sweeps listeners away to the vaulted halls of post-rock. Yet, there is such a driving, grounding urgency in the chime and propulsion of rhythms, such evocative emotion in Kris’s vocal aerobics, such a sense of larger community in the band’s sound, that there is never a dull moment on this amazing album, except at the moment it ends and there is no more. nipiy is difficult to place with shorthand descriptors of genre and style—one of the many ways in which Kris’s work reminds me that English is an insufficient linguistic and cognitive framework. This is a concept our conversation often returned to. On Indigenous language and cultural preservation, on his approach to music, on fighting erasure and decolonizing our minds, Kris spoke at length.

Kris Harper: I myself grew up in a home where my mother spoke nêhiyawēwin, but I was never spoken to. It was like when my mom would switch to nêhiyawēwin talking to relatives on the phone and such, she would kind of turn away. It was always a strange thing, because within my mom’s family, among her siblings, she was the only fluent speaker. Funny enough, I grew up in an environment where my mother was working for the government and my father was a carpenter, so I went to this other family’s house in the mornings from the time I was about eight months to five years old. They were Iranian, so I ended up learning Farsi as a child and learning all about that language. More recently, I took some university classes in 2013 and have done all kinds of reading and learning about linguicide. I’ve also taken some nêhiyawēwin courses and am still learning how to write syllabics.

A lot of nêhiyaw people will still refer to themselves as “Cree,” which comes from a French word. The name for the band nêhiyawak was very intentional: we went to our parents, who would all be considered elders. We said we have these songs, and they’re all trying to share experiences that were for the most part personal but of course rooted in indigenous issues. We asked them if there was a name that they thought would fit. It was Matthew’s father who said we should call it “nêhiyawak.” That is the word for all nêhiyaw people, and it’s also a word that a lot of people have a hard time saying. We wanted to put that word in people’s mouths so they will be forced to deal with it linguistically. A lot of that inspiration too, personally, was from The Ethiopians. That band in Jamaica pretty much went to their Rastafari elders when they were looking for a name for their band. These are old words with much deeper meanings than anything in English.

NY: Kris and Jason Borys collaborate on gentle, soothing electronic soundscapes for the documentary series “Voices on the Rise,” which follows Eli Hirtle, a nêhiyaw man based in Victoria, B.C., on his journey home to reconnect with his culture and language. It is a beautiful and highly-relevant miniseries that puts in very clear terms the deep crisis that can result from the separation from one’s heritage, language, ancestral words and knowledge of and upon the earth itself. Kris elaborated on this story of revival and reciprocity, and his role in this kind of work.

KH: It’s been a cool process to get these conversations building with other creative people, like in “Voices on the Rise.” Eli’s been in Victoria for quite some time, where we met. I didn’t know there would be this story about Alberta and language revitalization, but he came to me right away and asked if I’d be interested in doing the music. Jason Borys and I were already working on a recording, and I was like “for sure!” It’s really amazing that when you watch “Voices On the Rise,” you’re seeing this nêhiyaw artist and creative, Eli, going back to this community in Alberta, but then on top of it, there’s us from here as well, making the music. It becomes very holistic.

I’ve heard from Reuben Quinn, an elder from here who is featured in the documentary, that our language loses about four words per year, and almost everything else is becoming short-form. You see it happen every year. Our language actually links to the stars, and there are concepts and notions less understood by any other framework that can’t afford to be lost. Reuben offers nêhiyawēwin classes through this place called Center for Race and Culture. There have been people from Australia and from all over the world taking these classes. This is another great way that technology lets a global community kind of peep in on deep, heavy–duty conversations.

NY: I am grateful for the way in which you talk about where you are from: amiskwaciy on Treaty 6 territory—in contrast to the almost comical “Edmonton, Alberta,” a city named after a London borough and a province after a British princess with no ancestral ties to the land. A prime example of how naming is essentially synonymous with claiming in a colonizer mindset. But such a reductive name falls so incredibly short of articulating anything about the complexity of lived experiences in such places. I guess what I am really interested in is something like “psychogeography,” especially how language shapes our positionality within a wider world of relations, ecosystems, and power structures. We could dissect this forever, I suspect. What are your thoughts?

KH: English absolutely has come to be echoing in this region, so there is always a conscious effort for me to talk about names, like “kisiskâciwanisîpiy,” which is the North Saskatchewan River. This is an old, old word, and it would have likely echoed in these valleys for thousands of years. Then after a while those words are never being used anymore. All this work couldn’t help but be about language revitalization, even within our own lives. This is important because there are so many words that don’t have an easy meaning in English, which speaks to how Indigenous languages can be broken apart and were broken apart by colonialism and residential schools, for example.

I want to mention, too, that on the track “kisiskâciwanisîpiy,” we timed that track to the river itself. Not every part of the river flows the same. Here, it’s about 90 bpm.

I have often felt scared or hurt or put off in Alberta and the prairies in Canada when I hear them being called “empty prairies.” You often hear the way people talk about them as just that—like they’re sitting there, empty, with nothing there. But you go out there and you feel that wind and you hear the birds and you know that at one time, if you would have stood there, 60 million buffalo would have just churned you into hamburger and you wouldn’t even know what happened. And, of course, there have been people there for such a long time. This is totally about erasure, whether people know it or not. Taking part in these linguistic tropes is actually doing violence. Working against this has always been my intention with the “moccasingaze” stuff, and it has only gotten deeper, not in a little way, but in a way that says, “Let’s not accept this anymore. Let’s put all this aside.”

There needs to be a deeper want within our community as a whole. This would include all people in our community. I feel like this is where we’re at: on one hand, indigenous rights have been taken away and indigenous people have experienced so much erasure and genocide and linguicide, and on the other hand, our very understanding of who Indigenous people are, we have to admit, is colonized. We’re still talking about the same key figures in a story that seemingly lines up, if you accept the European colonial history. But if you question it at all it becomes really strange. For instance, on a status card in Canada, it says “Certified Indian.” You are a “Certified Indian.” There are members of my family who have much more melanin than I do, who have been off reserve for generations. These people are not even allowed to call themselves Indigenous. Obviously, no one questions the fact that they are, but when it comes down to paying for a dental bill? Nothing. This idea of “certified,” this stuff isn’t really there. Neither is the “Nation.”

What we’re being shone a light on is the fact that this is one story: all of these nations and borders. We didn’t create that. Somebody else did. We are not the enemy. This should be about uplifting and always trying to challenge these status quos.

We’re in a cool spot where we can talk about these issues in art and music, even though the reality is that a lot of our world is still something that we could refer to as “garrisons,” or “war camps” in some cases. These names could more accurately sum up the legal jurisdiction these places continue to have over Indigenous people. They can assist in us understanding the deeper consequences of how it is that the oppression of Indigenous people plays into all our lives and how we can break out of it. It’s not easy, but, again, I think we are actually at a beautiful point where we can not only learn these things, but embed them into our work as artists. It’s important to see how we can break out of a colonial mindset especially by supporting other creatives.

nêhiyawak from left to right: Marek Tyler, Matthew Cardinal and Kris Harper (photo retrieved from the band’s Bandcamp page)

NY: All of these projects exude tremendous consideration, generosity, compassion, and respect. The many collaborations Kris is a part of seem inherently meant to be out in the world because they are so rooted in both personal and communal experience that they have such a multifaceted ability to reach the listener/viewer on multiple interpretive and emotional planes at once. There is absolutely a conscious effort toward a frequency-shift discernible in Kris’s work. He elaborates:

KH: A lot of us are just using music for healing. For a lot of people, a lot of my friends—the concepts of addiction and trauma have been really soothed by the ability to have an outlet, one that you can be very addicted to but in a way that is only giving, only about healing and building.

With Nick, I met him in 2018 or 2019 at the Folk on the Rocks music festival in Yellowknife. Ever since, there has been this ongoing conversation about music and focusing our work and energy on supporting communities of anti-abuse. Essentially, looking toward communities who are open and receptive not only to re-determining their colonial history, but also getting down to the basic question of “how can we live with less violence in our lives. Period.”

I also think that all of this stuff is about vibrations, truly, and the intentions of human beings and lifeforms. The fact that we’re putting our intention into any of our language and movements in this world allows us to continue to do this honest work without forcing ourselves into what is actually a colonial concept of understanding language. We do have to get there, but there are no shortcuts, so we have to be pretty patient with ourselves and this world, and how it’s opening and changing and how people are looking at it. Language aside for a moment, the vibrations within bUDi’s record—that stuff is as meaningful as any words, to me. There is so much being said in that work. Really, every recording, with Nick and Jason and nêhiyawak, I’ve just felt so cool with because they have all felt so honest each time.

I’ve always dreamed that, with a band like nêhiyawak, or any kind of group, it would be amazing to have a situation where the band is nêhiyaw and all the management is nêhiyaw—or, let’s just say Indigenous, because there’s something about having all the moving parts working as a team, and I feel that that whole team should not just be people from inside the industry, but the actual community. Let’s just say your managers are a group of six or seven elders, and they really decided which shows were good for you to play. And they get, say, 15% off all the shows? That would be great!

Part of this, too, is breaking out of the individual. The idea of the “individual” has to be crushed to a certain degree because the fact is, the tastes and interests of so many individuals have been so horribly repugnant in the historical record of humanity that to me it doesn’t seem worth it. But more than me, this is about everyone. We all share this thing called consciousness that supposedly some of us are “up on” and some of us are “less on”—whatever, we all share it. Everything we’re doing is what we’re doing together. And I’m glad there are folks like you who call me up and take the time to ask sincere questions. It’s cool as hell!

Cover photo by Levi Manchak

✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊

Song Of The Day: La Cigarra By Afro Yaqui Music Collective

From our friends in the Afro Yaquí Music Collective comes a brand new single in support of political prisoners from around the world. The song is part of their new album titled Maroon Futures and in this song, the band highlights the struggles of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Fidencio Aldama Pérez, and Abdullah Öcalan.

See also: A Protest Music Interview: Afro Yaqui Music Collective

‘La Cigarra’ communicates the message of freedom of speech and the freedom of action through a fantastic jazzy union of saxophones and the voice of Gizelxanath Rodríguez.

Check out below a recent interview with Ben and Gizelxanath from Afro Yaquí Music Collective where they discuss (in Spanish) their latest album, the struggles of indigenous people, and much more.

Furthermore, the band recommends people to become involved in the following campaigns to help free the above-mentioned activists:


✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊

A Protest Music Interview: Afro Yaqui Music Collective

The Shouts project is about the connection between music and activism and how the two can be considered a unified entity. Music in itself can be a form of activism and lately pure activism has become a viral piece of music.

I myself am an investigative journalist and I have seen how dangerous it can be if a journalist speaks the truth. Which is strange because that is one of a journalist’s main responsibilities. To be a watchdog. To hold the powerful to account. To let the rest of us know if power is being abused.

Some musicians and artists take these journalistic values to heart and even erase the lines between artist and activist. The people that make up the Afro Yaqui Music Collective belong to that group. I had the pleasure of interviewing a core of the group recently and I am thrilled that this is Shout’s end of the year protest music interview.

I spoke with Ben, Gizelxanath and Nejma from the collective about their music and their activism. Ben Barson is a jazz musician, activist and a protege of the legendary Fred Ho, Gizelxanath Rodriguez is a singer, cellist, urban farmer and activist, and Nejma Nefertiti is a fierce emcee, producer and activist.

The trio explained to me their motivations behind their latest collaboration – the global, large scale, jazz and hiphop fusioned opera piece that is Mirror Butterfly as well as their take on their role as artists and activists.

“We got to see how revolutionary music breaks fascism apart.” – Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Halldór: As a music collective you recently released Mirror Butterfly: The Migrant Liberation Movement Suite (August 2019). This work’s liner notes call it “a jazz opera that spans four continents and five centuries”. What was the motivation behind creating such a large scale piece of music?

Ben: The Zapatistas, based among Mayan peoples in Chiapas Mexico have, a parable about colonization and resistance. This story was shared with Gizelxanath and I in Oventic, which is an autonomous Zapatista “caracoles:” communally-run societies with schools, shops and hospitals whose labor and resources are shared collectively.

The parable describes a sword that arrives into a world. It attacks a tree, because it’s the tallest entity around. The tree transforms into rocks, which stay hidden underground, building, but the sword attacks these, too, and damages itself but still splits the stone. These stones turn into water, which the sword foolishly attacks, only to be rusted and dissolved. The story is a metaphor for the evolution of Mayan resistance over five centuries and the current “water” moment are the massive grassroots decentralized, autonomous, matriarchal, democratic project that the Zapatistas and other new social movements represent.

We live in the breaking point of the global climate, when every year, month, day counts to overturn this carbon capitalist system, and we feel that movements like the Zapatistas, the national indigenous congress in Mexico, the Kurdish freedom movement, and the legacy of the Black Panther Party are all essential to human survival and true self-determination for oppressed people. With librettist Ruth Margraff, we developed this jazz opera with this Zapatista parable as its backbone. That’s what this jazz opera tries to capture: the battle of these Afro-Indigenous elements against the sword, a world-historic battle which is taking on quite intense resonance right now. Peggy Myo-Young Choy also helped us develop Mirror Butterfly, both in terms of political themes and creating choreography for the staged version of the work.

Nejma: Carrying on the legacy of the Maya parable while bringing to the forefront 3 warrior women – Mama C, formerly a Black Panther in Kansas City, now living in Tanzania, Reyna Lourdes Anguamea of the Yaqui nation in Sonora, Mexico; and Azize Aslan, who is part of the Kurdish diaspora.

Photo by Michael Swenson

Halldór: This libretto piece is based on three interviews with women from different parts of the world. Can you tell us about those interviews and how they came to be?

Ben: These women have served as our mentors, collaborators, friends, accomplices, etc. We’ve met them through different movements, solidarity work, and travels. Gizelxanath and Nejma met Mama C at the founding of the First Ecosocialist International in Veroes, Venezuela, in 2017, for example.

Halldór: You have spoken about being artivists before, written essays about it and now scheduled to teach a class on the subject. The Shouts project focuses on both music and activism and how the two are intertwined. Many critics claim the two should be separated and other critics say the same for activism and journalism. Why is your bond to activism so strong and do you feel there is a lack of awareness or social consciousness among artists today? Should the connection between the two disciplines be a choice in your opinion or is it a responsibility?

Nejma: As artists, it’s always our responsibility to reflect the times and fight for the oppressed. Not all artists are “conscious” and that’s fine. Not all artists are going speak for the voices not heard or demand justice. As for me, it’s my purpose and I walk in it. That’s my decision.

Our music equals our politics, which prefigures a new society and creates solidarity among self-determining communities and villages (pueblos) all over the world. This is how we’re gaining our freedom.

It’s an artist’s responsibility to inspire people, create awareness, create revolution, teach the youth, carry on the torch, and continue to pass it on. It’s our obligation to use our platform. We’ve been given this gift and it’s important we share it. The world needs it.

Ben: Eco is the opposite of ego. Ego is when you focus only on yourself and the amazingness of your self-expression. What is truly amazing is when you can express and dialogue with communities in struggle, the ecologies of the community. Expressing this is an ever-evolving tradition, found in jeliya, the griot’s ancient art.

In terms of activism, music and activism have always been deeply intertwined especially the music of the African diaspora. One of the first jazz musicians, an African-Creole-American named Daniel Desdunes, sat on a segregated train car in New Orleans in 1892 to protest Jim Crow. He was arrested. Buddy Bolden, another early jazz musician, theme song was about an African American who served in the Civil War and later attacked the police in New Orleans protesting segregation and racism named Robert Charles. Sidney Bechet, one of the first clarinetists, claimed his grandfather was the maroon revolutionary Bras-Coupé who led slave uprisings in Louisiana. The family of Lorenzo Tio, which included three of New Orleans’s most important clarinetists, started an agricultural commune in Mexico in the 1850s, before moving back to New Orleans. So there is this intense, undeniable synergy between activism, rebellion, alternative forms of living, and the musicians. And that’s just early jazz. When we move to hip-hop, reggae, free jazz, pretty much any music from the African diaspora, you find this revolutionary spirit where social needs and music are totally connected. It is Eurocentric and even racist to say that art and politics don’t mix.

Halldór: You had a strong bond with jazz legend and activist Fred Ho. What other musicians or artists have had an impact on your music and activism or inspired your creative process? Do you follow any contemporary protest musicians or socially conscious artists that you want to give a shout out to?

Nejma: From Nina Simone, to The RZA, to Rakim, to contemporary groups like La Hijas del Rap in Mexico, to Mama C in Tanzania, who is also an incredible singer and artist, to Maure Om in Venezuela, who is an emcee, multimedia artist, and supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution. (Don’t believe the imperialist hype about Venezuela), to Afrobeat/Hip Hop artist Napoleon Da Legend, to Caridad De La Luz (La Bruja), poet, activist, emcee, and theater artist. We are raising money right now to help Maure Om participate in a hip hop festival, the Tupac Amaru festival, in Lima, Peru.

From legendary Arabic singer, songwriter, and film actress Umm Kulthum of Egypt, to the Mama of Funk, Nona Hendryx, to The Last Poets, and beyond. I love the way they all, in their own way, carved their own path and brought and are still bringing the true spirit of authenticity. These artists take risks and sacrifice time and energy to give you their most vulnerable selves.

Ben: Music is protest but it is also transformation, as in building a new society. We have to reimagine everything. What is family. What is land. What is water, what is the self? How do we communicate these questions and imaginations in art? I love flutist Nicole Mitchell’s tribute to maroon societies in maroon cloud. She says: “Imagination, especially black imagination, is a really vital and undervalued resource. It’s very clear that we can’t continue in the same direction that we’ve gone, but we need to return to the source of where imagination and creativity come from, because if we don’t have another vision then we can’t implement it, and we can’t make a different future.” So vision is important, and to have vision, we have to be daring, create art that is impossible. Why?

Nejma: Because artists continually think ahead while the world is left behind. Sometimes people need time to catch up, but time is running out. There is no other time than now. We see beyond this reality.

Ben: Radical innovations of the past, which emerge like a volcano and almost bring the system down, get co-opted. Martin Luther King now has a holiday in the United States, but the state as an institution continues to be anti-black. Hip-hop expressed Black Power, the legacy of the panther and the Black Arts movement, a rejection of neoliberalism and police violence. It was about unity and solidarity and, artistically, completely revolutionized the relationship between lyric, music, and poetry. But since then, a neocolonial bourgeoisie has been produced within, which Jay Z’s partnership with the NFL represents, who will not sign Colin Kaepernick. We have to create new impossible forms of music and organizing. Fred Ho and Sun Ra both said, in different ways, “Everything possible has been tried and failed. Now we have to do the impossible.” What was impossible will become the possible of tomorrow, and then the artists of tomorrow will have to create a new impossible. That is why we compose and work out grooves in odd time signatures and connect radical musical movements from across the world.

Nejma: Hip hop has always been a voice of the streets, where the struggle comes alive, where it is given sonic form and soul. We tell those struggles in stories, through lyrics. We use music to re-appropriate what’s been appropriated, to remind ourselves and our communities of our languages, our culture, our foods, and our bond with nature. Through Hip hop we remember our origins and our journeys; we remember where we’re from and we manifest where we’re going. Words are magic. Hip hop is magic.

Gizelxanath standing in a public art piece at the University of Sulaimani.

Halldór: Part of your name relates to the Yaqui people in Northern Mexico and their culture, which has a rich heritage of song and dance interwoven in its tradition. Where does your connection to Yaqui come from and why is it such an integral part of the collective? What do the other musicians bring into the group besides their musical talent?

Gizelxanath: My grandfather was Yaqui and brought my father to the city where I was born, Mexicali, when he was a year old. I grew up disconnected from the Yaqui language and culture until I realized the importance for me to be able to reconnect with my indigenous roots. Five years of studying and connecting and learning about the CNI (National Indigenous Congress, an anticapitalist pan-indigenous organization in Mexico) allowed me an opportunity to meet water protectors from the Yaqui Nation. It’s been a very interesting and revitalizing process which has sparked my inspiration to write in Yoeme (the language of the Yaqui people) alongside women and men who are at the fore front confronting environmental disasters in the Yaqui nation. We do not appropriate their dances nor their music. Our music is a vessel for not only Yaqui people but also indigenous people of the world that want to share with us their stories in their native languages to create something new.

Ben: The Yaquis have been on the frontline of Indigenous resistance for hundreds of years. They are one of the few Indigenous nations in the Americas that had never been colonized by the Spanish [they were colonized by the Mexican state after the independence]. Now the state wants to make an example of them by destroying their peaceful, lawful resistance the “Independence Aqueduct” project, which the state is continuing to build even though Mexico’s own supreme court has ruled in favor of the Yaqui people who protested and blocked highways to stop this form of water-theft and desertification of Sonora. 100% of the album sales of Mirror Butterfly go to support Yaqui resistance through the construction of a radio station, Námakasia Radio, which will broadcast the resistant messages of the Yaqui organizers and also offer classes to the youth.

Halldór: You write in your essay, Artivism and Decolonization, that activists make up part of the collective and participate in its work. Can you explain that further?

Ben: We prioritize strengthening movements for liberation. We are not some kind of “outside” force, trying to “help.” We are part of those movements. Sometimes that means playing at activist-organized events, oftentimes donating our creative labor and building long-term solidarity. But we go beyond that. We go to meetings, go to convergences, participates in demonstrations or help organize solidarity. Last year we were invited to participate at the First Mesopotamian Water Forum in Kurdish Iraq, where we met with water activists from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and all over the world.

Nejma: Because not only are we spreading a message, we are practicing communal economics, maroon exchange. There are revolutionary musicians that we continue to work with and build with from all around the world. It’s one of the ways to create a liberated network, share ideas, and build strategy. The more we connect, the more self-sufficient we become, the stronger we are.

Halldór: You recently performed at an anti-fracking event in Pittsburgh where Trump attended another nearby event. How did that go? How is it to partake in smaller events or even street protests with your large ensemble?

Gizelxanath: As you noted, this was not only an anti-trump rally. It was an event of water defenders, first-nation led, to protest the fracking companies which were meeting in Pittsburgh. Trump later decided to come, but the core message was that we all must be responsible to protect water because without clean water all life on earth will collapse.

Nejma: The greatest part about it was that a lot of First Nation brothers and sisters were there, which is extremely crucial to our success as liberated people. It’s our priority to connect with Original people and to connect them to each other. We also got to connect with the local community, especially the young people. It was important, for me personally, to see what not to do as well, and consistently confirms that I belong neither to the right or left, but identify with and practice a different kind of politics altogether.

Gizelxanath: We got to see how revolutionary music breaks fascism apart.

Nejma: Yes! When Ben began to play the baritone saxophone, the arguments from the left and right sides of the street ceased to exist. That sound is revolutionary. Of course it depends how you play and what your spirit is like. No matter what people identified with, everyone was paying attention. They were all paying attention. Whether they respected the music or not, they had to pay attention. And that’s power. Power to be used righteously. That’s how we show and prove. We were called, so we showed up. We showed the right that we are in opposition to white supremacy, capitalism, rape, racism, and patriarchy! We have to show up. We inspired the youth, the elders, and those in between which creates an intergenerational experience never to be forgotten.

Ben: We had youth musicians playing with us, such as percussionist and hip-hop artist Desmond Rucker who is a senior in high school at CAPA. A big part of our practice is working with youth musicians. But we also featured in the ensemble the Springfield Mass’s 2019 Poet Laurate, playwright-community activist-educator, Magdalena Gomez, who performed a new version of her piece “Jazz Ready.” Our ensemble spanned generations. Being intergenerational is key because there is so much to learn from the movements of past decades, especially before the techno-colonization of phones. Yet mobilizing the next generation, including its wisdom and common sense for how to respond to climate change, racism, patriarchy, inequality, is also key. The Afro Yaqui Music Collective’s goals and composition reflects this. And organizing musicians is and artists and building spaces to work together is more important, I think, than reaching some mythical notion of the “people who need to hear our message.” People are going to hear our work locally and globally through concrete relationships and showing up to events, workshops, youth-run spaces, not by diluting our message. We are a guerilla ensemble that can break down, reform, reconceptualize and restructure based on the context. We are like water.

Gizelxanath: We want to flow like water.

Nejma: It takes many shapes and forms but is always true to its nature. It serves and it nurtures. It builds and destroys.

Ben: For instance, when we performed in Iraq at the Mesopotamian forum, we met a great clarinetist, Viktor Jara (named after the Chilean revolutionary musician) who we worked really well with and built a long relationship. So our music built a new community in sound. We also presented on the founding of the Ecosocialist International and so created a space for a shared sound and ideology.

Nejma Nefertiti and Peggy Myo-Young Choy in a scene where the Stoneflower gains balanace and clarity from her interaction with the “snail” energy of the Zapatistas. Photo taken by Photo taken by Renee Rosensteel and provided courtesy of the New Hazlett Theater.

Halldór: Protest musicians tend to encounter a problem in regards to getting their message across because many perform only at specific events. How do you reach those that mostly need to hear you message?

Nejma: Nobody is doing what we are doing. It’s very unique and wild. We receive different opportunities, and we take them if they make sense. Every platform is an opportunity and every invite is an opportunity not to be wasted or slept on.

Ben: We are not careerists, but we do perform at the highest level of performance arts spaces in the United States because of the quality of our work. For instance, we’ve performed at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the ASCAP Jazz Awards, and tons of universities. We have also performed at the US-Mexican border protesting border militarization and immigrant detention. We exist in multiple spaces simultaneously.

Gizelxanath: We exist in the arts world but also at the community level, at the ground level.

Nejma: When we were meeting with and founding the First Ecosocialist International, we performed in the Afro-Maroon Venezuelan community of Veroes, which is very different than performing at The Red Rooster in Harlem or The Kelly Strayhorn Theatre here in Pittsburgh, but each has its own special opportunity to engage and evolve, and that touches more people than we could have imagined.

Gizelxanath: What is important to understand is that we don’t confine ourselves to a theater.

Nejma: We walk our path by using our music for a purpose and we honor the freedom we have to do this. Not everybody has freedom. Until everyone does, we’re not gonna stop. If that means we fight till we die, then so be it. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “The struggle continues, and victory is certain.” ~ Amilcar Cabral (“a luta continua e a Vitoria é certa”) And like the fierce Magdalena Gomez says, “Don’t waste the power of the pulpit.”

Halldór: What is on the horizon for the collective or for you as individual artists?

Nejma: Until everyone has freedom, until everyone has clean water, until everyone understands we have to take care of the land and return it to those who cultivate it, until kids stop being put in cages, until we overthrow white patriarchal rulers, until then, we’re going to continue using our craft to speak out against injustices and inspire the youth to fight against it, so they know they are not alone, and that we embrace our responsibility to them and each other. That’s what those did before us. They didn’t fight for nothing.

Ben: We continue to collaborate with community activists and revolutionary artists across the world to remind us of those who have passed us the torch to light a brighter future. Right now we are working with Magdalena Gómez on the music for a new piece about the Afro-Puerto Rican intellectual Arturo Schomburg titled: “Erased: a poetic imaging on the Life of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.” Schomburg was a pan-Africanist historian and activist who was erased from history despite collecting over 30,000 manuscripts of Black history, including slave narratives, and founding the first center for Black research which is called the Schomburg Center. The piece will have a performance at the Puerto Rican Travelling Theater (PRITT) sometime in the spring of 2020.

Gizelxanath: Additionally, we are creating a new module of the Mirror Butterfly in Madison, Wisconsin, in dialogue with the indigenous and migrant communities in Wisconsin.

Halldór: Thank you for participating and for the work you do. Do you have anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Ben: Thank you for existing. We need platforms like these, we need to create synergy between revolutionary writers, musicians, gardeners, scientists, everyone.

Nejma: We need to call forth all the experts in their respective fields to use their skills in solidarity. We all need to bring our gifts, talents, and resistance to the table.

Gizelxanath: To use their skills to advance the movement.