Taina Asili and Olmeca Write About Social Justice In Music With a Message : Alt.Latino Artists and activists Taina Asili and Olmeca talk about mixing activism with their music on this week's show.

Alt.Latino Activists: Two Artists Who Mix Messages With Music

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. This week, we're going to take a listen to music that compels people to action or, at least, deeper thought - songs that address social justice. They have a long history in Latin America and in this country as well - Violeta Parra, Bob Dylan, Rubén Blades, Mercedes Sosa. That list stretches from the past to the present. In fact, some would say that music with lessons to be learned are having a bit of a revival because, well, let's just say social and political conditions these days have inspired many artists to interpret what they are seeing and experiencing in song. There are two artists we're going to feature this week. Southern California hip-hop artist Olmeca, he was in Washington, D.C., recently. And he stopped by the ALT.LATINO world headquarters to have a chat about music and activism. And Taína Asili, she's from the East Coast, of Afro-Caribbean heritage. She has a new album out. And to start the show off this week, she's going to tell us about her new album.

TAÍNA ASILI: Hi. My name is Taína Asili. And my latest album is "Resiliencia."


ASILI: (Singing) La lluvia que...

My music is based in the activism that I've been a part of for the past 20 years. I've been doing work on ending mass incarceration, starting with my own experience as the daughter and sister of two formerly incarcerated Black men. And I've also been a part of feminist movements and movements for climate justice for a long time. So I've used my music, my songs, within the movement, singing at protests, demonstrations - offering my songs as anthems to the movements that I am deeply connected with, and then also allowing those movements to inform the music that I create.


ASILI: (Singing) Resiliencia...

For me, with this new album, "Resiliencia," what's been different for me in my previous albums is that with this album, I started to interview women of color about their stories of resilience. And the reason why I did that is because what I have learned throughout my time touring the nation is that we have so much power, strength and wisdom that we have carried forward with us in our movements of resistance. So even though the problems that we face today are unique from yesterday, they didn't come out of a vacuum. They came out of a history of oppression that has landed us in this moment. But also, within that has come a legacy of resistance. And so I wanted to interview women of color about these stories of resilience and see what I could learn from them and what I could share from them through my music and also through my documentary work that I'm doing in combination with the music that I have created for this album. So to me, I think that it's important that we not only recognize the ways that we are suffering, recognize our harm, but also to lift up our resilience, our strength and our power, so we know that the next generation has that to hold onto as well.


ASILI: (Singing) Una semilla, y de sufrimiento en la agonía, la esperanza pa' un nuevo día. Ha nacido resiliencia. Resiliencia. Resiliencia...

I find that as I come into movements, I connect with new people, new artists, new activists, elders in the community who've been doing this work for a long time. And when I hear them speak - in particular, like, when they're speaking at an event, for example - I often allow that to come into me. And that'll be the fuel that I use to write my next song. So whether that's listening to Michelle Alexander speak about mass incarceration or hearing Angela Davis or Janet Mock speak at the Women's March on Washington, oftentimes, I'll find these nuggets, these pieces of wisdom that I'll use in my songs. And also, just coming into it and being a part of that experience, I learn something new, you know? So I'm participating in an action or a protest. And I'm noticing new things as I move through that experience, noticing the strength and the power that we carry as we march in the streets, and feel something different as I grow, as I grow in myself as a person in the years on this planet, I start to understand the power, the strength and the intricacies of this work and allow that to inform my music so that I can inspire the next generation.


ASILI: (Singing) Ha nacido la lluvia que el río nos guía, la lluvia que el río nos guía. La lluvia que el río nos guía. La lluvia que el río nos guía.

CONTRERAS: This is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras, and we're hearing from Taína Asili about her new album, about music and about activism. And now we're going to hear about some of her influences.

ASILI: Some of the artists that have been inspirational to me and my work are artists like Lila Downs, who blend the messages, these powerful messages inspired and for the people while blending various musical styles of her people and her rhythms, her culture - and artists like poet Sonia Sanchez, who has been a longtime poet in Philadelphia, where I lived for a long time, and watching the way that she has incorporated social movements into her poetry and used her poetry to support social movements. And so I have elements of poetry in my songs that are very much inspired by artists like Sonia Sanchez, and I like to do that fusion, that allowing the spirit of the message to come into the music in whatever way that it needs to. So artistically, I'm not trying to lock myself into a genre necessarily but really allowing whatever rhythms, whatever musical lines that need to be sung, that need to be played to come into the music to carry that message forward.


ASILI: (Singing) You will never get to lay with me and tell me who I am, I am. I am more than you can see or even understand who I am, I am. Expanding all the possibility of everything that I am, I am. I'm the only one who can define what it means to be who I am, I am. Think I'll comply with the ways that've been defined of what it means to be...

When I started working on this new album, "Resiliencia," it was shortly after the election of Trump, and it was shortly after my journey to the Women's March on Washington and Disrupt J20 concert. And I was inspired by the power and the strength that was coming from the people. You know, looking out on that stage and seeing a million people, a sea of people, a sea of movement, a sea of power really inspired me. So you know, in these times that we are living in now, most certainly I feel like it's a very dangerous time period. I feel like myself, like my children, my community, we are under attack in ways that are very different from what I've experienced in my lifetime previously. At the same time, I also feel like people are awakening in ways that they never had before. So as an artist that writes songs for the people, that - an artist that writes songs for social change, songs of protest, I think this is a really unique opportunity for me to be able to offer these songs to those who are waking up or those who are feeling under attack and are looking for someone who can sing their truth to power.


ASILI: (Singing) Deeply ingrained in my brain and in my veins is the conditioning of how to survive in all the pain and the trauma that remains, lacking power over my own life. The constant battle of assumption about my race and my gender and my sexuality - how do we even see or feel the truth that resides in me. Whoa. My true self shall be restored one breath at a time. The number will be called. The destiny that is mine...

In my music, I speak a lot about joy. To me, part of what I do is a reclamation of joy. And to me, reclaiming our joy in the face of inhumanity is a very powerful and rebellious act. So just writing the music, performing the music, singing the music when you come to my concerts, it's not heavy. It's actually very light, rhythmic. It's strong. But you want to dance to it. You want to move to it. You want to be free with it. There's a strong element of joy, and I actually have two songs that I wrote specifically about joy on this current album. It's called "La Alegria." It was inspired by my cousin, who's 85 years old, a Black Puerto Rican, yeah, who lives in Montreal, who talked about her story of growing up in East Harlem during a time where her joy was threatened as she was trying to find her way as a fashion designer in a very racist world.


ASILI: (Singing) En cada época vemos que suceden cosas malas.

And she talks about the teaching of reclaiming that joy. She passed that teaching on to me, and I fold that into my songs.


ASILI: (Singing) ... puede quítame la alegría. Nadie puede quitarme la alegría. Nadie puede quitarme la alegría. Nadie puede quitarme la alegría.

And as I perform these songs and sing these songs, I feel that joy. I feel lifted up in the music. To me, music is always that place of safety and joy.


ASILI: (Singing) Nadie puede quitarme la alegría.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Te voy a poner a gozar.

ASILI: (Singing) Nadie puede quitarme la alegría.


ASILI: (Singing) Nadie puede quitarme la alegría. Nadie puede quitarme la alegría.



ASILI: (Singing) This is my declaration to be fully alive, fully alive, healing. This is my reclamation of my ancestral, ancestral wisdom. Here the earth saved it for me, and I plant the seed.

"Plant The Seed" is a song on my album that I wrote inspired by my dear friend Leah Penniman, who is a Black food justice farmer. She recently came out with a book called "Farming While Black," and she's the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, which is a food justice farm located in upstate New York.

You know, one of the things that I did with this album is that I sat down with my friend, who I know well, but there's something about really taking the time to intentionally listen to each other's stories, to really witness and allow that space. And I allowed that space with Leah to really witness her story. But it's really a story about somebody who is trying to fully manifest what she was sent on this earth to do. And I think we can all relate to that story that we often get bogged down in what we think we have to do, and maybe we feel like we can't really head in the direction of what we really feel like we should be doing on this planet. And Leah speaks to the ways that she was inspired by her ancestors through dreams, through spiritual work to come into this new world as a food justice farmer, now leading the nation in this movement for food justice.

So I wrote this song called "Plant The Seed" about Leah and her story of planting seeds around the nation but really starting with the seed that she planted in herself and trusting in her power, her wisdom and then the wisdom of her ancestors to come into her own as the farmer and educator that she is today.


ASILI: (Singing) I heal you. Lift my hands, surrendering to the sky. Feel the sun restoring me to life. I am whole. Lift my hands, surrendering to the sky. Reparations possible. Reap the harvest of collective strength. Let our courage nourish us. Let fear have no place. Reap the harvest of collective strength. We are (inaudible) but all that we need is a (inaudible) endless seed, a precious memory and a claim to sovereignty. Let it be our claim to sovereignty as I plant the seed. (Vocalizing) Our memory, our hope, our sovereignty. Our memory, our hope, our sovereignty. Our memory, our hope, our sovereignty. Our memory, our hope, our sovereignty.

My name is Taína Asili, and I want to thank you for coming along with me on this musical journey of "Resiliencia," of resilience, this journey of women of color's stories of resilience. And hopefully you'll be inspired to see the resilience that lies within you.

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras. This week, we're hearing from two musicians who say they are reacting to the times we are living through at this moment in history by mixing music and activism. Now we just heard from Taína Asili whose music reflects her Afro-Caribbean roots. And next up is an interview with the musician who calls himself Olmeca. He is from the very large Mexican-American community in the southwest here in the United States - in particular, Los Angeles or East LA even more specifically. We had a wide-ranging conversation about music, identity and life - you know, nothing serious, just light conversation. The first thing we talked about was why he was in D.C.

OLMECA: Yeah, so I'm in D.C. basically nominated for a - it's called the Kennedy Center Citizens Fellowship. So the Kennedy Center basically picks five to eight artists from throughout the U.S. every year who they feel is - has a artistic integrity, has a professional practice, but that's also giving or connecting with the community as well. So I'm one of eight amongst many amazing people - fashion designers, choreographers, so just a broad spectrum of artistry. And I was selected as one of the musical artists. So, yeah, that's why I'm here.

CONTRERAS: Since you mentioned music, we should probably play something from your latest recording. Talk to us a little bit about it. What's the name of the recording, and what track do we want to play?

OLMECA: Yeah. So I think "Define" is pretty much the one that I would like to play. It's a cognate word, so it could be define in Spanish or it could be define, which is basically where we at right now in our society - this bilingualism that exists today. So the song is simple. It's - well, it's not so simple. It's a five-part song.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

OLMECA: It's five minutes - close to five minutes. Each part has about 40 seconds. I did that on purpose because kind of industry standard right now is two and a half minutes, so I figured we'd double that up. The song is a response to the rhetoric around Latinx peoples in the United States and even more directly towards Mexicanos, Mexicanas. Essentially, the song is saying we can define ourselves. We don't need anybody else to define who we are, especially a Donald Trump or any people of the like. So rather than have them define who we are, I'm going to go ahead and define who we are.

CONTRERAS: OK, this is the track "Define" or "Define"...

OLMECA: That's right.

CONTRERAS: ...From Olmeca.


OLMECA: (Rapping) Un consumidor criminal que solo existe para servir. Una figura de sombra ingrávida prematura. Un niño que nunca crece, así que siempre inseguro. Al cruzar la línea me volví impuro. Con mis manos limpio los restos, intento mantener la calma, reclamo mi alma a través del trabajo, el trabajo es dolor y trabajo con él. Aprendí que el servir es ganar, retrasar el proceso, abogar, para ti el mandar es normal. Del pecado la pena me dicen que viene, cadenas en venas, en vez de las alas. Alma perdida sirviendo a los que se quedaron en vano. ¿La noche? Mía. El mundo duerme, me preparo para el día que viene. Y volver a perderme en el tiempo. Gasto ganancias espero que veas. Mis modos son los tuyos. gasto más para sentir que soy alguien, olvidar lo de antes. Sucumbir a ti, lo sé. Tu trama es esto, lo sé. Tú quieres definirme para garantizar tu futuro, lo sé. Si defino el mío, el tuyo es incierto.

Queda claor, mi lucha me deja reconocer esto. Rompí cadenas, ejemplos de poder. Definí mis historia, crucé la línea como un deber. Yeah, ey, oh, yeah. Cruza la línea, como un deber, como un deber, ajá, como un deber, ajá, yeah, yeah, yeah, como un deber, como un deber, ajá. Frente a frente desafiando quienes entren. No me espanto que aquí me tienen presente. Plantado en mi lugar, sin tener que buscar. Me respalda mi pasado que florece. Uh, yeah. No tengo miedo, quieren hacerce los muy decente. Pero yo sigo mi paso sin el pendiente. Presente los veo sin pen de frente. El futuro no es pa' someterse. Cuando saben que ya no puedon ser reyes, el reino ya está por caerse. Es el valor como de una montaña, una pintora de mañas extrañas. Un árbol grande de grandes valores que sigue viviendo contra las marañas. Sigue viviendo por mis amores, yo no sé pero acaricio dolores. Estas dos cosas como telarañas. Si siguen tejiendo todos mis ardores. Por eso deja, queja que me da sueño...

CONTRERAS: Tell us about your first days as an artist, and then at what point did you become active as an activist?

OLMECA: Everything really started with music. Music started when I was touring with my dad before I could play any instrument or do any type of thing. My dad was a traveling musician. He played in ballad-style music, so he would open up for bands like Bronco or Los Solitarios or stuff like that. So I grew up around that music a lot. I started rapping when I was around 16, 17 years old. I was in South - Central and in East LA. I started meeting more of, like, the Chicano, Chicana cultural community - so, like, the Ozomatlis of the world. And I just kind of fell in love with it because it reminded me a little bit of what my dad was playing back in the day and the music I grew up with. I grew up on Bronco, Los Bukis, Los Temerarios, Tigres del Norte and then very opposite spectrum - NWA, Ice Cube, Freestyle Fellowship from, you know, South Central. I felt like the Chicano music scene was kind of like a combination of the two 'cause they were kind of embracing everything.


CONTRERAS: This is ALT.LATINO, and we're talking to hip-hop musician Olmeca. So you're very busy as a musician and activist but also as an educator. Tell us a little bit about that.

OLMECA: Yeah. Like, I'm really shy, you know? I'm really shy to talk about, like, that and also my activism, you know? I don't know why. I just - I've always...

CONTRERAS: But you're talking about giving lectures and stuff like that.

OLMECA: Yeah, yeah.

CONTRERAS: So talk a little bit about that.

OLMECA: Yeah, it's - I'll talk about it with you, Felix. All right, it's cool. It's cool.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) Just me - just you and me.

OLMECA: Just me and you.

CONTRERAS: Nobody else is listening (laughter).

OLMECA: Yeah, yeah. So I do - I teach right now at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the ethnic studies department, and I teach who I am. So it's like - Latinx in the U.S. is one of the classes. The second one is Latin American studies, so anything from the border south. And then the other class is hip-hop and social justice. So I teach those three classes, and much of that really came from the political work that I did. Then I went into college and studied that because I wanted to focus on, like, Indigenous communities in Latin America.

CONTRERAS: OK. Very quickly, let's wade into the topic of the various Latin cultures here in the U.S. Do you think there's a gap between the East Coast and the West Coast? And how would you close that?

OLMECA: There's always been, like, a rupture between, you know, Latinidad from the East Coast and the West Coast...


OLMECA: ...The West Coast being very, very Mexican-centric. And folks on the East Coast, oftentimes because there's multiplicity of, like, you know, descendants from different parts of Latin America, it's smaller, but it's bigger at the same time. So it's, like, Caribbean-based, Afro Caribbean, whereas in LA or Cali or the Southwest, you know, it's obviously, apparently Mexican and Central American.

And I do lectures as well called Latinx identity and power, where I have Mexican American professors disagree with me about half of the things that I say because I tell them that we've made a mistake in nationalizing and focusing so much on Mexicanidad that we've invisibilized other communities. But that's not to say that the majority - even if we say Latinx and we stop saying Mexican American or Chicano, Chicana and we say Latinx, that does not deny the fact that over 60% of Latinx people are Mexican American or Mexican descendants...

CONTRERAS: Here in the U.S.

OLMECA: So it's like, yo.


OLMECA: We ain't going nowhere, you know?


OLMECA: So let's not look at it as a problem, but let's look at it as an embracing a community - the Mexican American community - as one that has helped, you know, set trends and set a foundation for political work that's happened throughout the ages, like you mentioned right now in the '70s - the Chicano, Chicana movement - and also one that is culturally rich. And it ties us to Latin America...


OLMECA: ...Not just Mexico. So...

CONTRERAS: Olmeca, man, we could - like you said, we could keep going.

OLMECA: (Laughter).

CONTRERAS: We could open up the phone lines and keep going for hours, man.

OLMECA: Yeah, man.

CONTRERAS: Thank you so much for coming, man.

OLMECA: Oh, man, thank you. Thank you all for having me. NPR, y'all rock, man. Keep it 200, always.

CONTRERAS: Two hundred, all right. Keep it up to 11.

OLMECA: That's right.


CONTRERAS: All right. Thanks, man.

OLMECA: Thank you, brother.


CONTRERAS: That was hip-hop artist and educator and activist Olmeca. Earlier in the show, we heard from musician and activist Taína Asili, two multi-discipline artists who mix music and activism. Taína Asili has a new album called "Resiliencia," and it's available on all platforms. Olmeca will have an album available over the summer. It's called "Define" or "Define."

You can hear all of the music we played this week on our website at npr.org/altlatino. And we'll add Olmeca's guest DJ playlist, some of his songs and others that have influenced him. And we're going to close the show with Olmeca's track "The Browning Of America" (ph). I'm Felix Contreras. This has been ALT.LATINO, and as always, thank you so much for listening.


OLMECA: (Rapping) I only move when the people say it's movement. So assume that a rebel is your future president. Browning of America, browning of America, browning of America, browning of America. Y si ella baila, sigue la corriente. Y si marcha, sigue la corriente. No digas nada y sigue la corriente. Vamos al frente y sigue la corriente. Qué bonito es. Qué bonito es. Qué bonito es. Qué bonito es. Qué bonito es. Qué bonito es. Browning of America, browning of America, browning of America, browning of America. Yeah, we don't fight for pie crumbs. We make our own bread. We stay strong. My people do it right. Mexican sweets - you want some? Pan dulce, dip it in your coffee. Denying it is plain wrong. We make moves on the daily - struggle. We work hard and play plenty - hustle. We readily, steadily, making this part of the party, reality hitting.

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