Taína Asili is a New York-based Puerto Rican singer and songwriter known for her social justice-themed music. Armed with a hammer for its video, her acclaimed 2017 single “No Es Mi Presidente” is one of the strongest testaments to her powerful message and her bilingualism at a time when women across the country rallied against President Donald Trump’s sexist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Earlier this year, Asili dropped her latest album Resiliencia, which shifts the focus to women of color and their struggles. The album features a wide variety of genres from cumbia to salsa to reguetón in Spanglish, that the singer hopes will help create a “sense of community.” Each song in the album is inspired by interviews with women across the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Canada. The project is alsoaccompanied by a documentary series featuring the stories of some of these women.
Latino Rebels spoke with Asili via email about the project.
Latino Rebels: What inspired you to create the album Resiliencia about the resilient spirit of women?
Taína Asili: After my performance at the Women’s March on Washington, I wrote and released the song and music video “No Es Mi Presidente,“ which was partly inspired by the words and songs of the powerful, revolutionary women I shared the stage with that day. The video featured activists from my community in upstate New York, and each person had such a powerful story that led them to their work, from renowned Black lesbian feminist Barbara Smith to Puerto Rican trans woman wrestler Paola Gonzalez. Yet, audiences who didn’t recognize them in the video might never know their story.
Part of the intention of writing “No Es Mi Presidente” was to remind people of the powerful legacy of resistance and resilience we have inherited to help us survive these dangerous times. My travels as a touring artist have allowed me the opportunity to get to know so many incredible change-makers. Yet their experiences and work, especially of women of color, are seldom lifted up in the mainstream. I decided to approach this new album with this in mind, selecting women of color who have inspired me, and then interviewing them with the intention of creating compositions based on their stories and wisdom. These fourteen interviews with women across the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada became the inspiration for my new album Resiliencia, as well as a documentary series I am releasing throughout the year.
LR: What was the process of working on this album like? Were there any challenges?
TA: I started by interviewing five women of color in my local community as part of an artist residency. I went to their homes and conducted interviews with them about their stories of resilience. These stories spoke about surviving breast cancer, body hatred, sexual abuse, misogyny and racism, as well as finding their path to becoming community leaders, activists and healers. From these interviews I composed songs that spoke to the wisdom shared in their stories, as well as my own truth and experiences. I also edited their interviews into short documentary pieces.
While I was continuing this project, Hurricanes Irma and María hit the island of Puerto Rico, and about four months later, on New Year’s Eve, I went there with cameras to speak to four artists and activists I knew on the island about what they had experienced and learned during this time.
It was a very emotionally challenging time for me to witness our beloved island and its people in such a state of devastation from the natural and unnatural disasters that impacted Puerto Rico. It was also a dangerous time to travel on the island, as most traffic lights were not working, there were many mudslides and roads closures, and car accidents were commonplace. I witnessed an immense amount of suffering. But I also witnessed resilience in ways I have never seen before, reminding me of the strength of my people in the most challenging of times.
The strength and resilience that has moved us through times of slavery, attempted genocide, colonialism, forced migration, labor exploitation, and corporate greed, to name a few. Resilience in the form of art, protest, resource sharing, agricultural work, holistic health care, building renewable energy solutions, communal cooking, and community love. And I was reminded of the important role art and music plays in that survival. From this experience, the song “Resiliencia” was born, and it became the title track of the album. It also became the title of my documentary about the experience.
LR: This work is truly in the spirit of storytelling and oral history—through music you’re telling the stories of women. What do you hope people get out of these stories?
TA: My work brings me to many colleges, festivals, venues, and social justice events throughout the year, and something that often comes up is the overwhelming feeling that comes from living in the U.S. under this administration. Some feel a sense of despair as they look at the battle ahead to protect human rights and this planet. But a dear friend and longtime activist once said to me that despair means that we are still feeling. It is apathy we should be concerned with. And music is a powerful way to help us to feel our emotions and channel them into action. I hope that these song stories and documentaries remind us that all of the strength and wisdom that we need resides around us and within us. And I hope that these songs will inspire people to share their own stories of struggle and resilience should they wish to do so.
LR: Can you talk to us about the documentary series you’ve created and are working on based on Resiliencia? How did that idea come up and how do you balance making music and, now, documentaries?
TA: The documentary shorts are about ten minutes long, and are a blend between a music video and documentary, allowing viewers a window into the story behind the song. The first one I released was “Resiliencia,” about Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. The second one, “Plant the Seed,” is about Black food justice farmer Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm. I will be releasing more of them throughout the year.
Though it is a relatively new art form for me, I have really fallen in love with the role of producing and directing music videos and documentaries. There is definitely some overlap between being a bandleader and director. And I am grateful that the work is being appreciated not just in the music world, but also in the film world through selections at various film festivals, including the Black Star Film Festival in Philadelphia.
My music videos and documentaries help me to connect my art and message to a wider audience. Visual storytelling is increasingly popular now with several mainstream artists putting out visual albums in the past few years, but it has truly always been a powerful medium that is intrinsically linked to music and sound. I think the biggest challenge with making music and documentaries as a grassroots artist is financing the documentary work, as each one takes a considerable amount of money to produce. But as I have always done as an artist, I trust in what spirit has called me to make and I make it happen.
LR: This album celebrates mujerismo. In one song, for example, you say, “somos el reflejo de las estrellas.” What would you tell women out there who are doubting themselves, or struggling to stay resilient?
TA: I would say that the struggle is real. I feel it. Every day. And I would also say that the quote you referenced is from the song “Cucubano” and it is inspired by a conversation I had with Yasmín Hernández, a painter from Moca, Puerto Rico. We spoke of cucubanos [lightening bugs that are native to a particular region of Puerto Rico] as a metaphor for our inner light. While speaking of the literal and metaphorical darkness in the aftermath of the hurricanes, she said that it is often when our tools and resources are taken —or so we are told— that we discover our inner light, and all the tools, resources and wisdom we have always had but never had the opportunity to see, to claim, to own, and to share.
LR: Is there anyone in particular who you hope this album reaches?
TA: I hope this album reaches as many people as it can. I am an expansive person and artist, which is reflected in the many types of sounds I weave into my music. Being a Latina who writes in both Spanish and English, the limitations of mainstream genres often push me into the singular “world” music category, which is ironic since my music and message is rooted in my experiences as a U.S.-born Latina. However, I think part of the beauty of standing at the intersection of identities as an artist is that my music can speak to a large spectrum of people, which I have witnessed time and time again in the audiences that attend my concerts. I hope that the video component of this work will help to expand my reach even farther.
LR: Finally, what’s next for you?
TA: I am currently on tour to share this new music live from coast to coast. I recently performed at Carnegie Hall with Toshi Reagon and a number of other incredible artists at an event called Soul Mechanism about stories of migration. This summer I will be performing with my band at festivals throughout the nation from San Francisco Pride in California, to Beloved Festival in Oregon, to PVDFest in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition, I will be releasing more videos in the documentary series on YouTube throughout the year, which will also be featured at several upcoming film festivals.
Amanda Alcántara is the Digital Media Editor at Futuro Media. She tweets from @YoSoy_Amanda.