by Gunner Scott (IBA ’09)
Black queer activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 as a call to action against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That simple hashtag ignited a movement, bringing a media spotlight to a reality in Black communities across the country—the death of often unarmed Black people at the hands of the police.
The stories of Tamir Rice, Tony Robison, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Tanisha Anderson have risen to the top of the news feed. With each story, each protest, and each gathering, from Ferguson to Baltimore, #BlackLivesMatter amplified and echoed the systematic and institutional racism that still exists in this country. The growing movement is fighting to change that system
In “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” Alicia Garza noted that “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”1
Goddard alumni Synnika Lofton and Taína Asili are two such people embodying Garza’s affirmation. Their contributions to our society include art, poetry, teaching, writing, and music.
Taína Asili (MA TLA ’08) is a Puerto Rican singer, songwriter and bandleader combining powerful vocals with an energetic fusion of Afro-Latin, reggae and rock. For her new piece “Freedom” she collaborated with Detroit-based poet Michael Reyes. The song and video are a tribute to the movement for Black lives, encompassing the historical roots of mass incarceration and anti-Black racism of today.
Synnika Lofton (BA ’04, MFAW ’06) is an award-winning poet, artist, activist, and educator teaching literature at Chesapeake Bay Academy and English courses at Norfolk State University in Virginia. His new EP and video “American Outlaw” were inspired by the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
In a conversation with each of them, I explored their work, their art, their activism, and why now is the moment for this movement.
Gunner Scott (G. S.) What was your inspiration for your songs and videos, and how have they been received?
Taína Asili (T. A.) “Freedom”was inspired from my prisoner justice work, having done that over a decade, as well as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which speaks to the relationship of mass incarceration looking at the history of Black experience since the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the U.S.
Currently there are more Black people in prison now than there were in slavery. The song talks about a relationship of mass incarceration and the resistance movement. Black liberation, Black Lives Matter and the legacy of resistance, like the Underground Railroad. This idea of literally, figuratively and spiritually getting our people free, that is where the video concept came from, with the representation of Black Lives Matter activists today and with activists from the Underground Railroad in the late 1800s.
It has been received extremely well…picked up by major media outlets like Mic, who called the song “a Black Lives Matter anthem,” Latina.com, Bitch Magazine, Feministing, Color Lines, Democracy Now, and Truthout, among others. Those who are inspired by #BlackLivesMatter and who have watched my video use it as a tool for conversation.
Synnika Lofton (S. L.) [“American Outlaw”]…came together because how we make decisions are based on who you are in this country—what your race is what your class is, what your creed is and what it takes to not just survive but to continue to dream—that’s a big part of my life right now.
When I wrote “American Outlaw,” I wanted to put all those experiences into one really great song, to not only express the rage, but to express the compassion and the things that go into being an artist and a person of color in America.
The video was really amazing to make. I have cousins in Ferguson and a lot of those folks were on the front lines; I asked them to send me video clips.
At that time a lot had happened, a lot of people had died and a lot of young people were caught up in this wave of political activism. So I wanted to put together some really awesome visuals that represented my perspective of What is an “American Outlaw?” Along with what it means to a generation of people basically struggling against a system that was not really built for them.
The response has been amazing: the video has over 3,600 views [on YouTube] and counting. It has definitely caught some viral fire. There are other songs on the album project as well, but “American Outlaw” seems to be the one people gravitate to.
I received some good feedback from brilliant poets in the area and from one particular celebrity, Malcolm Jamal Warner (he was on the Cosby Show years ago) who said he “loved it.”.
G. S. Why Black Lives Matter? Why now?
T. A. We are a movement of resistance…on a continuum; this is not starting at this moment in a time, but in the past when people wanted to get free from slavery and today, in particular, some powerful individuals have used social media as a potent way to talk about oppression and violence. Social media has changed how we see our reflection and our resistance, and has made more visible the violence we have been experiencing, such as police assaults and incarceration. This has allowed us to be more unified and visible and has helped a resistance movement become more unified and visible.
I have seen some amazing organizing happening around the country with #BlackLivesMatter chapters and as they develop and grow, they bring hope. It is definitely more than just a Twitter hashtag—it is a movement of people together. When I think of Harriet Tubman, we know the statistic that she freed over 100,000 people. It is really hard to see how many we have saved today. But I believe lives are being changed and saved every time we awaken people to see the reality of Black people’s lives, every time we hold police and government accountable for their wrongdoings, and it will have greater impact as the movement strengthens.
S. L. Black lives have always mattered.
Prior to the media coverage of #BlackLivesMatters initiatives and activists, there were already groups across the country that have been out there, re-educating the community [on issues of racism]. Black lives have always mattered and now it is a media sensation because we have more video cameras, more people who are aware, who are more conscious, and more people who are documenting what is happening. I think what you see is that the momentum has picked up.
…With the media attention comes the media scrutiny, so you have to face the backlash – saying, if black lives matter so much why do you have all this violence in the community? You can also reverse that and say, you have all this violence in the white community, but we don’t call it “white on white” violence, instead focusing on “black on black” violence. With media attention and scrutiny you can have the misperceptions and stereotypes, but I like the way the movement is going.
And I love to see the disruptions – when Bernie Sanders got disrupted that one time in his campaign I said, “I see, I understand where they are coming from.” But I am hoping there is longterm strategy as well. [Disruptions] make more people aware of the situation happening in the country. We need alliances.
G. S. What’s next for you?
T. A. I am continuing with organizing against mass incarceration in the Albany area and I will continue to make art, including a new music video for the song “We Walk,” which is about environmental justice with a focus on people of color, calling them to protect the environment. I will continue to exist and live as a queer Puerto Rican Black woman on this planet and pave a pathway for my children.
S. L. I will be doing a video shoot for a love song for my wife. This is a love song about her and for her. I am also working on another book of new poetry and some new music.
Gunner Scott (IBA ’09) is a queer/trans/FTM activist and the director of programs at Pride Foundation in Seattle, Wash. While studying at Goddard he completed the oral history project entitled “Boston Area Transgender Community Leaders and the ENDA Crisis.”
1 Garza, Alicia. “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” The Feminist Wire. TFW, LLC, 07 Oct. 2014. Web.