Aisha & Bankole Irungu
"In January 1998, Aisha & Bankole
two long-time African-American activists fled for Canada,
to escape political repression, fearing for their lives.
across the border, the United States continued to harass
them, and in December 2000 Canada suddenly stopped their
asylum procedure, and ordered them to leave the country
in 30 days. They were also informed that they were prohibited
from returning to the United States or to go through
there to transit to another country. From that moment
on, they became stateless and exiled...."
To know more about their
story, go to: http://www.geocities.com/windparade2003/
They’ve contacted me after discovering my website, we
then agreed to do an interview…
Shaka: What actions (social, political)
were you taking in the U.S?
I was using music and culture as a means of political
action, which is what I am still doing today.
We have always been punished and killed for practicing
our culture in America. There has always been a price to
pay for using music to reach people - and today is not different.
Other social/political activities included using my legal education
to help people on an everyday level. I did things like forming
a tenant organization which kept landlords from evicting
and overcharging Black people. I also helped Bankole with
his case and I won a case myself against the US Government on
behalf of the African-American children of Charlottesville, Virginia.
I used my position as a teacher in the public schools of America
to help Black children have self-esteem, an identity and knowledge
of their culture as African people.
Even the most so-called militant Black organizations and people
in America were afraid to take on the school district in Virginia
and the Federal Government on behalf of the children, but Bankole
& I did! We understood the value of the minds of our
young people. Big time lawyers and organizations in the
US were too afraid to even attend a meeting, write a letter on
behalf of the children or let us use a computer.
The NAACP, one of the largest and most famous black organizations
in America, had promised to do a “Speak Out” in Charlottesville.
This was supposed to be an event held in a church or some other
safe place, where parents could speak out about what was happening
to their children. We were going to collect this information
and use it as the basis for making our complaint on behalf of
the children. But, despite them promising this, it never
Since there was no effective pressure being put on the state of
Virginia, or the school district for that matter, they weren’t
going to fix the problems. So I filed a complaint directly
with the Federal Government on behalf of the African-American
children in the school district, based on what I had seen at school
and what parents and other adults hadn’t been to afraid to tell
me about their cases. The branch of the government where
I filed the complaint was the US Department of Education Office
for Civil Rights (OCR). This was 1994.
Because everyone was afraid, Bankole & I were left to fight
the school district and eventually the US government alone.
They tried to dismiss the case right away, and we demanded to
have a meeting in Philadelphia, PA with OCR. After several
weeks they gave us the meeting, and eventually re-instated our
A top lawyer representing the US government (US Department of
Education, Office for Civil Rights), the caseworker, section chief,
as well as other US government officials attended this meeting,
along with Bankole & myself. Because people were afraid
we were forced to attend the meeting by ourselves without the
aid of any lawyer or organization. Groups like Human Rights
Watch told us that they didn't deal with human rights abuses in
the US. And this was pretty consistent with Amnesty International,
The ACLU and all of the rest of them. The NAACP and other
Black groups wouldn’t return our phone calls. All of these
organizations, including the most militant black ones, wouldn’t
attend the meeting, or offer any assistance whatsoever.
At one point we had no electricity, and there wasn’t a single
organization that would even allow us to make photocopies or use
Despite the odds we won anyway! The result was, that because
of my legal argument at the meeting they reinstated our case.
Then three years later the school district settled the case, promising
5 pages of things that they agreed to do to correct the situation,
including appointing a school board which was more representative
of the community, agreeing to come into compliance with Federal
Anti-discrimination laws, and making sure that more African-American
children were considered for the gifted talented program and to
investigate why so many black young men were in the learning disadvantaged
sector. At the time there were racist members on the school
board who were left over from the segregation era of the 1950’s.
These people quit! These were big victories for the
children and us, won without a lawyer or the help of any organization!
Still, the story was completely censored by both the black and
mainstream news media, as well as the so-called alternative media
in the US.
You see they don’t want the general public to know that regular
people can defeat the system. I believe that activism and
artistry cannot be separated and that we were able to obtain these
victories because we know our history, our culture and who we
are! These values were strengthened by the musical traditions
that our people have in America. Jazz, Blues and
Soul are the classical, folk and social-political music of African
people from America. It is our means of expression; it
is the force that will free us. W.E.B. Du Bois said that
we will not be respected as a people until our music and culture
is respected. I truly believe that.
Having won a victory like that I knew that my days outside of
a prison cell in America were numbered. Anyone who has legal
skills, can read, write, articulate the struggle and share that
knowledge through music, culture and writing is not wanted in
America. Just as it was in 1815, being outspoken is a crime.
In the 60’s the US government set up a number of programs to destroy
the Black, and Native people’s movements in the US and to halt
any real opposition.
In an FBI memo launching one of the most deadly, well known and
well documented of these programs, called COINTELPRO (the counterintelligence
program) the US government stated that in destroying the black
movement in the States, one of the main goals was “…to prevent
the rise of a black messiah”. There was, and still is, a lot of
fear that some charismatic writer, speaker or artist would be
able to influence the masses of the people. Thus in the 1970’s
political music began to be eliminated, with major record labels
dropping anyone who sang about politics and many books went out
of print. In the 80’s and 90’s the majors, who refuse to
push anything or anyone political, squeezed smaller record labels
It’s not discussed much by activists from the 60’s and the
70’s, but there were also mandates carried out under COINTELPRO
regarding the destruction and suppression of our culture.
This is very important.
The use of COINTELPRO and other programs by the US government
resulted in large numbers of Black people being falsely imprisoned,
killed, tortured and silenced in the US and abroad. The
documentation on COINTELPRO is extensive, and many memos have
been obtained from the government under what is called “The
Freedom of Information Act”. Much of this information
can be viewed on-line at: http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/cointelpro/cointel.htm
We knew that the victory against the racist school district and
government meant that we would be harassed for the rest of our
lives. That’s when we decided to move to Canada.
I was determined to do something about the plight that most of
us face as African people in the United States of America. Police
terror, poor nutrition, medical services, lack of meaningful education,
no decent homes and related conditions were issues that had not
been addressed. Life experience and an active decision from age
13 to do something has a lot to do with my becoming politicised.
The conclusion that I came to was that people power was needed
to change the situation.
Shaka: When did the F.B.I. first approach you and how?
Anyone who is fighting for their rights is going to be
watched and harassed by the FBI. It's just a question of
when you become aware of it. They had been harassing my
family for years. It really began to intensify for me in
1994 a year after I married Bankole. At that time I was
being harassed so much that I couldn’t travel alone. This
was the year that I filed my case against OCR and Charlottesville
I think “approached” is a good word in this context.
African people, the generations of Africans in the United States
of America going back through the centuries, have been held captive,
spied upon and forced to assimilate to a sick shell of a society
built on racism and exploitation. And so, if you are going to
step out of the boundaries, you are going to be policed. If you
have some real solutions, you are demonised. I want to emphasize
that legal actions brought by African people are usually derailed
in the US. You are a target for persisting, for not accepting
The FBI, the US federal police had, by time that the 1970s came
around, terrorized, infiltrated and destabilized any forward and
progressive individual or collective that had managed to gain
followers. The most well known formations were led by people such
as Elijah Muhammad, Huey P. Newton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood
Marshall, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Kwame Ture, Malcolm
X and others. In the late '70s a university administrator told
me that I had better stop my activism among African and Puerto
Rican students. This was an African (so called) American woman
of high "class". She stated that she knew all about people like
me, that she had been an FBI informant in California in the 1960s.
She then and there suggested that I see a psychologist. I did
a little research. The man that I kept the appointment with,
another "guide", was a former student activist, banned ten years
prior from the same university I attended, for his Black activism!
The remainder of my years at the school were a constant low-level
battle with the administration, professors and even students recruited
to discredit me, offer me bribes, steal my academic papers, etc.
By 1980, when I left the university to become a full time activist,
I didn't know the name of FBI COINTELPRO (counterintelligence)
but I had become thoroughly acquainted with some tactics used.
I am living with this basis of US and (other governments) counterintelligence,
and further incursions to this day.
Shaka: Can you describe the persecution that you went
I was harassed a great deal at work, not just in Virginia,
but also in Philadelphia and then across an international border
in Canada. It was like a 1990’s version of the McCarthy
Era "Black List. I'm still dealing with it today.
When I tried to get a work permit in Sweden last year, they simply
refused to give an answer. So, people did an international
campaign on my behalf. They made calls to the Migration
Board in Sweden. The response to one caller was “she’s not
getting into this country”. This was before any official
decision was made. The Swedish immigration office told other
callers that they could give it to me, but that they just weren’t
going to do it. The employer could have called the authorities
on my behalf, but then backed out of the employment agreement
and refused to do so. She’s a racist “American.”
Sometimes it's the governments and the corporations that control
the bureaucrats who make negative decisions, but regular people
who listen to the poison spewed about us, our struggle and our
culture by racist Americans living abroad is one of the biggest
problems. In any event, it always amounts to the same thing…strange
events which occur and result in me not getting what I deserve-that
is, a place to live and work on this earth. How is
it that you can file a valid, legitimate work permit application,
involving several thousands of dollars in legitimate music contracts
and a salary and the response of the state is “she’s not getting
into this country”? What have I done wrong? I’m just
sharing and defending my culture. I didn’t blow up any bridges!
But it goes to show that the power of culture, in the right context,
is stronger than even that, just as feared and wanted even less.
In the US and Canada I was followed, threatened and watched constantly.
The wicked legal society in the US south even tried to have me
brought up on criminal charges for practicing law without a license,
because I was using my legal education as a Paralegal to help
my husband with his employment discrimination case. Most
of the time the news media just acted as if we didn’t exist, but
at the same time, the system tried every way possible to discredit
One of the greatest forms of persecution that I had to endure
took place in Canada. I was basically thrown out of the country
for singing and promoting African-American classical, folk and
spiritual music with a political message. When I wouldn’t
go along with the wishes of the racist music establishment I was
told that if I continued to speak out and defy them by running
“The Soulful Expression”, my then over-ground music company, that
“it will be played out in your refugee claim.” The lawyers
who were helping me with my case told me that I would be put on
a music industry “blacklist”, and of course, it happened!
Again, I wasn’t singing about blowing up bridges, I was only asserting
the fact that we have to right to define our own culture as African
people from America. Even that message was too much.
I think that what happened is best summed up in this excerpt from
a legal summary about our case written by a supporter:
Denied the right to protect themselves against forced assimilation
under UN guidelines
“Aisha Irungu is a musician, cultural worker, and expert
on African-American musical traditions. While in Canada, she was
shut out of performing at “jazz festivals” and other local appropriations
of African-American music; while at the same time, non-African-American
musicians played at such events for a profit. She described this
as “cultural imperialism” by the Canadian music industry – as
the industry was profiting from African-American music while barring
African-Americans from performing it. Aisha was told that if she
continued to speak out against this, “it will be played out in
your refugee claim” – and it was. This attempt to coerce her to
abandon parts of her culture is an example of forced assimilation.”
A few weeks after our most financially successful concert in Canada
with “The Soulful Expression” and my first television appearance
we received the infamous letter from the Canadian authorities.
This letter not only ordered us to leave the country in 30 days
or face imprisonment, it also came with a specific warning for
us not to return to the US, not even to change planes. This
letter can be read at: http://www.geocities.com/windparade2003/wickedcanadaletterpage.htm
And yes, I was born in the United States as were my descendants.
I am a real African-
American. My descendants came to America on those terrible
ships. I’m not Afro-Caribbean, or anything like that.
I was a so-called citizen of that country. The Canadian
authorities knew that I could not return, because it was dangerous.
They had no right to deny me refugee status, and yet tell me not
to go back to America without finding me another country to live
The exile itself, that we are currently facing, is one of the
greatest forms of persecution. Since we received that letter in
2000 life has been like a nightmare, travelling from place to
place with nowhere to call home, not being able to start a family,
work or even have an apartment. Under these
circumstances it is impossible to rest. Forced travel
is truly an unjust situation. Someone said that the way
that we have to live is a form of torture. Bankole &
I are just two of millions of people without a country, but I
feel that no one should have to endure this.
Well, as I said, from the late '70s, there was an escalation
of what the FBI spelled out in its 1967 COINTELPRO memorandum:
“discredit, disrupt, and neutralize” are words that barely describe
what has taken place, what takes place today against those of
us determined to improve the peoples’ condition. This is what
many of us who wanted to learn from history, had to contend with.
Let's be clear-this for some of us, meant death in police custody.
Some people disappeared, people went into exile, were jailed for
longer time than Nelson Mandela and most Political Prisoners worldwide.
Too many live a traumatized existence in America today, resigned
The reality of being a politically active African in the US in
the early 1980s was harsh. Persecution was by no means light or
occasional. In general, there is a strong aversion to the rest
of the world inside of the US society.
Persecution meant being harassed by uniformed police and plain-clothes
cops, being followed and spied upon by FBI and state police when
travelling. Infiltration is a tactic used. For example, your "comrade"
trying to sell you a stolen vehicle, one that will be used by
the organization. Persecution means having to relocate 1000 miles
to another region because of police attention and the possibility
of being framed for a crime you have not done. I have endured
decades of being followed in the streets by informants and police,
and attempts at provocation have been made so many times that
it is impossible to count. Our post mail was opened (in the US
post Office buildings) at our key locked post boxes during the
1990s. No Postal Inspector in any town, including the large Philadelphia
office, where complaints were filed, could ever resolve this.
Most importantly besides personal messages were medical information
and legal briefs and letters regarding Civil Rights cases in the
In Toronto, mail was stolen from our home letterbox, our phones
were tapped, phone calls intercepted, people could not reach us.
A few times, lawyers and others attempting to reach us were told
by someone "at our number" to not call anymore! This phone surveillance
took place intensively from 1991 to 2000 in the US and Canada.
Our apartment was broken into and legal papers, photographs of
agents who trailed us taken. This happened in Philadelphia and
Toronto in Canada after we went there in early 1998. Persecution
is being targeted on your job, illegally fired, denied medical
benefits that you earned. When this occurs over months at a time,
you cannot afford your rent, then you must live in a small room.
As your health gets worse, you have choices to make. Many people
give up at this stage.
This targeting happened to me in the 1990s and my wife had the
same treatment, being denied a new contract as a teacher although
her performance was excellent. Both of us have been questioned
by provocateurs at workplaces. The usual racial discrimination
on the job becomes severe. Economic reprisal is a long-time attack
used in the racist USA. Aisha was the victim of job sabotage-in
America (1996 when she won a lawsuit over the US government) and
Canada (1998 when we both filed for UN Political Refugee status)
and has had "the rug pulled out from under her" by Americans in
position to employ her in Sweden in 2003.
Shaka: You have spent 2 years in Canada before being
Shaka: Your site talks about an abuse to children in the
school where Aisha was teaching. What was it?
Black children were being psychologically abused and
tied to chairs by their white teachers at Greenbrier School in
Charlottesville, Virginia. When the parents complained,
the school district threatened to sue the parents!!! There
were other problems too. For example when the African-American
children received low scores on their standardized tests, the
school principal called us into a mandatory meeting. During
the meeting she explained to the teachers that they shouldn’t
worry about the low scores of the African-
American children because they’re like that when they arrive at
school! …”it’s not your fault, they’re that way when they
come here…they come to us like this”. One man gave an account
of being beaten by a school official as a child.
I'll give some background. Aisha took action in a case
that was both brutal and rooted in Charlottesville, Virginia's
racist legacy. There you find that Africans would step off the
pavement to let Whites walk by. This was the so-called New South.
I had met, in 1991, an African woman teacher who lived in my Charlottesville
neighborhood. I had moved to the town in April '91 from Philadelphia.
I had over time uncovered the city water utility over-billing
me at the flat where I lived with my brother. I got a refund.
Other Africans told me that this was the way things are there.
This woman whom I met was in her 50s. She lived in the same
neighborhood and told me of her suspension from a primary school,
and the accusation had been that she was a child abuser. She had
been humiliated before the school board. Despite the presence
of other Africans on the board, it decided to vilify her. The
local press was also all too willing to condemn her. What unravelled
though, was that White teachers had been the ones doing this to
African youth. The woman was a seasoned teacher and had distinguished
herself in school districts across America. She was returning
to her hometown to finish out her career. She had a son that she
was concerned about-she didn't want to see him criminalized.
Our first conversations were about this, and I brought back from
New Jersey some books on the topic of the destruction of young
Africans in their teens, which she needed. Aisha and I met in
1992, and she relocated from New Jersey to live with me. When
Aisha and I married, she had a job lined up at the same controversial
school. The school board still had two members who were diehard
racists from the 1956 Charlottesville Public Schools shutdown.
No Africans could attend the usually better equipped White schools
in the divided society then. Across the US, only a few like Charlottesville
schools actually refused to allow Africans into the all-White
public system in the 50s. Defying the federal Washington DC officials,
they had closed down the schools for a few months. When Aisha
and I finished kicking up a fuss in 1993-4, a couple of the old
racists retired and the superintendent resigned and took a post
3000 miles away in Washington state.
Shaka: What events made your life impossible in the US
so that you decided to leave?
I feared for my life and safety. I felt that being
harmed physically, possibly killed or set up on false charges
and imprisoned was inevitable.
Being watched and surveilled every moment of the day was what
also made life in America impossible for me, if you could
call it that. I was watched by the government at work, on
my way to way to work, and everywhere I went. My mail was
opened my telephone was bugged. I had no privacy.
Always having to change jobs was another factor. Living
without friends, any privacy or hope of starting a family wasn't
an acceptable way of life to me. I feared being forced
into some kind of mental illness like so many other people in
This is a part of COINTELPRO that has also not been discussed
very much. It is not just physical abuse; it is also a bloodless
sort of persecution, and psychological abuse – one that makes
it looks like the “target” is bringing the problems on him or
her self. It is designed to isolate people from their own group,
make them less believable and cause physical illness or mental
problems. America is a very materialistic and individualist
society, so these tactics work very well, especially in certain
parts of the black community. In one FBI memo they brag
about driving one activist to a heart attack this way, and making
other people paranoid. It’s much like the programs in the
other countries that they always criticize.
I've noted some of the day to day tactics we endured.
Personal safety is a reason why we left America. Staying healthy
has to be one of the great challenges when you are under this
barrage. No one can stand the pressures for long. Anyone that
says that this COINTELPRO is just ordinary government tactics
is lying, or in denial. It was crafted specifically to destroy
movements and in the 50s, it did that to left and communist groups
in the US. In the later periods of 60's and 70's, the Africans
rising to take power were similarly yet more harshly crushed.
What many people over there in the States don't want to deal with
is that the low intensity COINTELPRO never ended. Political Prisoners
such as Dr Mutulu Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal need to be seen for
what they are, freedom fighters taken off the streets because
of their power too influence the people to build a better way.
And that way flies in the face of America standing on the necks
of African people. Most people in the world don't even acknowledge
that it was the main reason for the collapse of the Black Movement
for Justice in the 1960's-'70s era. By 1996 after Aisha had managed
to win a lawsuit vs. the US Department of Education regarding
Charlottesville schools, are lives were in danger.
The vendetta of the US government often takes the form of a set
up on criminal charges. It is a hallmark of COINTELPRO,
with Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt (jailed 1970-1997) and many others
lesser known ending up in prison on false charges. Two "educated
children of the Civil Rights era in their 30s" weren't supposed
to defeat COINTELPRO and expose the system for what it was. A
music teacher and a store clerk! People in the world need to hear
what we are saying: we were harassed day and night for years for
only calling on that system to do what it said it would some 50
years ago when schools were supposed to be made racially diverse.
Attacked for calling the US government, the Virginia government
to be accountable.
We are today in exile because we wouldn't back down, because we
defended ourselves against the same intelligence complex on the
rampage within the US in 2004. Ali Khalid Abdullah, imprisoned
in Michigan today, a man moved from prison to prison because he
effectively challenges the injustice of the American empire, suffers,
and needs the world's support. Mama Khandi, a woman who recently
survived an attempt to charge her with kidnapping her own child
in Ohio, has to be supported. Both of these Africans in the US
who have weathered COINTELPRO don't cease to exist because the
corporate media ignores them. Our website has more on some people
that can be seen for what they are-Africans that don't stand for
dehumanization, being criminalized, but fight back: Obadyah Ben
Yisrayl, Jamil Al-Amin, Zolo Agona Azania, Mumia Abu Jamal and
Dr Mutulu Shakur. Thousands of politically and culturally resistant
activists among the Africans in America have got to be aided right
How were those 2 years?
It was actually 3 years that we spent in Canada.
Some of the time that we spent there was good, some really horrible!
The racism was incredible. (Read Living in a Racist Illusion from
our 1st issue of Vibrations - the on-line magazine…"Vibrations
explores the racism in the so-called Soul Music scene in Canada
and exposes its efforts to keep authentic African-American artists
out of the country.")
For the first few months we were harassed just as much in Canada
as we were in the States, by the same forces. It was intense,
a living hell! There aren’t many African-Americans in Canada
and being away from my social group was very difficult. Most
Afro-Caribbean people in Canada were cold and even hostile because
we weren’t from a country that was part of the former British Commonwealth.
I felt like I was constantly in the middle. Hostile people
in Canada, and black folks in the states who didn’t want to hear
what I had to say.
However, about a year after we applied for refugee status the lawyers
were able to temporarily halt some of the most vicious harassment
for a while. We made a few friends and life got a bit easier.
During the same time, we sued the company that was helping the US
spy on me and we won. It wasn’t a fortune, but enough where
we could be financially comfortable for a while. This allowed
us to have a nice apartment and for me to form my software training
business and my music company “The Soulful Expression”. That
same year I produced my first CD entitled “The Soulful Expression
of an African from America”. I think that the best thing that
happened to me in Canada was founding "The Soulful Expression" our
now underground music company, which we continue to use as a vehicle
for carrying on the struggle of African people from America and
all dignified African people, through the use of culture and the
Well, for me 1998 was one of the worst years of my life.
A quiet move to Canada was made at the year's beginning. Within
six months, we had had Aisha's job sabotaged and we were filing
for UN Political Refugee status. It is a hell of a thing to leave
one country and be reached by the FBI tactics in another. Post Traumatic
Stress elevated for me and the strain emotionally was severe. But
we saw daylight by year's end and began to know what being a refugee
is, what millions upon millions have to do to find a life somewhere.
1999 and 2000 were busy, productive years in which Toronto became
home and in which we asserted ourselves in the political and cultural
realm. Aisha formed her music firm The Soulful Expression and held
her first concert in 1999, and that was a sensation. Our cooperation
with legal counsel (we were denied Canadian legal aid unlike all
other refugee claimants) was good and we began to find a trickle
of ordinary and political people to support us in Canada. By 2000,
Aisha had shaken up the music scene in Toronto, and defied a lot
of people who expected her to accept the racist and exploitive way
that things are done there. We built and made successful an alternative.
After several months we had a press conference regarding our UN
Political Refugee claim in front of the US Consulate. We had a small
but dedicated group of supporters by then, some because of our political
battles, and some who just loved the real music that Aisha was producing.
Often, it was expressed that the true culture of African people
was respected. Just a few weeks after Aisha appeared on television,
singing and playing in her inimitable style, we were ordered out
of the country. That was December 2000. Canada was a temporary haven,
but by no means a pleasant place.
Shaka: How did the Canadian state inform you that you
had to leave the country?
They wrote us a letter, which said: "DO NOT ATTEMPT TO
ENTER THE UNITED STATES UNLESS YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO DO SO."
You can read it on-line at: http://www.geocities.com/windparade2003/wickedcanadaletterpage.htm
By letter! The building superintendent where we lived
noticed this letter and told us about it almost being knocked
into a recycling bin. The letter said get out, you aren't getting
refugee status. You are to leave in 30 days or you will be arrested,
you cannot return to the country you are from. Our two lawyers
were frantic on seeing this, rushing from law book to telephone
to computer, absolutely grave in manner.
Shaka: Did you have any right of appeal
or any way to postpone your departure?
Our lawyers had filed an appeal with the Federal Court
of Canada several months before we got the letter. This technically
should have granted us the right to remain in Canada until the Federal
Court of Canada ruled on the case, which usually takes years.
The problem is that there are paper laws and rights that people
have and then there is the reality – the lawlessness of the state.
Had the law been followed we probably still would be in Canada.
But the Canadian state violated it's own laws and ordered us out
of the country anyway as if the appeal didn't exist.
It's like Bankole said. Someone had decided that a fascist
show of power was in order. The right to an appeal is something
that every refugee claimant is entitled to, but it is also something
that we were denied. There were legal ways to postpone our
departure from Canada, but the state wasn’t adhering to any of its
own laws and the reality that we could be kidnapped illegally and
forced back to America as other refugee claimants had was sinking
in. We fled on the advice of a former member of The Black
Panther Party for Self Defense and international lawyer, who himself,
had been forced back illegally in chains a few years earlier.
When you have an appeal before the Canadian Federal Court
like we did, and you are suddenly ordered out by the enforcement
arm of Immigration Canada, what do you do? You are staring at fascism.
Someone we knew, an ex Black Panther and international lawyer who
had been jailed and shipped out of Canada for filing a 1994 UN Political
Refugee claim, said that we should get out. This person had been
handed over to the US Bureau of Prisons, and left prison a few years
later blind. He had been denied medication for a health problem.
It made sense to be safe and leave, though we considered some technical
legal moves such as appealing to stay on Humanitarian Grounds.
Shaka: When you claimed asylum in Canada, you were forced
to pay for your own lawyers. Isn’t that against the law?
Aren’t you supposed to get some free legal help?
Shaka: Can you and do you plan to sue? (This question might not
appear, it depends on the answer above)
Of course we were entitled to some free legal help! It's
illegal to make refugee claimants pay for their own lawyers if
the decision is made based on race and national origin of the
claimant, which is what they did. It’s not only illegal;
it’s incredibly inhumane and immoral. But I don’t expect
governments or corporations to operate with any sense of morals
unless they are forced. The question is can you effectively
challenge the illegality of the situation? Every big corporation
and government carries out completely illegal activities, but
they count on the fact that most people are going to be too broke
and helpless to be able to get a lawyer to sue them. In
the case of international issues they count on people not being
able to get help.
When black people from America try to present their problems on
the international stage racist white Americans, older black people
from the 60’s, the governments and corporations are used in such
a way, which makes the likelihood of getting help improbable or
impossible. Most people just end up going back to the US,
thus losing their right to sue and ability to make an effective
case. When that happens the system wins. There
has never been a successful African or Native American refugee
case in the history of the Geneva Convention that we know of.
There is a particular myth about Canada, Sweden and Cuba giving
people political asylum, but it is just that, a myth. As
far as we know African so-called American activists and
draft dodgers have been granted citizenship, work and resident
permits, but usually under laissez-faire agreements with various
heads of states in the 1960’s and 70’s. Most people don’t
understand that this is not the same as Convention Refugee
Status. Many of our exiles are under threat of deportation
and extradition to America, because they don’t have any recognized
status under the Geneva Convention. Unfortunately,
many movement people accept prison or some other form of torture
as a right of passage in America for younger Black people in today’s
struggle. This is a big problem. They are not willing
to help you or even talk to you, because of their mentality.
They regard it as their struggle, not the people’s struggle.
The things that used to make people flee, like facing imprisonment,
have now become acceptable as a part of life for black folks in
the US and it’s big business for the multi-billion dollar privately-run
American industrial prison industry which makes huge profits from
the imprisonment and mental illness of African people.
American prisons, which are privately owned, house 1/4 of all
people in the world imprisoned today. And when so-called movement
people from the 60’s and 70’s act as if younger people going to
prison is some kind of a right of passage while refusing to help
those of us out here, this fuels the profits for that industry.
There are two laws, something that we learn right away
in the US, that bastion of democracy we came up in. One is the
law that is written down in the books. The other is the law of
custom, or everyday actions that are rooted in history. If you
look at the mid 1850s in America, you see that in cases like the
Dred Scott decision. A US judge said in the ruling of an African
who had escaped from a White oppressor, that Dred Scott was to
be returned. In effect, there is no law a White person is bound
to respect concerning an African. This is true today, and it is
global White supremacy.
Aisha and I stood up in the heart of today's White Empire and
snatched off the cloak of self-appointed righteousness. Do you
think that the puppet state next door would defy the US and help
us fully to get refugee status?
Yes, of course there are grounds for a lawsuit and we plan
to sue!!! We have been trying for 4 years to sue. But finding
a competent lawyer who is willing to listen and is not afraid to
sue the Canadian state over the issues in our case is a big challenge.
If there is anyone out there in France willing to help us, please
contact us by all means!
Why not? Every tool that is in your toolbelt should be
used. There can't be a victory for Africans or oppressed people
in the world today without both methodical activism and sound legal
knowledge. This goes for reparations as well. One reason that we
are censored-and that includes being halted by legal professionals
in several countries from having information about the technical
international law details-is because we are right! Lawyers are nearly
indispensable in international law. Cases like ours cannot be handled
by ordinary persons-that isn’t realistic. But these legal systems
operated and manipulated by Europeans have nothing to do with morality.
There has to be a healthy respect for what I call power relationships.
Some of it is the brainwashing that Africans have about education.
Which in most cases is really training. Many African people think
that having a few properties, automobiles and sharp clothes is possessing
power. In reality, most of us can't even name an African company
that manufactures shoelaces-anywhere in the world. True power is
lacking, but the trappings make too many feel or imagine that they
have power. Manipulating your sister becomes your notion of power.
Anything but confronting that which oppresses you and poisons your
life. I feel that I have a grip on some realities and can utilize
the experiences with Western legal systems to my advantage.
Shaka: Can you name the countries where you stayed?
Shaka: You are not getting any social help. Whenever you find work,
Aisha & Bankole:
We’ve lived in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden,
France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada and the US.
your employer gets a phone call then you get sacked. How do you
Aisha can detail her difficulties in finding legitimate
work in Sweden and the UK.
We get nothing from anyone, other than what we earn through gigs,
presentations, CD and book sales and donations.
It’s important for people to know that we are not entitled
to social help or to legally work in any country. We also
do not have access to medical care. We support ourselves through
doing gigs, music lessons, talks, workshops/masterclasses and sales
on “The Soulful Expression”. We sell books, CDs, do workshops
and underground gigs.
I'm not a celebrity activist travelling to speak by going 1st
class on planes then returning to America to a nice comfortable
house after telling people how bad it is I'm exiled.
I'm forbidden to go to America without permission,
even to catch a plane to go to another country. I have
been denied the right to challenge this legally or appeal the decision
of my refugee claim. We have no country in the world where
we can work, live, or settle. We depend on people who can
organize concerts and workshops for us, as well as donations from
friends and supporters. Descriptions of our books and CDs can be
read in English at: http://www.geocities.com/realsoul_music/index.htm
Or in French at:
(Information en français)
This wasn’t a question that was posed, however, I wish to speak
about my life as a cultural worker as well as the importance of
saving, preserving and maintaining our music and culture.
It is very difficult for anyone to get booked at so-called jazz
festivals that isn’t with a major record label or doesn’t have a
friend on the board of the festival. But these festivals should
be challenged to hire those of us from the tradition. They
are pretending to uphold our culture while shutting us out and destroying
it. I wrote the head of the Montreal jazz festival about this
I see being a political activist and a musician as one in the
same and therefore, I make it clear that the music that I play is
a part of our culture and our experience as African people in America.
That is an experience, which cannot be imitated or separated from
our people in the US. Historically African-American cultural
artists with this view have been blocked to say the least by the
corporations and the majors.
In my view as an artist, the essence of African-American music (Soul,
Blues and Jazz) is feeling, which comes from the experience
of the people. You can’t ignore the politics behind the music
and disrespect the people’s experience while claiming to be paying
tribute to the masters.
No matter how you look at it, Soul music is the social-political
music of African-American people - it's
that simple. It’s not an “American” art form. In my opinion,
people like Britney Spears and Nora Jones are not Soul or Jazz
singers and giving them awards while comparing them to Nina Simone
is an absolute absurdity. I ask how can the oppressor sing
the songs of the oppressed and then claim it as their experience,
their music? It's impossible! If you sing like me you
represent real culture. Thus presenting a cultural artist
such as myself gives people a standard to compare to today's music
industry computerized crap. Major corporations don’t want
the presentation of real culture in any country! And the corporations
are the sponsors of the so-called Jazz festivals!
The other problem is that a lot of the so-called Jazz Festivals
won’t even hire Jazz musicians as the headliners.
The Scottish so-called Jazz Festival headliner for this year was
Van Morrison! In Stockholm in 2002 it was Angie Stone.
In Belgium one famous club, which is part of a major festival, promoted
a racist, Belgian character singing in a fake African-American southern
accent. The only thing missing was the black face makeup.
Some friends did a bit of campaigning to get me a gig there and
at the end of the day we said no because the owner wanted to pay
me 50 euro less than him or any other solo act at the club for that
I use the term Jazz in italics because the correct name
for the music is African-American Classical Music, (not
American!) and “Jazz” is a term that a lot of musicians used to
have a problem with because of what it represents. Our music was
named that because the establishment didn’t feel that it was worthy
to be presented on stage only in brothels and smoke filled rooms.
Getting back to my original point, this kind of thing is common
with booking, and you’ll find it in every country. The other
thing that we saw in Toronto was white culture bandits as we call
them playing for big bucks while black musicians, even people who
had played with James Brown, taking what they could get from the
door and having to promote their own events. People can read
the full details of this in the first issue of “Vibrations”
our on-line magazine.
Again, this is done to keep us from playing our own music. It’s
an effort to destroy our culture and to keep the multi-billion dollar
business of employing appropriators in tact. In the 1970’s
& 1980’s the major record labels in the US dropped most of the
political African-American artists making the struggle seem to disappear.
In the 1990’s the huge record labels that we see today squeezed
out the small labels that people like Gil Scot-Heron were on and
we lost the outlet to have our music heard. It is even more
difficult to make money now because of this. The ability of
privileged and unscrupulous people being able to copy music is also
a big problem. When Nina Simone passed on there were 60 bootleg
compilations of her music in the UK alone! Contrary to popular
belief, she never got her due. And today it’s even more difficult
because of the multi-billion dollar theft and culture steam-rolling
machine. We wrote and article on this using a lot of what
Roy Ayers says in the second issue of Vibrations.
It’s true that we can produce CDs with companies like The Soulful
Expression, but distribution, marketing and finance are big problems.
It’s very difficult to be heard by a large audience.
Since I usually can’t get gigs through the normal channels we ask
that people organize tours and gigs for us underground with alternative
venues and in some cases even if it means home concerts with their
friends, which under the right circumstances can pay well.
This has worked well and so far we’ve had tours of Sweden, the UK
& Ireland. I also played in Belgium.
We’re trying to come to France and need people to organize a way
for this music and the issues surrounding it to be heard.
The goal of the wicked system is to keep us from being heard on
any stage or working anywhere in the world. They want to destroy
our culture and silence our message. They don’t want us to
tell the truth about America. But people can help by organizing
events, fundraisers and concerts. We ask that people give us a chance
to be heard. This is extremely important.
W.E.B. DuBois said that until the culture and music of Black people
is respected our struggle will never be respected. Today people
don’t even know what Soul, Blues and Jazz music are, although they
think that they do, and that’s dangerous. It’s been destroyed
to that point. It’s a disgrace, one that must be halted. By
musicians, I’m referring to those of us who play traditional
African-American music, not R&B or Hip Hop artists, because
most of these people don’t play an instrument, they are not musicians.
The business of bringing over white and other cultural appropriators
especially from America to play and sing our songs as well as discuss
our issues for us, has become a multi-billion dollar business
in Europe. We are asking people to help us preserve and save
our culture from this vicious system!
Paul Robeson said "the artist must elect to fight for freedom or
slavery" - I have made my choice, to use my voice to fight for freedom!!!!!
Those of us who have chosen freedom have a right to he heard.
People have to see the music industry for what it is, a system of
repression and exploitation that excludes us from playing the music
of our experience, passing on our culture and having it recognized
on an international level. This includes the so-called major
Jazz Festivals. Club owners who fly in whites to play our
stolen culture have told me to my face that they are afraid to book
me, just like in the American segregation era, they don’t want to
offend the racist white Americans abroad.
Shaka: Let’s talk about Aisha now, she was a teacher
and now she is a singer. How long has she been singing
for? What musical style is it?
I’ve been singing since I was 5 years old and I’m 43
now. It was my love for the music, culture and the Black
experience in America of which I’m a part of, that inspired me
to study music education formally at the university. I had
been singing for 15 years when I arrived at Indiana University.
I sing and play Soul, Blues and Jazz like that presented by Nina
Simone, Donny Hathaway, Abbey Lincoln, etc but IN MY OWN STYLE,
I write a lot of my own material as well. I feel that what
I do is a branch off of the spiritual tree of traditional African-American
music. Read a review at: http://www.geocities.com/realsoul_music/
In performance I do everything from a rocking church piano with
vocals, scat, ballads to political music where I get the whole
audience involved! The style is simple, but powerful. Generally,
I sing and play the piano as a solo artist. My range
is quite wide (about 4 octaves) so I try to make it real gutsy,
soulful and sweet depending on the song. I like to arrange
instrumental standards and one favourite is my tribute to Ella
Fitzgerald where I play, scat and sing a standard called “How
High the Moon”.
I'm a teacher as well as a singer and pianist. I consider
myself a “cultural worker” in the African-American musical tradition.
Therefore I give workshops and masterclasses on the importance
of maintaining our music and culture. I’m also a musical
storyteller. I tell and write children’s stories with original
music, based on the African experience.
In my classes and workshops I teach people that Soul, Blues and
Jazz, are “the social-political, folk and classical music of African-American
people” (not "Americans"). I show in a very methodical
way that it comes from African and is part of the African
experience in America. Because of this a lot of people try
to keep me from presenting my workshops and masterclasses.
Since I’m a singer and musician I use vocal techniques, scales
at the piano as well as historical facts to bring the point on
I have voice and piano students in several countries, which is
also a crime in a way, because I am not allowed to stay and develop
them or my business. I've been a teacher for 21 years now,
and I am qualified by a US teaching authority to teach music in
primary and secondary schools there. Although I have the
credentials and the skills, my message is not wanted, obviously.
I’ve been shown that time and time again.
Shaka: How many albums have been released? Which one is
the most successful?
I have released 6 CDs on “The Soulful Expression” our
independent record label. I think that the most successful
CD to date is one called "My Gift is My Culture". This is
a solo, double CD which captures a live performance of mine on
the grand piano while singing in Umeå, Sweden where the Swedish
Symphony records. I’ve gotten really great reviews for it,
and the recording quality is superb. I feel very fortunate
to have had the opportunity to record on such a beautiful grand
piano in such a lovely facility. I think too that it’s representative
of some of what I do in performance.
Shaka: Do you get any support from mainstream artists?
Have you ever done a collaboration?
Shaka: Bankole, you have written two books; “Exiled One volume 1:1”
I have never had any real support from mainstream artists!
Most people in the music industry are too arrogant to even admit
that we have a culture, let alone be supportive of someone like
me. They’re too busy stealing from us!!!! People have
to understand that music industry is a cut-throat businesses.
Nobody who’s faking it is going to help somebody who's real to
be heard, and this has been shown time and time again historically.
And I’m the real thing!
Let’s face it, nobody's going to voluntarily take work away from
themselves to give to someone else! And by helping to promote
the real people from the tradition that’s what they’d be doing!
If those of us from the tradition were given the opportunity to
perform, people would see that we have a living culture that didn’t
die with sister Nina (Nina Simone). They would also see
that what we present cannot be duplicated or imitated.
It is the music of our experience, that which comes from our soul!
That’s why we call it “Soul Music”.
Neither the artists who are “faking the funk” as we say, nor the
industry want consumers to have a comparison of the fake imitation
to the real culture. They want something that they are comfortable
with! Having those of us from the tradition perform would create
a market for real culture, (Jazz, Soul & Blues) one which
existed before we could buy our music at HMV, when there were
so-called race records, one that would uplift, instead tearing
down the people, one which we deserve! The wicked music
factory wants people to dance to “bitch get out of the way” and
young white musicians playing a diluted, soulless fake version
of what they’ve been taught by Europeans & white “Americans”
is “Jazz” (which in most cases isn’t really “Jazz” at all) not
any songs about self worth or freedom created by African-American
People want to argue that this isn’t true, but nobody can answer
me when I ask where are the books about Jazz written by African-American
musicians? They exist, but the Americans and Europeans won’t
print or make them available. We’re here in the US and in
Europe, but can’t get paid, play on the stages or teach workshops
at the festivals or the universities.
The only instance that I can think of when I got any support from
anybody in the mainstream music industry was when Stevie Jackson
of Belle & Sebastian opened for me when I played Glasgow,
Scotland for the first time.
Sudden Move, the 5th CD produced on “The Soulful Expression”
is a great collaboration, but not with mainstream artists.
Check out the link http://www.geocities.com/realsoul_music/achetez_les_cds_de.htm (it's
in French) The text and songs are in English, Swedish and French.
“Exiled One” volume 2:1”. Are they available in the U.S. and Canada?
That's right. I am pleased to have sold these since August
2002. 1:1 is the big seller and has sold more than 250 copies. The
1:2 follow up is going into the 75 copy sales range now. These are
produced on the move, from country to country, and I do book signings
and lately have read excerpts in performance with Aisha playing
piano and singing. In Canada, supporters have sold a few, but in
the US very few copies exist.
Shaka: Can we get them in any other language than English?
No, just English, but I would welcome your help in French
Shaka: How many have you sold so far?
Total, about 325 copies. These have been sold all over
Sweden, mainly through supporters in Uppsala. Dublin and Derry
in Ireland, Liverpool in England have been other locations. Glasgow,
Scotland has been a bright spot. Paris, France; Ghent, Brussels
and Antwerp in Belgium have been outlets too. Recently, a number
have sold in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Shaka: What are the contents of your books? How would
you describe them?
Shaka: Now I am giving both of you the opportunity to say whatever
you want to French speaking people around the world!
I write political commentary, and cultural and historical
points of view are shared. It is unique in that I am in
exile, and have spent about 30 years grappling with the issue
of liberation of African people in the USA.
I'll say thanks for reading this interview and I urge all
of the French-speaking people to help us, bring the solidarity for
those of us who the English language corporate forces try to censor.
We intend to visit France in the late 2004, early 2005 period, and
would appreciate all of your help while there and possibly for a
visit to West Africa. With your help we will never be crushed
and our links across language and cultures will be strong.
Visit our website, www.geocities.com/exiledone2002, where we have
a French language Appeal and work with us to have our case supported,
legally, and from a humane standpoint.
Thanks so much for this! Please, support us!!!!!!!!
We need practical, solid help and support from people in France.
Here are a few things that can be done.
1. Please invite us to France to do some
performances, masterclasses and workshops! We plan to be in France
in December. Please organize some speaking, music and fundraising
events! The venues don’t have to be huge; but we need the
help of people in France! We can discuss details in English
or French with anyone wanting to arrange something for us.
We can also do workshops in French with the help of a translator.
I speak a little bit of French as well.
2. Medical Needs: I need contact
lenses, which are difficult to buy in most countries, but can
be purchased rather easily and inexpensively in France without
a prescription. I would greatly appreciate hearing from
anyone who is willing to buy these and mail them to me.
I can supply my prescription details and the addresses of several
stores in France where they can be purchased!
3. Please purchase a book or a CD from
us on The Soulful Expression. See the website for
a description of each CD in French! http://www.geocities.com/realsoul_music/achetez_les_cds_de.htm
The general website address is: http://www.geocities.com/exiledone2002/
4. If anyone would like to help with our case
for settlement in France or Europe, in general, please contact
us! Finding a country is of the utmost importance, we have
been travelling for almost 5 years without a country! We
are particularly interested in speaking with lawyers and NGOs
as well as any interested people or organizations that might be
willing to help!
5. We are looking for contacts who can
help us to travel to West Africa. Any help with this would
be greatly appreciated!
You can e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org