Afrostyly

Aisha & Bankole Irungu
Aisha & Bankole Irungu


"In January 1998, Aisha & Bankole two long-time African-American activists fled for Canada,
in order to escape political repression, fearing for their lives.

 

But then 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?

Aisha:
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 happened! 
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 case. 
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 a computer! 
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 out.
 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.

Bankole
:
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?

Aisha: 
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 Public Schools.

Bankole
:
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 dehumanisation.
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 through?

Aisha:
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 us. 
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 in.
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.

Bankole:
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 to oppression.
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 national courts.
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: Your site talks about an abuse to children in the school where Aisha was teaching.  What was it?

Aisha:
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.

Bankole:
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?

Aisha:
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 the movement. 
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.

Bankole:
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 now.

Shaka: You have spent 2 years in Canada before being expelled.
How were those 2 years?

Aisha:
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 music.

Bankole:
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?

Aisha:
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

Bankole:
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?

Aisha:
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.

Bankole:
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?

Aisha:
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.

Bankole: 
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?

Shaka: Can you and do you plan to sue? (This question might not appear, it depends on the answer above)

Aisha:
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!

Bankole:
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?

Aisha & Bankole:
We’ve lived in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada and the US.

Shaka: You are not getting any social help. Whenever you find work,
your employer gets a phone call then you get sacked. How do you support yourself?

Bankole:
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.

Aisha: 
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:
 http://www.geocities.com/exiledone2002/soutenez_aisha_et_bankole2.html (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 issue. 
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 matter! 
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?

Aisha:
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 home. 
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?

Aisha:
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?

Aisha:
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 musicians
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.

Shaka: Bankole, you have written two books; “Exiled One volume 1:1” and
“Exiled One” volume 2:1”. Are they available in the U.S. and Canada?

Bankole:
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?

Bankole:
No, just English, but I would welcome your help in French translation!


Shaka: How many have you sold so far?

Bankole:
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?

Bankole:
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.

Shaka: Now I am giving both of you the opportunity to say whatever you want to French speaking people around the world!

Bankole:
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.  

Aisha:
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: soulful_expression@yahoo.com
or bankole_irungu@yahoo.com

Merci beaucoup!


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