The Gambia is a blueprint for what Africa can be Says renowned American singer

Yewande Austin

Yewande Austin, known as the ‘First Lady of the Alternative Soul’, is an acclaimed African-American singer and a Monarchy Records signed artist, who was nominated for the 2013 CNN 2013 Hero Award in recognition of her great philanthropism of producing programmes for over 10, 000 AIDS orphans. A lecturer, artist and an activist, Yewande is widely noted for saying things as they are about issues that are critical to the advancement of humanity. Her independent approach to issues has made her earned the respect and admiration of many a people around the globe.

Her socially charged music (alternative soul genre) might have taken center stage with the likes of the Black Eyed Peas, Maroon 5, and India Arie, but it is her work as an award-winning lecturer, activist and honorary U. S. Cultural Ambassador that has become perhaps her greatest achievement. Her official biography stated that since 2006, her humanitarian organisation (Change Rocks Foundation) has used music to empower children with critical life skills – education, health awareness, leadership and sustainable skills – to break the vicious cycle of global poverty.

This summer, she is expected to take her life-saving work to Nigeria, a country that has in recent times seen worst crimes against humanity due to the activities of the militant group, Boko Haram. The group’s recent move to kidnap nearly 300 schoolgirls has drawn international outcry and condemnations, and Yewande like Michelle Obama, has been speaking against the cowardice move.

I caught up with her recently during her maiden visit to The Gambia to partake in the 11th Edition of the International Roots Homecoming Festival. Thank you very much for granting this interview. You have been in The Gambia for a while to participate in the 11th Edition of the International Roots Homecoming Festival. As a first time comer, how has the experience been like for you?

Yewande: My experience in The Gambia has been like no other. I have had the honour of producing programmes in seven other countries across the continent of Africa, and every experience has been special. The people are consistently very gracious, hardworking, kind and really appreciative of the opportunity to exchange ideas for the betterment of Africa. But there is something very special, and I even refer to my friends back home as the place been quite magical and I struggle to figure out what exactly it is?

One of the things I think are very unique to The Gambia is it has to do with size perhaps – that sometimes just like with technology, the more advanced we become, the more disconnected we become from society. I think the size absolutely impacts on the closeness that people have with one another. I have met about 10 different Fatoumattas, 20 Lamins you know – everybody is connected in some special way.

The Gambia can become another Silicon Valley, why not! This is a continent that has given birth to so many innovative ideas that have changed the world that we are so often not credit with. From the descendants of Africa, [we have] Charles R. Drew who discovered blood plasma to an African who actually invented the ironing board (Sarah Boone), and the traffic lights (Garrett Augustus Morgan), to Philip Emeagwali, who is known as one of the fathers of the internet out of Nigeria. We are not given credit for the remarkable life-changing and life-saving contributions we have made to the world. So why can’t The Gambia be a Silicon Valley?

All of the knowledge and resources that we need are right here. Healthcare, I myself is somebody who have actually benefited from that in the United States. I was very ill with a heart condition just two years ago. But by the grace of God I actually had a healthcare that year because of the preliminary phase of Obama Healthcare Reform. We cannot expect our children to do well in school, to pursue vocations that have sustainability unless they are healthy, unless they have access to the tools that they need to thrive. I think that for those reasons, The Gambia is really a blueprint for what Africa can be. That’s a very inspiring analysis. Well you participated in the 11th Edition of the International Roots Homecoming Festival. What is your take on this initiative that’s attempting to reconnect Africans and those in the Diaspora?

Yewande: The Festival was inspiring and it was actually for me seeing all the stories that I read as a little girl; the stories of enslaved Africans that had the audacity to free themselves, to educate themselves, to free others, and make such inspiring and significant contributions to the world. The stories I read about Frederic Douglass and so on, who were born into slavery and became phenomenal contributors to this world. It was like seeing all those stories coming to life.

I have said a few times on this trip that I cannot undervalue this statement that people have come to know me as Honorary US Cultural Ambassador; they know me as an activist; they know me as a singer and as an award-winning lecturer. But I was nothing until I know my heritage. Not until I know the stories of where my ancestors came from; the trials they had to endure; the fight to overcome; and then to know how they thrived.

That’s a story that I have responsibility to continue with, in a way that not only celebrates all of their achievements, but honour the sufferings and sacrifices that they made to give me the opportunity to do what I do today and to be who I am. People very often ask me “why do you do this work”? You can be someone’s wife and be taking care of that, you can be a pop star; all the children want to know if you are married, no I am not – maybe that’s an option one day.

But I know is not by accident that I am in this position. I feel like I was born to do this work and it was the stories that I heard as a child that planted a seed in my young mind that I can do anything that I wanted to do and be anything that I wanted to be. That’s what we as Africans and those of us in the Diaspora are made of.

You will be sitting there waiting on someone to give you the okay to get off the plantation for the next 100 years, you will be waiting for someone to say you are a leader and you can do it. We have to look at the stories of our ancestors and know what is possible and that’s exactly what the International Roots Festival shows us in the Diaspora.

Anything is possible, it reminds us about where we come from, and many other stories that have such critical omissions, that we are lost about who we are. I am very honoured to be part of the Roots Festival and I am excited to share with all of my friends and colleagues in the Diaspora that this is something we shouldn’t do once in a year or every two years, this is a commitment we should be making all-year-round. You seem to have a passion for the promotion of girls’ education and during your recent meeting with the Gambia’s vice president, you indicated your impression with the country’s education system. How important is it to provide free opportunities for girls to enable them have access to perhaps one of the most important basic human rights – education?

Yewande: Providing our girls with equal access to education is as vital as air is to living! I had the understanding of my history when I was young, but without that education I would not have had the things that I needed to create my own stories. So often we are waiting on somebody else to save us; we are waiting on somebody else to validate our assistance; we are waiting for somebody to give us the opportunity and unfortunately in this economy, we can’t afford to sit still and we can’t afford to wait for anybody to give us a hand up. We have to be prepared and equipped with the tools that are needed for us to create our own path.

We now know that education is the only path to socio-economic freedom. This is what we have to do for our girls. But how is it delivered? This is very important. My foundation uses music and art as a tool to reinforce the importance of education to keep sustainable skills and to keep basic academic enrichment of subjects that are very critical like science, technology, engineering, mathematics. So music and art are an integral part of how we deliver the message. Yewande you are also the ‘First Lady of the Alternative Soul’. What can you tell us about this portfolio?

Yewande: Wow! I was recently signed by the Monarchy Records and my style of music is what I do call “alternative soul”. It’s a mixture of soul but it uses a whole lot of styles like hip hop, rock, world beat, reggae and anything that help me deliver the message. At a time early on when I started to write my music, I made a commitment that I will write music for all people and I think music has that power to connect us, inspire us and so I want to write music that inspires all. So I tend to draw on different musical styles to promote messages of hope, peace and love. I understand you are also a lecturer. How do you marriage all these responsibilities – activism, playing and teaching?

Yewande: You know it was a natural transition for me, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. But it’s another part of who I am. For me being a lecturer is being a bridge between music, history and socio-economic development. That is the bridge that allows me to create a platform that connects all three of those things and that’s who I am! I’m not a simple woman, but it all makes sense to me and I’m so grateful that people around the world that bring me it makes sense to them too.

We have for far too long undervalued the power of music and the art; we undervalued the impact that history can have on a child. So the delivery of blending music and history and socio-economic development is what I do as a lecturer. As a lecturer I lecture in several different universities and public schools around the globe. Obviously you are known for speaking bluntly about issues like wars, poverty, disease, that other artists shy away from speaking. What inspires you to develop a culture of saying it as it is?

Yewande: I guess I have the confidence to speak about these issues because it’s not something that I was told, it’s what I have seen with my very own eyes. When you take the time to step outside of your comfort zone, you tend to make a difference. I think it’s an issue we have within the Diasporans that we invest our dollars in travelling into Europe, Japan, Australia, Hawaii and even the Caribbean Island – something that is exotic before we invest in our own people.

And when I first came to Malawi in Africa in 2006 and I headlined the League Malawi Music Festival, I found out that it was benefiting the AIDS orphans. I jumped at the opportunity to teach the children, no one paid me to do it. In Africa, I see all of these sufferings and at that time Malawi had the third highest rate of AIDS in the world. You can’t see something like that and turn away. I came back to Africa many times on my own and the money that I get from lecturing is the money that I invest in my non-profit organisation.

And while I have been fortunate to get some grants from the US Embassies and the US State Department, much of it has come out from my very own pocket – that’s the choice I make because I know that I couldn’t look away and that’s why I am really encouraging so many of my peers to do. Unfortunately, we are guilty in the United States of driving the Mercedes Benz, BMWs and have a million dollar home, but I know people who have all those things and have never left the United States, who have never been to Africa out of fear, out of ignorance, out of not taking the time to really see the beauty that Africa has to offer with their very own eyes.

For me, I started going when I was very young and my mum made sure I had a better understanding of how the world works. When I was 11, 12 years old, she actually took me to the match against the apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington DC. As scared as I was, I went and I found power in that that maybe I can make difference. As a teenager, she didn’t allow me to just run the streets and do what other teenagers do – going to the mall or hanging out with their friends all the time.

She made sure I fed the homeless. As scared as I was, I did what my mother said trusting that there was something to learn and I did it. I learnt that one person can make a difference, but can’t promote the sustainable change unless they have other leaders that they can join with.

So I guess that’s really why I was tired of being lied to from European and American history books that have been found to be 70% inaccurate. Now what does that do to a child in the Diaspora? That means I got something that’s not valuable; that I haven’t done anything? So we have to speak the truth to promote healing. As the United States Cultural Ambassador, what are your specific roles?

Yewande: Doing what I do! I think it’s one of the best honorary titles I could be given and that is to be a bridge; a bridge for change on the highest and deepest level possible; to be a bridge for the voiceless; to say that your place in this world is not by accident – that you are necessary to this world and coming to the lives of especially the children who may be losing hope and to remind them that there are greater prospects in life for them. Tell us about the work of your charity – the Change Rocks Foundation (CRF) and some of the achievements it has registered thus far?

Yewande: The Change Rocks Foundation began in 2006 actually during my very first visit to Africa, Malawi. I was previously a director of Arts and Outreach for a performing arts organisation in Maryland. As you know I already have a great love for music and the history of social change. With all of that together, seeing with my very own eyes the level of sufferings happening here in Africa, but more importantly, the light that I saw coming on in the eyes of children that I work with, that’s what gave birth to CRF.

We simply do everything that I am doing here and that is using music and arts as a tool to empower vulnerable youths with critical tools they need to change the outcome of their lives. So we teach them sustainable skills development, leadership skills, conflict resolutions skills and so on. Also we just launched a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Maths) programme.

So what STEAM does actually is using music and arts to deliver the principles of arts science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. I have been very blessed to have introduced the programme in nine countries around the world, seven of them in Africa. We work with well over 10, 000 children on the continent and internationally around 50, 000 youths that we work with. I was very honoured in 2013 to receive the “Real Player Video Humanitarian Award” and also in 2013 I was the CNN Hero Award nominee. And do you have any plan to extend to The Gambia?

Yewande: Oh absolutely! That’s number one on the list (laughs). It has been a very interesting interview, but before taking leave of you, what are your last words as far as this interview is concern?

Yewande: (After a deep breath). What should I say that I haven’t said already? (laughs!) I was prepared for what I should expect when I came to The Gambian Embassy in the US, but my experience here has surpassed anything that I was told. America and the world has a lot to learn from what Gambia is doing here and I am so glad I got to see with my very own eyes that change is not only possible, but it’s happening right here in The Gambia. You may be one of the smallest nations in Africa, but the ideas are not only very large, but attainable and I have seen people stepping up to the challenge. Thank you very much for your time.

Yewande: Thank you too.

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera