IN CONVERSATION WITH ATTILAH SPRINGER
Attillah Springer, better known as DJ Tillah Willah is a Trinidad-born writer, environmental activist and stick-fighter in training. Between 2002 and 2013, she wrote a column covering a range of social, environmental and women’s issues for the Trinidad Guardian. Since 2005, Springer has also organized events around industrialisation and sustainability in rural Trinidad using the carnival and other indigenous festival arts as forms of protest or awareness building. She is also Director of Idakeda Group, a collective of women in her family creating cultural interventions for social change especially among women and youth in socially vulnerable communities in Trinidad and Tobago.
You are a writer, an activist and a DJ, better known as Tillah Willah. You’ve also worked as a journalist. How are these roles related and how have you been able to combine them?
Somehow they manage to work together. I don’t really see them as separate, just different parts of my personality I want to explore. I think that your place in the world informs the things you say do, choose to part take in. Everything I’m involved in gives me an opportunity to express some parts of my spiritual, political or intellectual selves.
Please also tell us about your work as Director of the Idakeda Group.
Idakeda was set up by my eldest sister Dara Healy and represents four generations of my family, starting with my maternal grandmother Ida Marie Guerra Arttley. She was a storyteller and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of herbs. My mother Eintou inherited her love of words and has devoted most of her life to work in theatre, poetry, storytelling and so on.
We engage in work that looks at African cultural retentions in Trinidad and Tobago specifically and how that places us in the wider context of the African Diaspora. So our work takes us to the US, London, Ghana, Nigeria, various parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. Aside from workshops, storytelling sessions, drum and song performances we have also produced plays, the most significant of those being the annual re-enactment of the Kambule riots which happens at 5 a.m. on the Friday before the carnival.
Whether we’re working as individual artists and cultural workers or together, we’re focused on an idea that Trinidad and Tobago has contributed to the world’s consciousness of Africa through our ideologues, through the steel pan, and through our masking traditions. Now we have three generations involved: my mum is the creative force, we produce/curate and manage and my niece and nephews have been performing on stage since they could walk.
“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”. In recent talks, you’ve highlighted such quotes from historical Pan African activists like Claudia Jones, in obvious reference to the fact that art has transformative purposes, other than the purely decorative. What can you draw from this quote, and how can art today, be used to change society positively, tackle current socio- political issues like xenophobia, and by extension, forward the cause of Pan- Africanism?
Art is everything. Culture is everything. I grew up in a house where art was always a political engagement. My father was imprisoned for sedition during the 1970 Black Power uprising in Trinidad and was a cultural worker as part of the Grenada Revo. My mum, as head of the West Indian Reference Library would block the road to host stick-fighting demonstrations and masquerade competitions for the surrounding schools. So yes, I grew up in a house of artists and cultural workers. I also learned from small that you could transform people’s lives simply by giving them a chance to be themselves creatively. It’s also about communicating to all levels of your society that your artisans, mask makers, drummers, pianists, and praise singers hold within them crucial bodies of creative knowledge. It’s about giving that pride of place, value and validation in a world that still identifies the folk forms of Europe as ‘classical’ and everyone else as folk.
Africa and its Diasporas across the Black Atlantic share some common ground, historically and culturally, yet these connections are not maximised—both sociologically and economically. What in your opinion accounts for this, and what can be done to foster greater south-south collaboration?
I often ask myself what happened to all of the great groundwork that was done by C.L.R. James, Henry Sylvestre Williams, Kwame Ture, Malcolm X and countless others who advanced an idea of Pan Africanism. We dropped the ball in favour of some navel-gazing nationalist agendas, which have ended up being more detrimental in the long run.
I’ll also put my neck out there and say that the conversation about diaspora is dominated by voices from the African-American experience. This is unfortunate because there’s so much going on in diaspora communities all over the world. I think that the frontline of the reopened south-south conversation between the Caribbean and Africa, especially Nigeria, is happening because so many of us are looking for a spiritual compass that has less to do with Christianity and Islam. We have people coming from Latin America for initiations into Ifa, as well as babalawos leaving Nigeria to travel across the region. This is bringing with it other types of industry, food, spiritual materials, traditional masquerade, and music. It’s very exciting!
In traditional African society, art embraces diverse forms like dance, painting, sculpture and installation to serve several functions including the religious and utilitarian. Does this have any bearing on your use of carnivals and other indigenous arts festivals as forms of protest and activism?
Absolutely! The more I read and research about masquerades, the more I see that protest and ancestral veneration can go hand in hand. Those Western polarities of what is sacred and what is profane do not actually exist. I guess because the masquerade is not governed by the same rules of engagement, the masquerade then has the option to be critical, radical, celebratory, an equaliser—so many things.
You are also interested in environmental sustainability, and have organized many events to promote this cause in your native Trinidad and Tobago and beyond. Can you please shed more light on these activities?
In my adventures as an environmental activist I have found that what works best is the root of protest in things that are familiar to the cultural landscape. It’s why I have declared myself a jouvayist—jouvay being that pre-dawn carnival celebration that is part protest, part celebration, and part artistic expression.
I landed in Ghana and felt like I belonged; like I made sense in a way that I don’t in most other places. It’s possible to sometimes feel like an outsider in the place that you’re from and I’ve definitely felt like that sometimes in Trinidad. My visits to Elmina and Cape Coast castles made me feel such a sense of power at what my ancestors survived.
Nigeria was astounding and emotional. I found myself frustrated by the fact that I felt like I understood Yoruba as a language in terms of its tones, punctuations, even the non-verbal communication although I couldn’t understand most of the actual lexicon. I went to see the Ifa Festival in Oyo and ventured to Ife and Osogbo and found myself deeply disturbed by the fear and loathing that so many Nigerians expressed for their indigenous spiritual systems.
I loved Lagos in the way that you love your loud slightly embarrassing aunt who knows you and loves you in a way that the rest of your family doesn’t.
Tell us about your research into memory, Yoruba spirituality and its intersections with Diaspora and wider philosophies. How have your travels throughout the pan-Yoruba world informed your research?
This journey has been part dream, part reality. I grew up seeing and experiencing a lot more than I could understand. There was a lot of shame and fear associated with African spiritual practice in my childhood. My mother was very involved in lifting the laws and other restrictions. It only occurred to me that I was part of a larger global movement on my first trip to Cuba in 2000. I was young and totally clueless but I was presented with an idea of myself that I had up to that time considered quite personal. Hidden almost. Here were people who were walking around openly proclaiming the orisas and that was a wonderful revelation.
It’s only in the past ten years that I’ve been putting pieces of those various puzzles together. I look for signs and I’m very much led in my journeys by ancestors, babalawos and a lot of random old people who help me in ways I can’t articulate. I know this all sounds very mysterious but I can only say what I feel like.
What next for Attillah Springer?
There’s lots happening, lots that I am involved in. Hopefully soon, I’m going to attempt to put my head down and do some writing. Honestly though, I don’t like talking about my future plans, it’s what my grandmother would have called “counting egg in fowl bottom”.
Images: Notting Hill Carnival – Frederique Rapier, Legba Veve – Maria Nunes, In Osun’s Grove – Avery Ammon, Jouvay 2016 – Abinta Clarke
November 16, 2018