“I am in service to the movement, the movement is never in service to me.”
In the words of Toni Cade Bambara, the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible. With “artivism” (the practice of combining art and activism) culture today, it can be seen how artists who engage with political content are less obligated to do more than just that.
It begs the question: what is the relationship between art and organizing today? What does it look like when both are successfully in conversation with each other? The interrogation of the symbiotic relationship between these two spheres is the importance of what 25-year old non-binary, New Afrikan community organizer (they/them pronouns), Walela Nehanda, is doing in their work as an artist and organizer.
On February 26th, Walela released which is their first body of work in three years. Their last release was a nine-track album which was titled Baptism. “It’s kind of ironic because this EP is called Resurrection. So, I guess there was a period where I died, and my art did as well.
Those titles were both completely unintentional… Baptismwas a nine-track album that I released on BandCamp, when my politics weren’t that developed. It’s sometimes annoying to hear it looking back.… I think the sound wasn’t doing the words justice and the words weren’t doing radical politics justice. Baptism also came out in a time where I started becoming really dissatisfied with my art and who was in control of it. … I just left, retired, and moved to D.C.”
It was during that time when Walela had completely stopped writing and began reflecting upon their observations of artists.
“I started realizing that artists are really selfish in general. The culture of art is very selfish and it’s very much like let’s talk about oppression and get a check cut for us, but then the material condition of people who are actually impoverished doesn’t change. I started realizing that there were limitations with my poetry: how am I talking about this but not doing anything about it?”
It was soon after that they began organizing with Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles, where they met their life partner, Akili. Akili was instrumental in Walela’s political education as they handed Walela book after book, including Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Assata, whichespecially appealed to Walela because it had poetry weaved throughout. Shortly after, Walela concluded that they wanted to be an organizer for the rest of their life and not do poetry anymore.
In the midst of planning a comeback in 2017, with various opportunities readily available, Walela was diagnosed with Phase 3 Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (advanced stage blood cancer). During that time, they reflected on “legacy,” and specifically, if they were to die what would they leave behind?
Soon after, Spit Justice was created. Spit Justiceis a weekly event at Hot and Cool Cafe in Leimert Park, CA. The goal of the event is to provide a space for community healing and education. “That was the first space in which I could enjoy being an artist again, and not be worried about views, marketing, dropping videos… I could just be who I am with my art and remember why I came into poetrywhen I was 19,” they remembered. One night, their partner and them were listening to music Walela had created over the years and made a split-decision to drop the three tracks as an EP the next morning.
Walela has spent years honing their craft by putting art and organizing in conversation, which is clearly reflected in their most recent work, Resurrection. “Being more aware now makes me more intentional about what I want to use my work for. I think that largely has to do with my politicizing too. I ask myself, ‘What am I going to write about?’ ‘What am I going to say and who am I going to share this with?’”
Each song represents a stage in Walela’s radicalization, and they hope that each song appeals to colonized people at all stages of their own political development. There are two driving points to the EP: (1) creating this content wouldn’t be possible without taking the time to read and organize and (2) it serves as a cathartic space and validation for the anger of colonized peoples.
“I think I’m seeing the ways in which it appeals to every type of colonized person. Usually the people who are really radical and organizers love, Concerning Violence. Resurrection is more for the emotional folks or musicians who really appreciate sound. Karma’s Kid is for a lot of my rad-lib friends who aren’t super political yet but can get behind the track and the vibe.”
Walela took us through the meaning of each song on the E.P and the process behind their first body of work in three years. In their life, poetry has usually served as a foretelling. They explained, “In 2015, I wrote a poem about me having cancer and I didn’t have cancer yet. I got diagnosed in 2017. I’ve been in relationships where it’s perfect, and then I’m writing the break-up poem with deep, vivid imagery of how it happens and then six months later it happens exactly how I wrote it.”
In April 2018, the Los Angeles County Police Department (LAPD) fatally shot 30-year old, Grechario Mack, who was schizophrenic and on new medication. Walela and their life partner, Akili, were at the mall just 10 minutes prior to his murder. The opening song, “Resurrection,” captured the haunting, dream-like realization that there is no place to hide from the violence that is inflicted upon colonized peoples.
The experience unhinged both Walela and their partner. While walking home, they felt in a daze thinking about how Mack was just one of many. They thought, “How many people have been murdered here? How many people’s graves are here,” both from the ongoing state violence, and even from America’s incipience?
Walela’s writing process is quite unique. It comes as a line that they can’t get out of their head—like a conduit from the ancestors; their words string the past, present and future simultaneously. “I just hear a voice in my head that’s literally not mine,” Walela explained. “That’s usually Spirit or an ancestor. It’s just a line. I sit and then the pen just goes and fifteen minutes later I have five pages. That in itself doesn’t make sense. I remember when I first started to do poetry, people were like how are you churning out three poems that are four pages each for four years straight? It was just that, it was channeling.”
They are inspired by artists for which the creative process seemed similar, like Tupac and Gil-Scott Heron. Walela reflected, “What would it look like to reimagine Gil Scot-Heron’s influence on hip-hop type poetry now? That’s what that was. It was a beat with the hip-hop and even trap vibe at some points. It still feels like home. It feels like it’s different and its familiar to us. I think it incorporates a lot of things that have been stolen from us, so deep down that sound unhinged a lot in people.” Walela found that their delivery was different than others, as if it was more than just one being creating.
“After I was diagnosed with cancer, Mama Shekinah Shakur was a huge figure for me. Largely because she was the one who saw that I was going to make it out alive and she’s a priestess,” highlighted Walela. “I went to go thank her. She wanted to help me with emotional healing and then she saw that I possessed qualities of a priestess. She told me that, essentially, a lot of colonized people, specifically Black people, have a lot of ways in which Spirit and our ancestors work through us. It doesn’t make sense but somehow, we’ve just got it. I realized poetry was that. It never was me. People who have heard my poetry have said that its so many people talking at once. It’s impossible for one being to do this…So, for Resurrection especially — I am aware those songs were not solely created by me at all.”
The song has rich layers of historic references. For example, the line, ‘Nehanda says, “them bones gon rise again,”’ is a nod to spiritual medium of the Zezura Shona people and head matriarch figure, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana. She was a key leader in the first Chimurenga which was a revolt against Mashonaland and Matebeleland being colonized by the British South Africa Company. In December 1897, she was captured, charged with murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Her dying words were, “My bones will rise again” and the prediction of the second Chimurenga.
Concerning Violence was written after reading “On Violence” by Frantz Fanon, which is a chapter from his influential book, Wretched of the Earth (1961), which analyzes the dehumanization that is felt by colonized peoples, at the individual and national level, and discusses the social, political and cultural implications of decolonization.
Inspired by the 2014 Concerning Violence documentary, which singer and songwriter Lauryn Hill narrates, Walela purposely evokes a similar soundscape as an homage to the documentary. “I wrote as a way to reconcile why when choose self-defense are called terrorists and how thatis a means of colonial logic to absolve settlers and a settler government from reconciling that they are ultimately the terrorists. That’s why I say, “What is terrorism… when you are the ones perpetuating it.” Walela calls this the ‘Why self-defense?” of the album.
With a subtle nod to Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Karma’s Kidis best described as a “time-traveling freestyle. “It’s me enacting the self-defense that I know my ancestors did. When I say, ‘I don’t care, Imma beat your a**,” and White people say, ‘Well, Imma call the police’ then I’m like ‘Do it,’” they shrugged.
“Because I’m gonna beat the badge off his chest—it’s the idea of slapping off the emblem of a settler-colonial state and putting on an emblem of self-determination, like a panther.”
The song was also heavily influenced by their ancestry which is rooted in Maroonage, a term used for enslaved Africans who escaped and formed their own settlements. Walela explained, “I have been thinking deeply about how Maroons have always been excellent at secrecy & surveillance tactics & utilizing counter surveillance on settlers as a methodology for liberation and to induce anxiety on a colonial government. Karma’s Kid is an exploration of me becoming the very thing that induces White panic: unafraid.”
Walela is currently working on releasing the music videos for the EP, in the order of Karma’s Kid, Concerning Violence and Resurrection over the next couple of months. They will release a nine-track album in the summer, with the EP as the bonus tracks. The production of an accurate soundscape plays a huge role in the process of creating their album. “The thing that I got most was that the EP felt like an experience—like they were in a dream and pulled back into reality. How do I continue to do that with sound? With my voice? Interludes? Samples? It’s a really cool, creative opportunity that I haven’t been excited about in years.”
The album exemplifies what it means to be an artist and an organizer, while proving that neither exists in a vacuum. It successfully led us through the phases of radicalization, with a surreal soundscape and vibrant wordplay. Resurrectionexpressed the affective component of radicalization Concerning Violenceposed the question of and answer to “Why self-defense?” and Karma’s Kidis the implementation of that reconciliation. Without taking the time to read and organize, the creation of this EP and Walela’s content as a whole would not have been possible. They have been and continue to hone their craft as their knowledge and experience as an organizer continues to build.
There is significance in reassessing and reimagining the role of the artist in organizing and in the dissemination of revolutionary politics. For Walela, their work is always a call to action. “The question is, what are we going to do about our circumstances?” asserted Nehanda. “Those feelings of anger or frustration are okay, and we have to ask, ‘What do we do?’ Our answers are rooted in self-defense and self-determination. How do we get that? By organizing.”
You can stream Resurrectionnow on and !
Andrea Baldrias graduated in 2018 from the University of California Santa Cruz with a B.A. in Sociology. Currently, she is a staff writer and podcast co-host for Black Voice News, project coordinator consultant for the establishment of the Black Worker Center in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, community organizer and DJ. Her passions and interests lie in accessible practices, conversations and strides toward the liberation of all colonized peoples everywhere.