Tayo Jolaosho died on October 21, 2021, months before their book was published in July 2022. We honor their work and memory with an interview with their dissertation advisor, Dorothy Hodgson, about their insights.
Interview by Deborah Durham
Deborah Durham: First let me say how devastating it is that the author themself cannot answer these questions: their book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song, is so full of life, and promise. One thing that struck me in particular about the book was how attuned Omotayo was to the embodied dimensions of performance, from toyi-toying in the streets to discomforts and assertions in South African offices. Their accounts of embodied political activism are so powerful because of their combined intimacy and acute insight. How did Omotayo come to have such intimacy with embodiment and performance?
Dorothy Hodgson: I share your devastation. I had the honor of serving as Tayo’s PhD advisor and mentor, and eventually their close friend. Although Tayo (who used the pronouns they/them) is no longer with us, I have the benefit of being able to cite their own words to answer some of these questions from their various application letters, personal and research statements, and other sources I have kept over the years. Their words will appear in italics.
Tayo’s extraordinary book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song, draws on their formative experiences of embodiment and performance growing up in Nigeria and later as a playwright, performer, poet, and singer at Simon’s Rock College of Bard, where they started at the age of 14. At Simon’s Rock, they studied music and integrated arts, won a national playwriting competition, and twice received the Division of the Arts prize, awarded by the faculty to recognize significant contributions to the division of Arts and Aesthetics.
In the course of my life, I have had the opportunity to experience the power and importance of the art both personally and within a process of community. Growing up in Nigeria, whereas in many other parts of Africa, the arts are not divorced from everyday life, my consciousness of and passion for the arts was nurtured. I remember how each morning my mother, my brother and I would gather to sing hymns; song and dance would also manifest in the course of our daily duties and activities, in our childhood play, in storytelling, etc. These artistic expressions served as our inheritance as members of a community.
This connection to the arts did not leave me when I came to live in the United States. In fact, it only deepened to the point of my going on to study music and integrated arts at an undergraduate level. When asked why I chose to pursue this course of study as opposed to “something more practical” my response came easily: music and performance saved my life, for me there’s nothing more practical than that. Music and performance enabled me to preserve a presence of mind, a sense of identity and functioned as catharsis for me during a traumatic period of living in a physically, sexually and emotionally abusive home. Singing songs written by others but which nonetheless told my story encouraged me and served as my resistance in that it became a source through which I could express my dissent without fear of adverse consequences. It enabled me to speak my dissent in the presence of my “guardians” but under the protection of someone else’s voice.
What Tayo called their “passion for creative expression” infused every aspect of their scholarly, professional and personal life. Some of my favorite memories are watching them start many presentations- whether their dissertation defense, a public talk, a conference panel – with song. They would close their eyes, take a deep breath, and start singing with no accompaniment – usually one of the songs dear to the activists they worked with in South Africa. Initially, audience members would be startled, but quickly entranced and moved as Tayo demonstrated their argument – the power of performance to disrupt and shape the world.
Deborah Durham: Following through on that, Omotayo engaged with issues of women’s rights, dignity and ubuntu, and concern with inequality though a variety of expressive media – could you tell us more about their writing and work outside of conventional anthropological ethnography?
Dorothy Hodgson: All of Tayo’s work pushed – and often broke – the boundaries of
so-called conventional ethnography. Two notable products were what they called “performance ethnography” and “digital anthropology”- explanations and examples of both are available on their still-live website.
As a performer myself, I have a unique opportunity to explore the benefits of ethnographic performance for research and dissemination, including through policy. Towards this, I developed a one-woman show based on my interviews and field notes with South African women activists. The show, “Three Women (Break The Silence),” subsequently expanded into an ensemble piece that examines what it means to find one’s voice amidst gendered repression and restrictions on women’s bodily and sexual autonomy. These themes—of harassment and consent, in particular—have risen to prominence in political debate and public discourse here in the United States and in South Africa, especially over the past two years with the resurgence of #MeToo as a worldwide movement. Being a work of theatre, Three Women highlights these concerns in non-didactic ways, seeking rather to open audiences to further dialogue and inquiry into African women’s lives and varied experiences. Following a staged reading at the renowned Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg in 2018, the play received a touring production in three South African cities in 2019.
In addition to their powerful show, “Three Women (Break The Silence),” which I had the pleasure of seeing them perform at the 2017 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders and Sexualities at Hofstra University, Tayo was also finalizing a digital anthropology project, “The Freedom Sung Project,” which they described as: an online interactive exhibit built from a digital collection of video footage and song recordings I made during ethnographic fieldwork in South Africa. The collection includes over 120 footage hours of unedited interviews and coverage of collective rallies that countered the invisibility experienced by politically marginalized communities. The online exhibit will serve as a companion site for [my] book … and will feature snippets of interviews with activists, edited video footage documenting protests and performances, select music tracks, images, and analysis.
Deborah Durham: There is, in You Can’t Go to War, a kind of disappointment in the possibility of social movements in such situations of extreme inequality and, for many, lack of basic resources. Movements get routinized; high-level protests generate low-level disputes and tensions; South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world (in Gini coefficient) and, nationally, its infrastructure is increasingly failing everyone. How did Omotayo retain a sense of hope in the face of this?
Dorothy Hodgson: As anyone who met Tayo, even briefly, recognized: they were an extraordinarily smart and gifted person: an accomplished playwright, singer, and performer; a brilliant student and scholar; a compassionate, engaged ethnographer; and a joyful soul. Tayo’s fierce, joyous engagement with the world and search for hope and meaning was also tempered, at times, by despair: not just about the dire situation in South Africa, but the brutal violence of structural racism, sexism and homophobia in the United States that they witnessed and experienced as a queer person of color. Like many people, their despair was amplified by the uncertainties, restrictions, loneliness, and losses of the COVID pandemic.
In the face of these at-times overwhelming challenges, they used their gifts and skills to try to understand the deep disparities of the world and do what they could to bring change – whether through their writing, teaching, singing, yoga, or activism. And they were brave- defying convention at every turn. They actively sought embodied ways to heal, hope and change the world: through learning and excelling at capoeira, becoming certified as a yoga instructor and starting a yoga practice, and in 2020, at the height of racial justice protests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, founding a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting healing and collective recovery for multiple marginalized individuals and communities. Tayo was also an exceptional teacher and mentor, committed to educating new generations of scholar-activists through engaged, experiential forms of teaching and learning. In all these acts, they embodied hope. I think the dedication of the book sums up the source of their hope: “For our dead, not a moment’s silence, but a lifetime of struggle.”