Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
This week, we speak to Tokay Tomah (2016), a traditional African vocalist, composer, and recording artist who has dedicated her career to inspiring dialogue about critical issues facing Liberian immigrant communities. As a singer and dancer with Liberia’s National Cultural Troupe, Tomah toured throughout Liberia and internationally in the 1980s. During Liberia’s civil war, she was active in peacebuilding and reconciliation work with the United Nations. After immigrating to the US in 2010, Tomah became a founding member of the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, which includes a core group of Liberian singers and dancers: Pew Fellow Fatu Gayflor, as well as Marie Nyenabo and Zaye Tete. Tomah is the recipient of a Transformation Award (2014) and an Art and Change Grant (2013) from the Leeway Foundation.
How did you become an artist?
While making a nationwide tour, former Liberian president, William R. Tolbert, stopped in my hometown. Part of his mission was to select talented kids to join the National Cultural Troupe. To prepare to welcome him, young people rehearsed some traditional dances. I only knew a little bit from my experience as a member of an elementary school dance troupe, but I decided to join in anyway. After the presentation of the program to the president, Mr. Tolbert himself chose me. At 10 years of age I left my family and friends and moved to a kind of artists’ village on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where I lived with all the other members of Liberia’s National Cultural Troupe. I was mainly a dancer, but later also became a back-up singer to one of the biggest stars in Liberia.
When civil war broke out [in 1989], we had to run. The members of the troupe and I lost track of each other for a while. I returned to the artists’ village, even though war was raging around me. I felt that that was my home and my fellow artists made up my family. Those of us who made it back started focusing our art on issues of war and peace. I started to compose songs, and became a lead singer as well. One of my songs, “We Need Peace, No More War,” was adapted by the Liberian women’s peace movement, and became an important part of their rallies. The leader of that movement, Leymah Gbowee, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Throughout your career, you have used music as a vehicle for building peace and generating collective strength in the Liberian community. In your experience, what makes music an effective tool for raising awareness and inspiring social change?
The voice, sound, and lyrics are all magical tools in getting to people’s hearts. People relate to music faster than you’d expect. Music has a great capacity to deliver a crucial message, or even a number of messages, in a very short time. Part of the reason I’ve relied on music and dance to inspire Liberians to pay attention to critical issues is that traditionally, these arts have been important means of communication for our communities. Music and dance start dialogues, and motivate people to take action.
You have said, “I sing because I want to pass my knowledge of traditional songs on to new generations of Liberians.” Why is it important to preserve these traditions?
There are many aspects of our traditional culture that I think contribute positively to society. For example, where I come from, local conflicts are settled in a unique way. People gather in a designated hut to present different sides of a story. Elders consider the opposing perspectives and offer paths to resolution. Some knowledge and information offered by the elders might be delivered in the form of parables. Songs and dances can also be important parts of the proceedings. Traditional Liberian songs educate and inspire. At home, children sit and listen to their parents telling traditional tales and singing songs that communicate values that we treasure—values related to being a respectful member of a family or community.
The continuity of some of our traditions, no matter where we end up in the world, helps us keep a strong sense of identity. Traditions help us know where we come from. We can reach out and experiment and innovate from a solid base, understanding what is most precious to us.
What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?
My biggest motivator as an artist was the 15 years of civil war in my country. That changed my approach to my art. I began to see how our traditional music could help break down some barriers, and I felt it was essential that I find a way to contribute to the ending of the fighting. I performed for civilians and soldiers, especially in areas of the country where there was heavy fighting. And I continued to compose. Even after the war, the situation was terrible. Children were orphaned and hungry. So I wrote a song, in a traditional style, to call attention to their plight. Now I continue to be motivated by the power of my music to contribute to efforts to end violence. Through my work with the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, I encourage women in our community to speak out and ask for help if they are experiencing violence in the home.
My biggest fear is the loss of our traditions. With that loss we lose the opportunity to work towards peace through these types of songs and dances that have been so meaningful for Liberians through the centuries.
Do you think about your legacy?
I do think about my legacy. I hope that my music has a positive impact, and that whatever constructive changes result will lead to better and better things, for individuals, families, and communities.