Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview With Vocalist Zaye Tete


Zaye Tete, 2018 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

Liberian vocalist, composer, and dancer Zaye Tete (2018) spoke to us about her artistic development in Liberia, music’s transformative power, and her fondness for Paul Simon.

Tete’s artistic work is dedicated to sharing and reinterpreting traditional music and connecting Liberian Americans with their heritage across generations. She is currently working on a piece that draws from the songs and choreography of African slaves. “The ideas of slavery were wrong, but the lessons it taught should be told,” she says. “If a society does not know where it comes from, it may not know where it is going.”

Zaye Tete Q&A Block 1

Zaye Tete Q&A Block 2

You describe the traditional songs you perform as being full of “beautiful metaphors and parables [that] help us consider choices about how to be in this world, and help ground us as immigrants.” Can you share a favorite song lyric and what it means to you?

One of my song lyrics I love is in the Dan language and is called “Leh Ne Tee,” which means, “The world is a dark place.” The reason I selected this lyric as an art piece in my work was that the world is full of uncertainties. I was alluding to this specifically for the African setting where I grew up. Children no longer listen to and respect their parents. Authorities are no longer respected, and above all, more people are living lawless lives during this twenty-first century. To me, there are consequences to every decision one makes. People complain about marriage failures, financial insecurities, joblessness, and many more issues. Why would one expect positives when one is adopting a negative lifestyle? This is my way of cautioning people to follow rules of law and to remember that when you do good, good luck comes to you, and when you choose to do the wrong things, bad luck comes to you.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My most treasured possession is my ability to sing and dance. From what I notice, most contemporary artists either sing well or dance well. Just a few artists do what I do best: sing well and dance well at the same time. 

If you could collaborate with anyone alive today, who would it be?

Paul Simon, an American artist, identified with South Africans during their quest to defeat apartheid. Although Simon did not physically participate in the struggle against white minority rule, he composed music and performed with many leading South African artists, and this gave a boost to the artists of South Africa. This shows that music has no boundaries. 

In reflecting back to the beginning of your career, what is the most useful advice you have received?

“Treat everyone in the arts with respect.” When I was taken from my village to Monrovia, the capital, I was given to a lady who was a total stranger. She was the matron of the dormitory. She was also the dance teacher. I stayed with her until I turned 18, when I started living in the dormitory room by myself. Every time she came to the practice ground, she would always repeat this statement: “Treat everyone with respect in the field of arts.” 

One day, I asked why she was always saying this. Her answer was good: “Treat others with respect in the field of arts because you may learn from them.” Since then, I’ve been living with this advice, and it has been serving me well.

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