“I was just this happy person [as a kid], always wanting to be into things,” Fatu Gayflor recalls. “I never wanted to be silent on the side. No. When I entered, I entered with fire. Everybody would know I’m there.” Indeed, being noticed—as a 12-year-old—ended up changing the course of her life.
Fatu grew up in a village in Liberia, the granddaughter of a ritual specialist. Strong-willed and spirited, as she describes herself, she loved to sing—out loud. “I used to love just singing around the village. That’s all I used to love doing. I’d be singing any song that came from the older folks. When they’d pound rice, [or] sing a boyfriend/girlfriend song… Any song that they sang would be my song for the whole year.”
One day, the whole village was abuzz in anticipation of an impending visit of people from the capital city. To welcome them, a group of girls prepared a traditional dance performance. Fatu, not officially part of the program, nonetheless claimed a spot next to the action, and, as the performance began, improvised her own movements. One of the visitors was from Kendeja, the home of the National Cultural Troupe, the country’s premiere performing arts ensemble. She was touring the countryside in search of promising talent. Even though her attention was supposed to be on the group dance, it was only Fatu who caught her eye. “Who is that girl jumping around over there?” Fatu remembers her asking. “That’s the one I want.” Long story short: Fatu moved far away from her family, taking up residence at Kendeja, with accomplished and novice artists from all over the country. She was only 12.
Soon thereafter, her singing chops would propel her to the front of the pack.
Renowned South African songstress and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba was in Kendeja, and walked by while a “mini band,” as Fatu describes it, was practicing. “We were rehearsing and Miriam Makeba came and said to Peter Balla, Director of the National Cultural Troupe, ‘That girl [pointing to Fatu], if you really train her, she’s going to be very great in the future.’ This tall woman spoke very softly. She told them what she thought I would become if they put more time into my singing. And she left.”
A superstar recording and performing artist in Liberia, and, indeed, across West Africa, Fatu has four successful albums to her credit.
The United Nations capitalized on her voice and her fame at the height of the Liberian civil wars (1989-1996 and 1998-2003). Fatu was in exile with hundreds of thousands of her compatriots who were in refugee camps in Guinea and the Ivory Coast. Under U.N. auspices she traveled from camp-to-camp, singing a range of traditional songs, in all of Liberia’s 16 languages, to lift the spirits of those surrounded by violence and uncertainty.
Now, 35+ years after being plucked out of her village, Fatu is still rising to the top of people’s radars. Recently, she’s been recognized for her exceptional artistry and social activism with a Leeway Foundation Transformation Award (2013) and a Pew Fellowships in the Arts (2014). Since 2013, she’s been leading the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, a group of outstanding traditional artists from Liberia, all Philadelphia-based. The Chorus brings dramas and traditional songs to local Liberian audiences as a way of fostering dialogue, critical thinking, and action to address domestic violence. It was because she and the other singers paid attention to what was going on in their own communities that the Chorus came into being.
On her own, as well, she takes note of the experiences and needs of others, especially women, in her midst, and turns that awareness into comfort and inspiration. At a 2014 retreat of Mothers in Charge, an organization of and for parents who have lost children to gun violence in Philadelphia, for example, Fatu connected their suffering to hers. She, too, had lost a child. It was during the early days of Liberia’s civil war. She was at a recording session in the Ivory Coast when the war engulfed Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. In the ensuing chaos, her two-year-old son, who had been home in Liberia with family, was lost. “Losing a child is a pain that never goes away,” she acknowledged. During Liberia’s war, she’d sing about such loss during performances and, afterwards, be surrounded by countless women who also were devastated by the death and disappearance of loved ones.
“We all sat and cried. Together, we decided to speak out about what we knew, what we had experienced. Our problem did not go away, but it was o.k. for us to get up in the morning and smile. Because we had somebody to talk to.” In Philadelphia, she was doing the same with mothers whose tragedies had unfolded on this side of the globe. At the conclusion of the Mothers in Charge retreat, Fatu had everyone singing, and dancing, together.