bumi thomas singer songwriter UK

Bumi Thomas.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview: Bumi Thomas Was Given 14 Days to Leave the UK

We speak with the British-based singer-songwriter about her fight against a "hostile environment policy" and the release of her latest EP, Broken Silence.

There's a lot of vulnerability and soul packed into Bumi Thomas' latest EP. Given the surrounding context of a legal battle, Broken Silence was released, in Bumi's words, "at a time when microcosms of institutionalised racism have garnered so much momentum highlighting the domino effect of systems of oppression that have led to this powerful, global resurgence of the Black lives matter movement."

The inspiration behind this EP came at a time when Bumi faced a legal battle to stay in the UK, after receiving a letter from the UK Home Office to leave the country within 14 days. Understandably causing huge stress, this case turned from an isolated incident to national news, with 25,000 people signing her petition and raising money via crowdfunding for legal fees.

We spoke with the British-based singer about all of this below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

With your EP release falling around the time of the Windrush commemoration, do you find it particularly poignant that your record came out during this time period?

Well, my EP was released on June 12, which is also one year to the day I received the refusal letter from the Home Office and the whole saga that happened with the tribunal. So for me personally, it was important to put it out and demonstrate that something positive and meaningful came from that experience. Intuitively I knew it was the right time to release the EP. I had in no way anticipated that in June 2020 there would be all this activity (other stuff happening) with black empowerment riots, immigration, migration, Windrush day falling on this day, understanding the correlation between these different experiences. Coincidentally I put in a Windrush application as well that was refused and I thought about the level of adversity that applies to citizens of the Commonwealth such as Africa and the Caribbean. I think it reveals a lot of misconceptions about the realities of migration. There were multilateral agreements and promises made between nations in exchange for patriotism and sovereignty with the rights you'd be entitled to and they would be passed over from generation to generation. Majority of the time these erosive alterations would be changed via eradicating policies with amendments without informing the public about them. So I didn't intend for this to align so powerfully with these movements, however organically it has.

Bumi Thomas Ft Mr Thomas Lesso

And with what's been going with the BLM protests as well, it seems to dovetail much more in terms of timing.

Absolutely. When we look at the microcosm and macrocosm when it comes to race relations, there has been a monumental shift. We have to address the institutional framework and policies that have been established to repress the Black experience in the Americas and Europe. It's very intense. Britain is one of the few countries that have the right to detain a migrant indefinitely. Most of the time, these people fall between the cracks of the legal system because they belong to a grey area. Using myself as an example, I was born in the UK and I've always understood myself to be British. Being then confronted with the opposite of that with a technicality based on bureaucratic administration was inconceivable. There were also some questions raised about racism in the US versus racism in the UK, which was really interesting because in Britain, historically it's been more about colonizing land mass and resources. It is not an attack on the physical body, like it is in America where it was more about generations of people being colonized and assimilated.

The song "Black Child" for example speaks through that experience of the notion of being stuck between worlds, where on one side of the equation feeling it's your right of entitlement and on the other hand, feeling that it isn't, that it's a fabrication and you're going back to where you came from, even though the historical bonds are so deeply embedded and entrenched that it's also impossible to separate.

When you received your letter from the UK Home Office, what were the initial emotions running through your head?

When I got the letter, a part of me almost felt that there was going to be a positive outcome and it was just a bureaucratic process. When I saw that it was a refusal, it took a few minutes to process it. I was really, really confused and felt a chill and asked myself 'what's going on and what are the implications of this?' Because not only did they say that my application to stay had been refused, but I had 14 days to leave the country voluntarily or I would be forcibly removed. In order to avoid these outcomes, I needed to appeal, which would be taken to a judicial decision and if I failed to do so, I would be detained and lose the right to work. It was really hostile language. Initially I didn't know what I was going to do, but I needed to get legal representation ASAP and file an appeal so that I could strategize and know what to do next. Prior to that, on the day before the hearing, I had a creative meeting with a collective of artists, we were supposed to come to Los Angeles for a show at the Ford Theatre and perform for Hassan Hajjaj's My Rockstars Experimental Vol 5, which took place on the same week as the hearing.

It was almost like everything changed. The trajectory I was on career-wise came to a halt. The foundation that I built here, the community, my friends, my sense of wellbeing and identity was now being criminalized. And part of that criminality comes from this existing system that wants to limit freedom of movement making it unbearable for people of color. All of this fueled my appetite for clarity, to enforce and know my civil rights. So I started a campaign to raise awareness about it and raise funds too because I spoke to different lawyers about it and their quotes were astronomical. It garnered so much momentum that it became a nationwide campaign here in the UK and we got petitions signed by 25,000 people across Britain,Wales , Scotland and Ireland and, this is something that was constitutionally wrong. The London creative community really stood up for me. Part of the reason why the judge ruled in my favor was because he said it would not be in the public interest of the British people given my talent and contribution to the creative and art industries. Even then it was so weird. I was writing some songs for this EP and that went on hold because I was fighting my life. I released one of the songs from the EP Fire in July of 2019, it got absorbed by the turbulence and I'm so glad it has a new lease of life through Broken Silence. I'm still processing all this and figuring it out even now! I'm still waiting for the final decision from the Home Office at the end of this month.

Let's talk about the music, you've got a new EP out, what was the overall concept?

The title of it, Broken Silence, actually came to me in a dream. And I woke up and thought it was a message from God! It just made perfect sense because it's really about me reclaiming my voice. It's been a while since my last release and I really wanted to make music that was honest, music that I am in love with and I will continue to love. Plus, I wanted to draw strands from my different influences sonically in terms of genres and musical eras. For example, the track "Soul Harmony," is an homage to the jazz sensibility that shaped my musical creativity. I'm a lover not a fighter! At my core setting, it's all about being holistic as far as the power balance is concerned.It's about understanding harmony as an important exchange between the masculine and the feminine principle, especially in the context of working with each other. Randolph Matthews is the guest artist on this amazing piece. When you listen to the sounds of trumpets he is making these incredible sounds with his mouth! He's a genius and added all these rich layers of voice, vibe, bass that's all Randolph! For me, it was a beautiful representation of what I wanted to express. It is inspired by the historical presence of Queen Nefertiti because she was able to create this progressive capital in a time that was very volatile, where there were thinkers, scientists, artisans, creatives who came together to build this, almost utopia, but it was a functional space. The co-creation is what Soul Harmony represents.