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From exile to performance, activist Gayflor inspires hope

Exiled from her home country in the midst of civil war, Fatu Gayflor, renowned vocalist, founder and artistic director of the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, spoke to the Brandeis community on Thursday, March 5 to share legacies of loss, violence, resilience and hope. Now settled in Philadelphia, Gayflor stated, “Telling my story has helped me to be the strong person I am today.”

Gayflor is one of four acclaimed vocalists comprising the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, an initiative of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, which seeks to share experiences of domestic violence and post conflict reconciliation through song and performance. Joined by Tori Shapiro-Phim, director of programs for the Philadelphia Folklore Project, Gayflor shared her experiences as a former refugee and survivor of civil war.

In an exclusive interview with The Brandeis Hoot following her performance, Gayflor revealed her incredible journey through war-torn Liberia to her rise as an acclaimed vocalist inspiring hope in her audiences across the world. Born in the village of Kakata, Gayflor quickly rose to fame in her youth and was dubbed “Princess Fatu Gayflor, the golden voice of Liberia.” Exiled from her home country during the outbreak of civil war in 1989, Gayflor was forced to live as a refugee in neighboring countries for years. She also lost her infant child to the violence of the Liberian civil war. “Whenever I perform for people and share the story of my lost child, I keep on praying and I get that courage. That’s what I have learned,” Gayflor reflected.

While living on the Ivory Coast as a refugee, Gayflor continued to perform and had the good fortune to encounter the renowned AC Milan soccer player George Weah, who was also from Liberia. Traveling with Weah to Milan to perform in the World Food Program Festival, Gayflor recalls her immense gratitude and surprise when he bestowed her and her fellow vocalists with instruments and went on to sponsor her first album.

In 1998, Gayflor flew to the United States and began her life in Philadelphia, where she lived with her close friend Kormassa Bobo, who had grown up in the same village. It was there that Bobo introduced Gayflor to the Philadelphia Folk Club, remarking, “This is the birth of your second career.” She still recalls those exact words years later, and Gayflor expresses her immense gratitude to her dear friend.

Accustomed to performing in the ensemble tradition with the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change, Gayflor nevertheless stepped out of her comfort zone to share a solo performance with Brandeis students on Thursday. “I’m so proud of myself,” she stated. Remarking on how incredible the students were at engaging in the performance, Gayflor reveals that she felt as if she was transported back to Liberia, just for a moment. Following the event, students shared hugs and heartfelt expressions of gratitude to Gayflor for her inspiring performance.

When asked what she wishes to impart upon her audiences, Gayflor responded, “I want them to remember me as a Liberian woman first of all, who came to them and impacted them.” According to Yasmin Yousof ’15, Gayflor did just that. “Innovative pedagogies are rare—but so important! Fatu is taking dance and repurposing it to bring light to issues within her community. That’s so beautiful. It highlights that dance is more than unrehearsed, seemingly incoherent movements, but rather, something deliberate and strategic,” Yousof stated.

When asked to describe her experiences as an immigrant living in Philadelphia, Gayflor expressed the obstacles she and other Liberians faced. “I met people with my color, and I thought they would be there to give us hope … I thought they would jump to hold us,” she stated. Pointing to the terrible system of slavery which generations had suffered through in the United States, she described the lack of compassion from the racial groups she identified with as “one of my greatest disappointments.” In light of this experience, Gayflor expressed her desire to foster a dialogue between African Americans and African immigrants.

Gayflor’s passion for performance has passed on to her young eight-year-old daughter, Fayola Karblee. Shapiro-Shim commented, “[Fayola is] so talented, and just as charismatic as Fatu. The audience can’t keep their eyes off her.”

Expressing her sincere gratitude to her colleague Shapiro-Shim, Gayflor stated, “Having her on my side is so beautiful, she makes it so easy for me.” Gayflor also wished to express her sincere gratitude to Brandeis faculty and students who warmly welcomed her to perform and share her experiences. “We are hoping this will last forever. You cannot change anything in one day,” Gayflor stated.

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