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Homegoings #2: Senayit Tomlinson (Transcript)

A thin grey line.

A conversation with Senayit Tomlinson on Black trauma, music and getting through.

This is the second installment of Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State that features conversations with musicians of color who live in Vermont. Follow the series here as we release new episodes weekly through June 15.

Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode here. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.

The transcript

There aren’t any Black people in Vermont.

I’ve heard it my whole life. Maybe you have, too.

And while yes, Vermont is one of the whitest states in the union, we are here.

And if actively seeking out BIPOC artists in Vermont has taught me anything, it’s that not only are we here, we span the state.

We are Vermont.

But Senayit Tomlinson actually straddles two states daily and is about as rural as rural can get.

[Senayit] I am blessed and cursed to be a steward of 200 acres of unseeded Abenaki land in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that my parents bought in 1975.

This land spreads from Orford, New Hampshire, across the Connecticut River, to Bradford, Vermont. Senayit, who is a Black identifying Ethiopian songwriter, has her studio on the Bradford side.

She says her name, Senayit, may take you a minute to get right, but it’s all good.

[Myra Flynn] I loved how you said sun and night is really the best way to pronounce it. How do people typically say your name?

[Senayit] Oh, my goodness. So many ways. Folks will like part of my mom's family still calls me Son-Ay-It. And I don't know a bunch of stuff or they just sing Phil Collins to me Tonight, tonight.

Senayit made her way onto my musical radar maybe 15-years ago, playing music at the former listening room Langdon Street Cafe in Montpelier.

And she’s hard to forget.

Yes, she’s Brown. She’s got a head full of jet-black curls, and she’s covered in tattoos.

But what stands out to me most is how unapologetically genre-less her music is. Her website lists a slew of musical peers for comparison like Radiohead, Florence and the Machine, the Black Keys, and Led Zeppelin —all wildly different to one another. And when you do search for her genre? You see her self-described sound as alternative rock, jazz soul.

[Senayit ] Oh, my goodness. So I've tried to find the most like, all-encompassing ones. Because it's, it is really hard, mostly when people are like, Wow, this is awesome music. I'm like, so what do you think it is? Like, where do I go?. So it's just weird.

[Myra Flynn] I love that. I also love the idea of weird as a genre.

[Senayit] Yeah, totally...

[Myra Flynn] It’s not so defined, yeah.

Welcome back to Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State. I’m Myra Flynn. Every week we’re sharing conversations with Vermont musicians of color, and taking a deep listen to one of their songs. Today, I talk with Senayit Tomlinson.

Before we dove deeper into our discussion, I described my vision for this series to Senayit. How, I see Homegoings as a house, built from Black response, in a post-Floyd era. And how I can almost literally see the framework for this house as feelings.

Feelings like rage, mourning, healing, and joy.

But Senayit had a fifth corner to add to my metaphorical structure—

[Senayit] Sometimes also just like numbness, like in transition.

Numbness. Of course. Perhaps it's the door to this house. Perhaps it’s how we get through.

[Senayit] So these, these like four corners that you talk about are things that I feel like I've been going through for years. ….about 10-years ago, when these first videos of police murders of Black people were starting to just show up on our social media, or at least I was on social media more and noticed it more, that we were in a place where people weren't paying attention, it just wasn't that much. So we would get together at my house, and have our own beautiful funeral service, and cry and rage and heal it, we'll do it all, you know. The reason I was feeling it, maybe, and some of us were feeling it more than others was that we had to figure out the way through it. Because we had to get to a place where we were able to breathe. Like we couldn't just be in that place of anger or that place of fear.

Senayit and I agree that the words self-care, for Black folks, can be pretty triggering. It’s almost like a cultural memo only white folks seemed to get screaming “It’s ok to not be ok! Stop, relax, take a bath, go get a massage.”

You almost want to scream back: I’m trying to survive. It’s gonna take more than a massage!

But, I hadn’t totally considered that another way to achieve self-care, as this is the way for Senayit, lies in caring for others.

That 200-acre farm she inherited from family, has become a vehicle for a greater mission of respite and sanctuary for BIPOC folks. She calls the place Mountain's Way Sanctuary, and she’s dubbed her mission: Radical hospitality.

[Senayit ] I have done a few different energetic training and apprenticeships. And so one of the things that really helps feed me is opening that up for like my Black friends and family and indigenous friends and family to come in. And like it's an you know, healing work. To me what it feels like when you're, you're doing it with other BIPOC folks is like way more of an exchange, and that feeds me.

And Senayit really does practice what she preaches when it comes to hospitality. She takes care of you, like a sister, like an auntie, like a mama.

Even when I had to disappear for two minutes to let my dog out—

[Myra Flynn] This home life is a real one! Here we go.

[Senayit] I think it's awesome, though...

She made the effort to make me feel OK about it. She took care of me.

[Senayit] At some point, at some point, maybe I'll like zoom with you at my house. And you can be like, Oh, sh--.

[Myra] (Laughs)...got it!

And then she picked right back up where she left off.

At pain.

And that’s the thing. If you don’t look closely, you might miss that this way of being is an indicator of how close to the surface Black trauma really lives. Like Senayit does here, we can pick it up, put it down, make a joke, and then access it again--seamlessly.

[Senayit] This was one of those places of being like, okay, we're gonna either explode or implode. Right? Rather gonna do some harm outward, or we're gonna start being sick inwardly, if we don't figure out a way to channel this into art?

There’s a myth about us music makers. I say us ‘cause I’m one too. The myth is that we are living out our dreams and passions, only joyfull, only happily, every day.

But the truth is that music doesn’t always offer that reprieve. Sometimes, especially now, while there is such a spotlight on this small and special group of BIPOC Vermonters, the work of making music can feel taxing. And not always because of the gig itself, but because of the audience.

[Senayit] I felt like I was just performing people who weren't paying attention, like, how can you know that this stuff is going on, and then still go out to see a Black performer and like, not get, you know, not care, or, or just be more in need of, like protecting yourself and burying your head in the sand than it is to actually recognize like the history of Black people in American music as being American music?

You’d have to work really hard to bury your head in the sand when listening to Senayit’s music. The song of hers we are featuring in today’s episode is a powerful one. It’s called “Hard Reign” (that’s r-e-i-g-n).

And the music video that accompanies it is hard to watch.

In fact, though I recommend watching it, I feel the need to give a trigger warning to my fellow community. It intertwines raw footage of police brutality with the sound of live gunshots, tear gas attacks and many pictures of Black people who have been killed.

It’s a whole, lot of truth.

More from Brave Little State: Homegoings: Bobby Hackney Jr. On Rough Francis' Punk-Rock Inheritance

I brought up my four corners again--rage, healing, mourning and joy, and asked Senayit where this song lives, within them.

Her answer? Every, single one.

Even joy.

[Senayit] And it was like the juxtaposition of going through all of this. This constant trauma because you can't call it PTSD when it's always happening like, you just can't.

Because life is still happening, right? Senayit said that even when she was navigating this art and trauma, she was also falling in love.

[Senayit] Um..with this like….new love. So, I would say that there is also this is like maybe that passion you were talking about? The joy that comes in in these like very like, where you like you can't help but be present because everything else is like too much.

And Senayit has some homework for us, regarding our accountability, our responsibility, and the Homegoing of Geroge Floyd.

[Senayit] We bear witness. I mean, I think that's the biggest piece. And that's why people don't want to look at it, is the witness. Like that this did not happen in an empty street.

We said goodbye with that same, nearly familial love, I spoke about earlier.

[Myra Flynn] You are a force.

[Senayit] Well, I'm just I'm so grateful for you doing this. And I'm grateful that you're back around.

[Myra Flynn] Yeah, thank you, it's nice to know that there are folks like you here doing the work that you're doing. It feels a lot safer for me to move back and to have my daughter here. You know, and my Black family here,

[Senayit] I am so thirsty all the time. I have no shame I collect. I collect brothers and sisters. So like we have a bigger community than when there was when you left. And I cook Ethiopian food and big meals. So I'll be letting you know when I do that.

Let’s listen to “Hard Reign.”

[“HARD REIGN” by Senayit]

Credits

Thanks for listening to Homegoings, a special series from Brave Little State. We’ll be releasing a new installment every week for the next few weeks, so keep an eye on your feeds.

To see a photo of Senayit Tomlinson, and check out the video to ”Hard Reign," head here.

I produced this episode and composed the Homegoings theme music. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane and...me! Our digital producer is Elodie Reed and the executive producer of Brave Little State is Angela Evancie.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

We’ll be back soon. Until then, remember: Be brave.

the word homegoings written in white lettering, with a yellow crown over the "m," surrounded by cutouts of black and white lilies and carnations
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Homegoings is a special series from Brave Little State that features conversations with musicians of color who live in Vermont — about Black grief, resilience and music.

Follow the series here as we release new episodes weekly through June 15.

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