Bumi Thomas: The Glasgow-born singer given two weeks to leave the country: Video, Photos

- in NEWS, VIDEOS, Woman in Jazz & Blues

Despite living much of her life in the UK, the jazz musician became a victim of the hostile environment policy. She talks about her fight to remain – and strengthening her roots

During lockdown, UK jazz artist Bumi Thomas has found space to spread out in her local park. “I take my guitar and howl,” she laughs. “I love it!” As the world starts to understand just how much black women feel they have to reduce themselves, it’s soothing to think of a carefree Thomas filling public space with highlife and jazz melodies.

She tells me about a Peter Adjaye livestream she’s been dancing to and speaks with what she calls a “transatlantic twang”, a blend of a Hausa accent from her years living in Nigeria, the place of her parents’ birth; a distinct international-school American lilt; and strands of Glasgow and London. Then there is the influence of Yoruba, “a very deep and brooding language that comes from a different part of your mouth and body,” she says. “I learned it later in life singing Fela Kuti songs. And there’s a connection to the blues I grew up singing, like Miles Davis and Muddy Waters.”

Last year, Thomas was preparing to bring that rich voice to bear in a performance in LA with the Moroccan visual artist Hassan Hajjaj. The next day, she woke up to a letter and felt the earth give way. Thomas was born in Glasgow in June 1983 after the Thatcher government’s British Nationality Act had come into force in January of that year; it stated that children born to parents from the colonies were no longer entitled to automatic citizenship. The letter informed Thomas – who has lived in the UK solidly since she was 17 – that she had 14 days to leave the country or make herself subject for deportation or detainment.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading” she says. “I felt nauseous. I sat down; everything was spinning. It was terrifying. There’s a section at the end that says: you do not have the right to work, you do not have the right to rent property, your bank account can be frozen. It’s like someone is suffocating you.” LA was off; she started making calls. “I picked up the phone and heard myself telling people, ‘I just got my refusal.’”

Community activists crowdfunded Thomas’s legal fees, created a petition that drew 25,000 signatures, and alerted the media. An immigration tribunal judge ruled in favour of withdrawing the threat of deportation, but she must wait two years before she can apply for British citizenship. Her status is still at the mercy of a divisive immigration policy.

‘It is all … emotional’ … Bumi Thomas.
 ‘It is all … emotional’ … Bumi Thomas. Photograph: Tatiana Gorilovsky

Further back, she discovered her father’s Afro-Brazilian roots dating back to the 19th century, and the musical hangover of Nigeria’s historical Portuguese occupation. On Lesso Lesso, she pays homage to this, singing in Portuguese, English and Yoruba, featuring a sample from her dad sent over WhatsApp voice notes. The loose translation of his Yoruba instructs her: be careful with your heart, go gently, gently.

Gently advocating for black joy feels radical in a world often unsympathetic to global black trauma. For Thomas, this moment of mobilisation chimes with her own personal battle with a system that has uprooted her sense of home.

“At times, the music feels likes protest,” she sighs. “When I sang before, it had meaning, but not the same resonance. I went to a Black Lives Matter protest a few weeks ago and someone had a boombox and played A Change Is Gonna Come. It is all … emotional.”

She takes a breath. “I’ve been feeling so much. You are forced to choose to shrink or expand yourself.” For now, she chooses expansion: taking her guitar to the park, singing songs that cross borders, restricted by nothing.

‘You are forced to choose: shrink or expand yourself’ ... Bumi Thomas.

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