the gentlewoman

The Reader

Amina Gichinga wants to give people a voice. In May 2016 the musician, singing teacher and community activist ran for the Greater London Assembly, a watchdog electoral body that scrutinises the activities of the Mayor of London. She stood for the Take Back The City group, champions of grassroots political engagement among London’s most neglected communities. Though she may not have won the City and East seat this time, her rousing mix of song and politics has helped captivate disillusioned Londoners. Eliot Haworth met the indefatigable 26-year-old for a stroll around her stomping ground Stratford in east London.

Amina Gichinga

Eliot: Do you enjoy being the public face of Take Back The City?

Amina: It’s one of the hardest things about the role, because power dynamics can be very real and difficult to manage. We're a horizontal organisation. It’s about people power not the individual. There are so many amazing people in this group. We had an absolutely tiny budget for the London Assembly campaign and canvassed non-stop, organising community events throughout the year – all in our spare time. That said, many of the things I’ve done since then have come off the back of being a spokesperson for Take Back The City, from chairing a post-Brexit panel with Caroline Lucas and Vince Cable to speaking on Billy Bragg’s stage at Glastonbury this year. So for me, it’s about managing that balance between acting as part of a group and developing as an individual.

E: Let’s talk about your life outside of politics.

A: I’m a singing teacher and music educator. I used to be a support worker for kids with learning disabilities in schools, and then I started combining that with singing and eventually I was being recommended for singing sessions in other schools around Newham. I now work with students aged between 4 and 18 across all of London. The classes vary from one-on-one vocal lessons to larger group sessions.

E: Your singing skills played a big part in your campaign, didn’t they?

A: We knew nobody was going to show up for a talk on housing policy so we held lots of singing workshops where people were invited to come along and join in. Through that we would raise the issues we wanted to address. It was like a party conference, but with good music and food. I’ve sat on political hustings before – they’re so dry. Throughout the campaign I had to keep reminding myself, “I’m not a politician, I’m a music teacher.”

E: Maybe you shouldn’t try to separate them.

A: Perhaps. I’m realising that for me to be happy whatever I do will have to involve both music and activism. I just can't stay away from either of them. After the campaign I tried to take a break from politics for a while, but then Brexit happened and immediately I was back, organising a songs of resistance workshop outside Stratford station. It just felt like a natural response. So often, people are told to be one particular thing and it comes to define them. But I don’t believe in that. Even being in this political space as a young black woman is unconventional. So the aim is to keep challenging those preconceptions in some way.

E: What’s it been like, growing up in the midst of the rapid change here in Stratford?

A: When I was 16 I think I was the only person in my GCSE English class who wasn’t cheering when we found out that we'd won the Olympic bid in 2005. I just knew how the development of the Olympic Park was going to affect my neighbourhood. Quickly after that came the Westfield Shopping Centre, then the new E20 postcode was created for the Olympic zone and families and businesses were pushed out from the local estates. People always ask me when I became political – it’s hard to grow up in this city and not be political. I certainly didn’t become so through university.

E: What do you mean?

A: I studied international relations at Goldsmiths University for three years and I expected it to be a really diverse and open-minded school, but instead I just found it incredibly mono-cultural and elitist. I tried to get off campus at every opportunity I could. That’s how I eventually got involved in Take Back The City. When I joined, I finally felt like I had found a space that was welcoming and something that I could put my energy into.

E: What’s next for you then?

A: Something super boring and domestic actually. I’m moving loads of stuff into my boyfriend’s mum’s loft. We’re getting a piano delivered tomorrow so I urgently need to make room for that.

Interview by Eliot Haworth. Photograph courtesy of Amina Gichinga. Get involved! More information about Take Back The City is found here. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!