Adisa Jelani Andwele was born Michael Richards in the village of Rockhall, St Thomas, one of the first free villages in Barbados. He is a well-known rhythm poet.
As AJA, Adisa is one of the pioneers of performance poetry in his country Barbados and is a leading exponent of the art form in the Caribbean. A highly respected cultural personality, he has been at the forefront of many artistic initiatives and cultural events in Barbados. He has also written on the development of Barbadian music and culture.
He first made an impact on the local cultural landscape in the field of music as a trombonist, before devoting his creative energies to poetry. He started writing in 1979 as Michael Richards, presenting his works in a pure literary format, but began experimenting with performance poetry from 1982. His early collections include Riot in the Land and Rhythm and Roots.
Initially, AJA utilized percussion instruments in his poetry performances. However, in 1990 he took performance poetry in Barbados to another level by incorporating full musical accompaniment in his presentations. This move led to his first album, Mike Richards & The Re-Emergence Band Live.
His second album, Conscious followed in late 1993, which reflected his continual growth and maturity as a performer and writer. By then he had changed his name to Adisa Andwele, and was performing on the same stage as leading entertainers in Barbados and through the Caribbean. His works also appear in music video format in Barbados, St. Lucia, Trinidad and other Caribbean territories.
In 1994 AJA joined forces with the world-renown Eddy Grant, which coincided with the start of Ringbang music. By 1996 he had produced seven tracks under the Ringbang banner on Eddy’s Ice Records label.
In 1998 he decided to return to mainstream poetry, in terms of structure and lyrical content, but with a different music feel. As a result, he teamed up with Barbados' premiere contemporary jazz band, Jamari and the partnership created a fusion of Caribbean rhythms with jazz, which he calls Saf. This partnership produced his third solo album (CD) entitled Doin' it Saf, January 2000.
Over the last two years, he has begun to make an impact on the international ""World Music"" and poetry scenes. AJA has performed at the Millennium Dome in the UK on August 24, 2000; the London Jazz Festival in November 2000; the Dunya Festival in Rotterdam, Holland in May 2001; Vienna, Austria on July 4, 2001; and at the Tanz Folk & Dance Festival in Rudolstadt, Germany from July 6-8, 2001.
Antiquity, a collection of both his poetry and his 'chants' was published by Peepal Tree in 2002.
The Eastern Caribbean’s UN Spokesperson for Poverty & Peace - Adisa Jelani Andwele – first emerged from the Barbadian culture in the 1980s as a musician and poet but it wasn’t long before his need to deal with world issues eclipsed his artistic desires. When AJA began to devote his time to raising aid for developing areas, he used his poetry, and later photography, as a tool to heighten awareness for the various social and economic problems of some of the poorest and war-torn areas of Africa, South America and the Middle East. His unique approach to spurring social change gained him unprecedented support from both the world of politics and the arts.
AJA first made an impact on Barbadian culture in 1982 when he began experimenting with performance poetry and by the end of the decade his focus was purely on poetry that dealt with social issues and world problems. AJA felt that the message in his poetry was not being translated powerfully enough which led him to add a musical background as a more resonant backdrop to his words. In 1993 he produced the acclaimed album ‘Conscious’ which took him to the same stage as leading entertainers of the Caribbean and saw him joining forces with Eddy Grant for Ringbang Music.
Despite his success, AJA increasingly felt that writing and performing poetry wasn’t enough and in July 2002, while on board a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Barbados, he had the inspiration to actually change the situations he wrote about. This was a major turning point in his life and the realisation that he could write poetry all day and all night and there would still be people in the world starving to death was too great to ignore. Thus, the next couple of years saw AJA’s message through poetry turn into direct action through raising aid and awareness in a more pro-active way.
AJA’s humanitarian interest in War, Social Decay and Economic Suppression and their impact on women and children have taken him to some of the most deprived areas of the world where he has documented the suffering through poetry and photography. AJA has subsequently used these poems and photographs to raise aid and awareness. These missions and the fundraising that has followed is work that AJA has done on his own; he is not rich or famous, he is just a normal man from a tiny Island in the Caribbean who is compelled to help destitute communities. It is because of this, and the fact that it was aboard one of their flights that AJA was inspired to do more, that Virgin Atlantic subsequently pay for all his flights to help with the missions and fundraising.
Although AJA began his humanitarian work in the 1990s, it wasn’t until October 2003 that the United Nations rewarded his mammoth one-man efforts by making him a UNDP Spokesperson on War and Poverty for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. As a result, AJA’s work has been extended to include projects with the Ministry of Social Transformation and the HIV/AIDS Commission of Barbados. At the same time, AJA launched his own charity the IFPPE (International Foundation for Peace & Poverty Eradication) and began his worldwide campaign against poverty, war and HIV/AIDS.
The first phase of this campaign saw AJA visit war-torn and poverty-stricken communities across the world to document and photograph the atrocities so that he could return to the Caribbean and raise awareness of the problems as well as generate aid for the people living in these areas. The campaign began in Brazil and concluded in Israel and Palestine; taking in Haiti, Jamaica, Sierra Leone and South Africa. AJA’s expedition to Israel and Palestine was especially important as it was the first territory that he went into which was engaged in conflict as opposed to areas that were recovering from the aftermath of war. The poems and photographs that AJA captured during this campaign will appear in his book ‘Don’t Let Me Die’, while the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, the national television station of Barbados, has made a documentary of his journey which will be syndicated internationally.
The visit to Sierra Leone in particular had a massive effect on AJA and his work. AJA first went to Sierra Leone two years after the civil war ended and what he saw had such an impact on him that he was motivated to immediately help the people of this country which had been ravaged by war. AJA visited amputee camps in Freetown where he was horrified to learn that during the war cutting off the limbs of villagers was used as the principle form of intimidation.
AJA also visited a refugee settlement in Waterloo and the Slum area of Kroobay in Freetown which, along with the amputee camps, motivated him into action.
“Besides the amputee camps I had never seen anything as desperate as what I saw in Kroobay; it was by far the worst area of poverty I have ever visited and as soon as I returned to Barbados I began raising aid for the amputee camps and the Waterloo settlements. At first we expected to get about two ten metre long containers but my recollections of the atrocities really got under people’s skin and in the end we packed 7 containers of aid.”
The latter part of 2004 will see AJA spending more time in the UK to raise awareness for his fundraising work in Barbados and for his missions in Africa and South America. At the end of the year AJA will publish ‘Don’t Let Me Die’, his book of photography that includes the harrowing images he captured on the first phase of the IFPPE campaign. The photos will be accompanied by new poems that were written during his journey and proceeds will be channeled back into the communities from which the pictures were taken. In November he will release his ‘Deception’ CD in the UK via Jetstar Distribution and profits will be donated to a London-based charity.