A good friend, film maker and cultural educator, once told me that it was "f@cked up" to begin African American history with the slave trade. For him, beginning with bondage, coercion, and relative powerlessness was damaging to the psyche of African American children and young people. With his home schooled children and his students, he wisely began with the rich cultural traditions of central and western Africa and times of sovereignty and innovation in the fields of mathematics, architecture, science and music.
As a teacher of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and history, I began with European colonization of Caribbean lands, the forced assimilation, displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the capture and enslavement of Africans from hundreds of distinct ethnic groups. I did so to set a context for the role of musical traditions in the lives of enslaved people. My main message in 15 years of cultural work was that In the context of cultural erasure, forced labor, and the subjugation of body, mind and spirit, music was a tool of survival and resistance. My hubris, at first, blinded me to participants' inherent (ancestral) knowledge of this and and the ways they lived this out through the musical traditions they claimed as their own.
I’ve worked with many people and organizations who feel the locus of their power in the fight against injustice. Certainly, when we come together in a common struggle for access to basic human rights of quality housing, education, and health care and living wage work within an extractive and exploitative economic and political system and WIN, there is a sense of collective power that emboldens the spirit and strengthens the heart.
But this beginning with what we don’t have has never sat right with me. After five years of honing my skills as an organizer, my discomfort became so acute that I leapt from this vocational path to an experimental journey in collective music making. What I loved most about music as a means of justice making, was that the groups I gathered with began with a sense of cultural riches and collective abundance. The locus of our power was not in an external fight, but in the sinew and blood of our bodies, in the spiritual wisdom of ancestors, in the vibrant rhythms and songs we sounded together. We did not have to fight to have power, but rooted in our power we were compelled to change the conditions that suppressed or denied its full exercising and expression.
When our starting point is sovereignty and abundance and not oppression and scarcity the vital work of transformative justice becomes one of coming full circle to our intrinsic power - power that can never be taken from us.
Where is the locus of power for you?