Masquerade: Oral Aesthetic Motif #3

“The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly.” (from Pathways to Bliss – Joseph Campbell)

The mask is an artifact which has often been studied as such and collected for display in the European context of the museum. When presented in this way, as a disinterested visual commodity surrounded by other artifacts which are related only by the significance that the curator has ascribed to the collection, the ancestral African mask is no more the potent force it was created to be. For only in the human action context of the masquerade does its deeper cultural significance, illuminating role, and efficacy as an oral-aesthetic motif become apparent.

During its construction, the ancestral mask is given features which distinguish it from other masks that may be used in the context of entertainment. The artisan integrates communally-recognizable codes such as the color white to represent death, or – since animals are not believed to exist after death – the rendering of animal forms into the mask. The particular animal forms used add to the textual content or revelation of what the mask represents, e.g. the lion as strength, the spider as prudence, or horns as the moon and fertility.

Thus the artisan provides the first designation of the mask. The dancer who wears it provides the second designation in performance. Without this second designation in the masquerade, the mask is incomplete because it has no efficacy as nommo. The mask provides a visual representation of the otherwise invisible, and the masquerade becomes the metaphor for life, and for the manner in which the divine or ancestral spirits participate from behind masks that we often take for granted.

The musician’s role may be to invoke the spirit to enter the masquerader, whereafter the mask and dancer are considered sacrosanct and not to be desecrated for fear of harm to the miscreant. Therefore during the masquerade the masked dancer is granted symbolic status and representational immunity, because any comments that they make (nommo) are believed to be coming from the particular ancestor or god (indicated by the mask) that is now in possession of their body.

Through such ritual events the supernatural becomes a tangible presence, accessible for propitiation and intervention in the affairs of the living. Alternatively such occasions may also be used to judiciously convey messages and critiques to members of the community which might otherwise, if delivered in a different context, produce friction and hostility.

  • Nommo Underground

This African masquerade tradition has been maintained in Diasporan communities in various ways, necessitated in large part as a strategy for survival. Enslaved Africans mastered different techniques of developing outward forms (masks) that appeased hostile authorities while striving to maintain the deeper integrity of their cultural traditions.

For instance the African and Spanish syncretisms in Afro-Dominican musical traditions came about largely as a result of the Catholic Church’s suppression of African spiritual expression among slaves. The church’s oppressive action forced African spiritual expression underground only to emerge in this disguised creolised form. The adoption of Catholic saints, Christian liturgy, Spanish melodies and vocal techniques was the mask that Africans created in the Afro-Dominican context in order to preserve the essence of their tradition.

During the period of the Underground Railroad, the Black folk church in America created ingenious applications of the masquerade motif. When enslaved Africans were planning and executing their heroic escape to the north, they would sing in codes:

Follow the Drinking Gourd was a map song referring to the big dipper (drinking gourd) which pointed to the North Star – the direction where freedom lay – as well as other clues about the journey ahead. Similarly “Steal Away to Jesus…” sounded to slave-owners like a harmless longing to be with the heavenly master, but in reality masked the call-and-response to freedom. And Wade in the Water was masked advice for enslaved Africans to find water routes that would throw the slave-owners’ dogs off their scent during their escape.

“One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (from The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois)

“It’s too high to get over, too low to get under. You’re stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder…” (from Wanna Be Startin’ Something – Michael Jackson)

The struggle that has seen an evolution from Negro to Black- to an African-American sense of identity suggests in its historical progression that emancipation from a painful legacy of slavery becomes more whole and empowering with one’s conscious atonement with the natal source. And yet the middle passage through which slavery geographically dispersed African souls understandably remains for many an insurmountable hard-boundary…

Black Studies programs that belatedly entered the American academy as a corollary of the 60s Civil Rights struggles are generally separated from African Studies programs which had already come into being through white scholars responding to America’s Cold War agenda. Thus America’s distinguished institutions of higher learning formally sanctioned this cultural glitch, creating an academic impasse to the one-ness of Africa’s dynamic and globally connected reality.

Similar to formalized divisions between music and its extensions such as dance, etc. institutionalized knowledge hasn’t easily facilitated our human journey of transcendence by providing organic connections between university disciplines. Nevertheless that void in the Bantu universe has been addressed through other less formal means such as the oral-aesthetic modalities that support ubuntu in the popular imagination. The masquerade motif has surfaced in some interesting formats.  

  • Pop Music Masquerade

The rise of the American music industry began in minstrelsy, the first distinctly American theatrical form in which white actors painted in blackface would perform caricatures that lampooned the culture of enslaved Africans. With music and dance forming the heart of minstrel shows, this institution provided a lens through which many in white audiences the world over were introduced to stereotypes of African-American culture beginning in the 1830s. The loss of popularity of minstrelsy began with the cultural assertiveness of the Jazz Age, a renaissance in which the omniscience and omnipresence of Ubuntu was expressed through a self-conscious outpouring of African-American creativity.

In the years since then, the masquerade motif has nevertheless remained a highly-impactful oral aesthetic strategy of advancing Ubuntu within the context of the African-American struggle for survival under adversarial conditions. There are two significant ways this motif has shown up in popular music, reflecting different strategies of negotiating the Bantu hero’s journey, bypassing gatekeepers to “success” and “crossing over” thresholds through terrain they have historically demarcated and controlled…

  1. The Hip-Hop/Rap model. This nommo from the ‘hood masquerades through its use of slang and street code, in similar fashion to how it was used during the period of the Underground Railroad, except not always with a transcendent purpose in mind. In East African Rap, this code is known as Shenga combination of  Swahili and English from the streets which creates a flow of communication and safe distance between a pro-active youth culture and authority. The mask nevertheless reveals that struggle and survival remain prevalent themes in the Bantu narrative even for those who reach the pinnacle of success, as Jay-Z’s lyrics to “Most Kingz” imply.
  2. The Motown model. The “grooming” of African-American artists and “sweetening” of their sound to make them more presentable to a white record-buying public and eliminate the “race music” stigma was the mask-making process of Berry Gordy’s assembly-line formula for success during an era of integration and optimism. As I’ve explained elsewhere through personal anecdote, the Motown performance – masquerade – had a significant diplomatic impact during post-Independence Kenya by liberating airwaves that were inundated with sounds of “British Invasion” artists, becoming my entree into the wider Bantu conversation going on in the northern hemisphere while my educational curriculum was sorely lacking. However, this Motown formula became increasingly estranged from the social realities African-Americans still struggled with despite gaining Civil Rights.
  • Man in the Mirror

The association of the masquerade motif with Michael Jackson is in many ways a logical one. His early years as a member of the Jackson 5 were spent being groomed, recorded and marketed through the assembly-line process at the Motown campus. It’s difficult to evaluate the impact of this initiation process on Michael’s later years but within an Africa-centered context of the masquerade motif, it may offer a different kind of perspective to debates about the signification of the physical evolution of the King of Pop over his later years.  

For instance, one could reason that in his particular application of the  masquerade motif, Jackson himself provided both the first (plastic surgery, skin bleaching, etc.) and  the second (performance) designations of the mask. However, the argument follows that the difficulty here for the King of Pop lies in the expectation for his audience to accept his permanent physical transformations as a catalyst for the paradigm shift to the unconditional love, or state of Ubuntu that Michael championed as his mission.

People of African descent in particular felt increasingly skeptical and betrayed by Michael’s evolving appearance, because it bespoke an “intense self-hatred” and “abnegation of blackness” that has plagued his community of origin since slavery. Some scholars have suggested that this physical metamorphosis was Michael’s attempt to transcend America’s entrenched racial barriers per his lyrics, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white. Others add that the performativity of Michael’s body further blurred the lines between male/female, child/adult, and even human/animal, thus creating a fictional world of one-ness… of peace and equality through a manufactured hybridity. (Ref: Journal of Pan-African Studies 3 (7), March 2010.)

The dilemma expressed in Michael’s defiant lyrics, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color!” (Black or White) recalls W.E.B. DuBois’ prescient statement from The Souls of Black Folk:

“Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

Thus, factoring all these concerns together, one could conclude that the King of Pop indeed became the quintessential 20th century American icon – both the Man in the Mirror as well as the mirror itself. The mask (his face and skin) is the mirror – reflecting unsettling codes in Michael’s evolving physical make-up that continue to cause personal, social, and academic introspection at the organic and ultimately therapeutic levels intended in a traditional African sense of the masquerade motif. Thus in itself, and when properly looked upon – to borrow from Joseph Campbell (above) – perhaps the performativity of Michael’s body has in fact made a significant contribution to the American social sphere.

(Posted Feb 1, 2012 – Malaika Mutere)

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