Mojo: Oral-Aesthetic Motif #4
“Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives…” (Joseph Campbell from Pathways to Bliss).
Mojo is an Ebonic term rooted in the Bantu word kimoyo, meaning “[language] of the spirit.” In African-American colloquial use, mojo can mean charms, amulets or magic – as in the Muddy Waters blues lyric: “Got my mojo workin’…” (1957).
Nommo is the seminal expression of mojo/kimoyo, reflecting this “[language] of the spirit” through the series of communicative events and creative formulations of human agency in the aesthetic dimension. Ntu, the creator principle that unites Muntu, Kuntu, Hantu, and Kintu, is thus extended a pathway outwardly through which its purpose becomes exercised and known in the human/bantu arena. Much like the force of “love,” ubuntu is the guiding principle and raison d’etre, maintaining a communal unity with ancestral, invisible, natural and magical forces that are united in Ntu.
In response to certain music, for instance, ancestors are believed to continue their existence during special communal events by inhabiting the dancer’s body, causing him or her to appear very young while dancing in an apparent state of timelessness or “great time.” Funeral dirges that transition from the expression of grief into joyous sounds and fertility dances are deeply congnizant of the matriarchal principle that provides passage to the next stage of life for the one who has crossed over. And among some groups, when an individual breaks the dance patterns – “break-dancing” – they are believed to be in contact with the other side from where therapeutic and additional powers are accessible.
It was into such a traditional context that Europe’s imposition managed to become such a formidable adversarial force because in core ways it represented the cultural antithesis in its self-serving and denatured/abstract modes of belief and production, impacting the human arena in aggressive and traumatizing ways. The hegemonic interests that drove the twin enterprises of colonialism and slavery reflect, in their documentation, negligible comprehension of the modalities of the African oral life-world or the workings of its mojo.
European missionaries’ reports would commonly use pejorative terms when describing such African oral-aesthetic events, sometimes referring to the dances they would observe with terms such as “lewd ambling” and “imitative fornication” which they associated with evil. Hence a self-fulfilling justification for the proselytizing mission and Eurocentric world-order they injected into African cultural affairs, introducing and assigning hierarchic value to abstract concepts of good/evil… sacred/secular… etc.
It created a dualistic and linear field of consciousness in which the self-justifying focus tended to be on difference which became energized as tension and calcified as a hierarchy between so-called opposites such as white/black. The conflict that was created between spirit/flesh, for instance, became one of the outcomes of such religious sensibilities. Because human nature and the body represented carnal and fallen man in the adversarial field of perception, the dynamic ways in which Africans engaged with spirit – mojo – even in the context of church with the traditional call-response interaction, was judged as excessive and irreverent. From the Europatriarchal point of view, the worship of god was supposed to be conducted with a reverent stillness.
One can see how over time this dualism of false-opposites has translated into attitudes and formalized constructs regarding music vs. dance… high art (haute couture) vs. low art… literacy vs. pre-rationalism… etc. From this standpoint, it is interesting that mythologist, Joseph Campbell, would reflect upon such oppositional and hierarchic thinking as the mind forced into exile from and into conflict with the Garden of Paradise/Eden (from The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, p. 48), a metaphorical place of higher consciousness where he suggests that no dualities exist in such adversarial relationships with each other.
In offering the matriarchal art perspective as an antidote, Heide Gottner-Abendroth discusses the problems such thinking has created in the aesthetic dimension as follows:
“The social changes effected by matriarchal art neutralize the split in the aesthetic dimension. In patriarchal societies, the aesthetic dimension is split into a formalist, elite, socially effective art and a popular, diffuse, socially despised, ghettoized art. The neutralization of that split would restore to art the entirely public character it once had. Art would then manifest itself as the central social practice and, through its processes of change, bring about the aestheticization of the entire society.” (from The Dancing Goddess, p. 52)
Mojo ~ Restoring Eden
As an oral-aesthetic motif, mojo provides the nexus that harmonizes and bridges ambivalences created by such abstract and detached thinking, restoring a Bantu sense of harmony between spirit and flesh… creator and creation… sacred and secular… the eternal and the present… north and south, etc. This is key to understanding the matriarchal-consciousness that informs the Bantu hero journey which continually strives for reconciliation within ubuntu: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”
Mojo has worked to mediate between the so-called secular versus sacred realms. In the interaction between spirituals and blues, for instance, the body of music called gospel was given life when the “secular” component crossed back into the “sacred” realm. Gospel in turn, nurtured in the oral-aesthetic modalities of the Black folk church, maintained a reservoir of African resources (e.g. leader-chorus call-response modes) that contributed to the development of rhythm-and-blues. And during the civil-rights period, soul emerged as a musical genre that was interchangeable with gospel.
This bridging and restoring of an Africa-centered cosmological order also provides evidence of the cultural mandate (ubuntu) of the Bantu hero’s journey in its North-South conversations:
- In America, the reservoir of Black culture in the South became the roots to which Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett and others returned to focus their signature soul sound as artists who were signed to Atlantic Records in New York. A major Southern Soul resource became the Memphis Tennessee recording studio – Stax/“Soulsville” – where Otis Redding (King of Soul) was signed, and Isaac Hayes (Black Moses) got his start as a songwriter with David Porter. The house band, Booker T & the MG’s, played in the gritty, gutsy, raw style of that still segregated era, nevertheless revealing the entrée of white musicians into Black oral-aesthetic space. A similar dynamic was reflected at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, which was where Percy Sledge recorded his hit When a Man Loves a Woman and where Aretha (Queen of Soul) worked out the A and B sides to her first big hit I Never Loved a Man.
- Motown in Detroit Michigan, with Berry Gordy’s crossover formula of “sweetening” the black sound and image to fit white sensibilities, created a diplomatic-style North-South conversation on a global scale in southern hemisphere places like post-Independence Kenya where the airwaves had gatekeepers whose playlists were dominated by so-called “British Invasion” artists. Motown facilitated the transition that enabled listeners like me to gain access to the deeper cultural conversations in the northern hemisphere.
Similar to Nkrumah’s statement about Ghana’s 1957 independence being “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African,” sankofa – the quest/journey to return to the source to fetch that which has been forgotten… lost… stolen… left behind – is triumphant when it reaffirms ubuntu. Mojo is conveyed through the musical vehicle that is the enhancement of nommo (word), charting Ntu’s conceptual process, integrative and communal imperatives, governing narratives, and passageways to transcendence that generate ubuntu in the human arena.
Indeed mojo shows up in the very terminology of Black music culture itself – spirituals …gospel …blues …ragtime …rhythm-and-blues …soul …rap …jazz – illuminating the oral-aesthetic consciousness of inner roadmaps traveled during the American hero journey of Bantu. Ubuntu does not proselytize. It expresses dynamically, consciously and transformatively as art-for-life’s-sake.
The ubuntu worldview and mission-statement – “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” – relies on the success of nommo to cultivate human imagination and organically reorient humanity from a state of exile (per Joseph Campbell) back into a non-oppositional field of relationships. Ultimately mojo helps to usher in more holistic and humanistic individual and societal well-being to the global village by being the guiding principle to forces that explain, necessitate, and complement each other and collectively inform the structure and harmonious functioning of the universe.
(Posted on February 8th, 2012 – Malaika Mutere)