“We, as Black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are NOT being leaders or kings or being in the center of our own narrative driving it forward…” [David Oyelowo ~ 2015 Film Festival interview]
“Until the lions have storytellers, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” [African proverb]
I teach students in my Black Popular Music classes how our cultural agency in music and its industry in America has all along been about the ideal of being “in the center of our own narrative [and] driving it forward.” Cultural custodians have inherited powerful tools from their African oral traditions to enable their role as storytellers, despite Middle Passage horrors in which slave-masters sabotaged communal communication networks and hijacked cultural codes. The curriculum of oral-aesthetic motifs I teach from provides students tools to unearth some of these human stories and celebrate transformative Black cultural agency on its own “art-for-life’s-sake” cultural terms. Many of our cultural leaders and would-be kings/queens in the music industry are nevertheless frustrated by the misguided outsider control of their Africa-centered domain, in part because of the rising casualty-count within the very communities those oral communication modes and their aesthetic expression (music, dance, etc.) were uniquely fitted for and intended to serve.
In a 2004 interview, Prince decried the entertainment “glut of processed, pre-packaged, producer-driven music” as being ruinous to a new generation of artists. Hearkening back to the 60s/70s “Old School” days, Prince criticized music industry trends of promoting and rewarding “salaciousness” rather than nurturing craftsmanship. His battle against Warner Brothers (his record label since 1977) for ownership-rights of his own creative output is well-documented, as was his evolving commitment to the powers from which he and others were charged with being responsible mediums to their cultural constituencies. Furthermore, Michael Jackson – who himself rose to the stature of King of Pop – expressed confusion about this controlling industrial world-order and what his pre-destined role beyond it might be in his song, “Will You Be There?”
…Perhaps this was part of the impetus for MJ’s visit to me on 3/23/10?
Unlike these late great artists and their peers, I don’t have the practical skills to provide the mentoring on craftsmanship which Prince actively championed. But I have listened through a cultural prism to the many stories – Old School and new – and designed research applications to help process my experiential journey within its own cultural context rather than struggle against ill-fitting, hegemonic and limiting matrixes of thought/control from the industries of knowledge and ‘entertainment.’ I’ve come to appreciate the enormous capacity of our ancestral resources to decolonize, decipher and move our stories forward. Our oral communication modes, proverbial wisdom, architectural wonders, rich symbols, meaningful names, etc. etc. etc. demonstrate a dynamic, organic, and abundant cultural treasury which is in collaboration and concert with nature itself, hence our unity-conscious “art-for-life’s-sake” mandate as co-creators. My challenge as an academic has been to find a cultural through-line… an authentic means for the greater community to recover that knowing.
Hence my oral-aesthetic perspective and curriculum, an analytical toolkit which has contributed to promoting fresh, holistic, culturally-sensitive narratives that help reevaluate the contributions of Africa and her descendants in various theaters of life and academic inquiry, such as communication studies; public health; nursing; conflict resolution; and the performing arts. My work has included wonderful engagements and collaborations with Temple and Howard Universities; Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; CalArts Community Arts Partnership; University of South Africa; Participant Media; Program for Advanced Technologies in Health; the UCLA School of Nursing; and the University of California at Irvine & Riverside, to name a few.
With gratitude to the ancestors and our cultural custodians within the global village, I speak, author, teach, blog, and continue to learn from the transformative, collaborative, organic, unity-conscious, humanizing story we collectively call UbuNtu … “I am, because We are.” My life-experience helps to tell that story.