TALKING AND TEXT
“Potential”, indeed, because in my opinion talking or saying things are just as much used to obfuscate, to trick and hide things. Talking around things like a smoke-screen. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri likened in this sense politicians to magicians. Not just politicians, but also other powerful people like presidents of companies, head teachers, or also people trying to gain power over people or profit from them - or people who try to keep people away from them - use language as smoke screen, hiding their true feelings and opinions. This is defendable when it is a matter of politeness or being well-mannered. If you do not like – such as out of prejudice – certain people, in formal situations it might be better to keep that to yourself. When you want to buy something in a store, you would not really appreciate to note the negative views the shopkeeper holds about the ethnic group you seem to represent.
The same Ben Okri - a writer I recently got more interest in - points in his writings on the power of “stories” in shaping societies and the world. For good and for bad, he explains, but at the same time intricately human and unavoidable. To quote from him: “It is only our storytelling sense that can work with this immeasurable data of life”.. You can deduce from his arguments, however, also that stories are not necessarily the same as “the verbal” or (written or spoken) texts as such. Stories are also lived, experienced.
Either way, either to express truth or hide the truth, words are indeed powerful and influential. It is part of the very basis of humanity; people who are not listened to do not matter, are not as “human” as you. Self-expression is essential for all humans. The easy response of turning loud and aggressive is perhaps not the most intelligent one, but it is understandable from a human point of view: if you listened with an open mind in the first place, the other party would not have to “scream” (literally or metaphorically). Power relations and prejudice are thus intricately related to the spoken word.
Many oppressed and discriminated people feel they are “not listened to”. Listening is here likened to caring. Justly, I think. That is why reggae is I think so valuable as “message music”. It is, as many said, truly the voice of the people. It has a degree of consciousness.
Especially in Rastafari-inspired reggae music, the rebellion against "Babylon", representing the Western oppressive system - and/or "evil" in general -, or decrying Babylon's wickedness, is a crucial part of the lyrical expression.
That is, of course, not to say that all music and lyrics made by poor people in the world are socially conscious and express this; many “escape” in party and love (or sex) lyrics, eschewing wider social critique. This has I think a variety of reasons: the political situation including censorship, social movements (or lack thereof) in certain countries, and level of education/knowledge. It is self-expression, only more superficial.
I myself speak and understand Spanish, and I noticed a difference between the lyrics in Spanish Caribbean music and British Caribbean music. It is not an absolute difference, but somewhat generalizing you can say that in both (much) reggae and much calypso, social critique in lyrics is common, while in Cuban, Dominican, or Puerto Rican music much less. Love, party, and relationship lyrics dominate there. This need not be - not consciously at least - using language to “hide” or even worse “trick”, as I said before, but can be matter of simple enthusiasm, focussing on daily life, and avoiding complexities. Or just a lack of consciousness and knowledge. Or political censorship, especially the case in Cuba.
Also in Jamaican music such “lighter” lyrics exist, but balanced more with social critique.
Another aspect that might explain such differences is the degree of individualism in societies. Individualism is a much misunderstood term in this world, I think. It has been (mis)used by Western people to express e sense of superiority of their culture (“negative word power”, so to speak). Interpreted broader, however, African, and also Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American cultures can be seen as individualistic in some ways too. Even in more profound ways than it is commonly interpreted in the West. In the Western (European) culture individualism is supposedly valued, especially in modern times, and is said to have inspired liberalism or even capitalism. The Wikipedia article (in English) on individualism only refers to Western philosophy and schools of thought, which is a missed opportunity, I think.
It has a social-class connection and is commonly (justly or not) associated with the West, but individualism is certainly noticeable among poorer-class Afro-Caribbean people, for example. Case in point: varied and creative language use: in Jamaica, for instance, most common people speak Jamaican Creole among themselves, sometimes mixed to differing degrees with (standard) English, or use English only in formal situations, as English is still the only official language in Jamaica. This by itself requires an individual manoeuvring, as do all class – as well as cultural - differences. Jamaican Rastafari-adherents also creatively invented many knew words, expressing their ideas (such as “I and I”, or Downpression instead of Oppression). The very fact of the presence of a broad and varied creative culture (musical and otherwise) in Jamaica, originating new music genres (like reggae) from different influences, and that in Jamaica also a new religious/spiritual movement – Rastafari – originated that would become both (reggae and Rastafari) global, all point at a strong sense of individuality.
There are regional differences though. In many countries of Latin America, dancing alone - by yourself - is rare. Especially on some genres, like salsa music. You usually dance in couples. Dancing by yourself is not absent, but neither is it common. In Jamaica, on the other hand, dancing alone, by yourself is much more common, even the norm, unless you are in a romantic relationship with someone who is also at the dance. Or in cases where people “bubble” or “dagger” (dances that simulate sex, but are not sex). I myself travelled to Cuba and Jamaica some years ago, and went to many dances in both countries, so I experienced this also first-hand.
This difference in dance orientation has always intrigued me. I relate this to the presence of more socially conscious lyrics in reggae. Social consciousness is in the end an individual process of awareness. You cannot as a person be curtailed too much by people around you, if you want to achieve this mental awareness, which by definition is individual. This is compensated by connections (community, spiritual, social) to other people of course, so it is not totally isolated. That is maybe one of the misapprehensions about individualism: that it’s the same as isolation (from man kind). It need not be. In fact, I think you respect other people’s individuality even more when you truly respect and know your own individuality on a deeper level.
As much reggae is “message music”, how you dance to it therefore also expresses your own interconnection with and awareness of the music and lyrics. You need to be personally involved to truly get into it. Your own mind can then not be distracted too much. If the lyrics are on the other hand superficial and do not go deep, attention can more easily be given to social obligations around you and formulaic dance moves. That is basic psychology.
It relates also to the idea of “individuality” within the Rastafari movement. A movement that after all developed in Jamaica since the 1930s, among Afro-Jamaicans. It also largely influenced the “message” and rebellion in reggae music, of course. The term “individualism” is problematic here, because Rastafari adherents do not believe in “isms”. For the very same reason that the term Rastafarianism is not liked by everyone. Anyway, there is a strong presence of a sense of individuality within Rastafari, called “epistemological individualism” (or individuality).
In the book (collective volume) ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (ed. by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane’, from 1998) it is related to ideas of radical freedom, liberation from oppressive structures, as well as to the “I and I consciousness” of the divine (and thus the source of truth and life) present within each individual. This expressed subjective agency has a self-actualizing, emancipatory effect. The pronoun “I” – representing respect and dignity for the human person (in connection to Jah/the divine) - is used much in Rasta speech. At the same time there is – through this shared divinity – a connectedness with other humans (and nature)..but on an equal basis.
It seems reasonable that this also contributed to certain ways of dancing to music: individually rather than collectively experienced.
There is also another dimension to all this.
Some things you know, but not yet really know. You know them, so to speak, on a subconscious level, you live something, but had no theoretical, textual explanation heard or read as yet. There is a power that precedes words. A deeper power: spiritual and natural. It includes basic, seemingly simple biology and natural forces. Also on the tactical, sensory level.
The music genres I mentioned from the Caribbean: reggae, calypso, salsa – and other genres of course – have partly African origins and influences. Music is by itself a phenomenon that goes beyond words. It touches you also without words/lyrics. The heart beat a unborn child hears though its mother is the first “rhythm” a human being hears and feels, and an essential, life-confirming one at that. This pulse (and breathing) are rhythmic, and at the same time the proof that you are alive.
That brings me to something I recently read. In reality one of the more interesting things I read in the whole year of 2014. It brought so much things home to me, so to speak. It added words and consciousness to what I more or less already lived and “knew” from experience. Still, I valued it and experienced it in that sense as “life-explaining” knowledge (more than as “life-changing”). It brings me back to the theme of “dancing”.
In the book (actually a collection of texts, interviews and photos) ‘The aesthetic of the cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music’ (2011), by Robert Farris Thompson, Thompson explains how music making and dancing differs culturally in Africa from Europe. He points out how musicians play apart in African traditional music, while musicians in European music “play together” (symphony and unison). On the other hand in Africa “music and dance” are not separate, while in Europe music and dance are.
This very fact – that European music is played more “together” - essentially contradicts the common notion that the West is individualistic whereas other cultures are collectivistic: African music, such as on percussion and drums, leave much room for individual improvisation and free deterrence from any meter or norm. Some relate this to the fact that African cultures were long more “oral”, and Western cultures more “scribal” (with fixed texts) leading the latter to more conservatism. Seems reasonable to me, at least as part of the explanation.
Black US (and other) comedians sometimes joked that white people dance irrespective of “the beat” (read: the music), unlike black people. Eddy Murphy had a joke about that, back in the days. More recent comedian Dwayne Perkins said ironically in a comedy bit that white people dance therefore better, freer: not as limitedly confined to the beat. This perhaps relate to this original difference, surviving the times (and the slave trade).
Also regarding that inherent “playing music NOT together/in unison” in African culture, the room for improvisation at least partly survived slavery and colonialism. One only should think of jazz, but also of the percussive polyrhythm and syncope setting Black music in the West apart from music with no African influence. There is an individual freedom there that is lived, sensed, rather than formulated in text, or in some “ism”. Fixed texts tend to systematize, thus constrict.
What’s interesting about this philosophically is that the individual musicians’ freedom shaping African music is celebrated by dancing to it. Dancing to the complex rhythms.
Dancing without set norms (freely yet on the beat/rhythm) is celebrating this individuality even more. Individuality that is – like the Rastafari I-and-I concept - inherently combined with connectedness with other humans, such as the musicians combining patterns variedly in one polyrhythmic whole. In that sense many European dances (not all) are often more collectivistic and in unison, just like the music. Leaving less space for improvisation. In the same book ‘The aesthetic of the cool’, Thompson stresses that even dancers in what are known as African “couple dances” do not embrace each other so much (as in European couple dances). Just to maintain personal flexibility of movement.
At the very least this sheds another light on the commonly formulated difference between individualist and collectivist cultures in this world.
In the same vein, of course, dance is important as part of the spirituality in many African and Afro-American religions, to the point where for instance Vodou (and Santería a.o.) are termed “danced religions”.
This is a deeper, more essential (or “spiritual”) consciousness that is lived, danced, not given power by words or literacy, but naturally by life and the “heart beat” itself. Mere words cannot capture it fully, but only can partly explain it, raise consciousness about it.
An interesting series of documentaries on Dutch television write now, as I write this, has to do with “word power” in more than one sense: influential speeches by political and other leaders: the series Speeches (VPRO). I recently saw one that centered around the speech H.I.M. Haile Selassie I gave in 1963, at the United Nations in New York. Selassie is of course the most important man/figure for the Rastafari movement.
The speech is the one which Bob Marley made lyrics from, for the song ‘War”: “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior.. “.
Selassie’s speech in 1963 was indeed a beautiful, impressive one, due to its content, but also because of its historical time and context. Africa was then in a process of decolonization, and Selassie pointed out that Africans must be respected by the world as equals. He became a spokesperson for Africa, and visited many international leaders. The speech’s content has up to now lost none of its necessity. Africa is still not valued as an “equal continent”: an analysis of the world situation makes this clear. The economic and political power of African countries is limited strongly by neo-colonialism and interest of Western/richer countries over African resources. Selassie was early in pointing this out, and to raise consciousness about it. This continued through the Rastafari movement, with Bob Marley’s lyrics made of Selassie’s 1963 speech being one known example of it.
The documentary on Dutch television seemed partly quite neutral and objective, though it repeated some dubious claims made once in a book about Selassie by Ryszard Kapuscinski (a Polish journalist who became known as a fantast). This book by Kapuscinsky unfortunately also has (negative) “word power” it seems. For the documentary further Ethiopians who knew and worked with Selassie, and a Jamaican Rastafari adherent who went to live in Ethiopia, who also helped to spend texts and speeches by Selassie to Jamaica. Some aspects remained too superficial in this documentary, I think. Others were simply mistaken, such as things taken from Kapuscinski’s biography.
The irony was formulated in this documentary (which I heard and read before) that Emperor Selassie I stimulated the education of Ethiopians and that this eventually turned against him. Some of the students and educated people turned against him and sought to overthrow him. While sounding as a somewhat literary “irony of history” – like there are so many historical ironies in world history – it also shows how knowledge and written words can be interpreted differently.
Not just written texts, being the main focus of schools and universities. During the documentary an Ethiopian explained how the situation of a famine in a part of Ethiopia (Wollo) – which he said was in process of ending/being resolved – was nonetheless used by Mengistu, the (Communist) revolution’s leader who overthrew Selassie. The Communist revolutionaries showed an earlier documentary (by an Englishman) on this famine on Ethiopian television, and publicized this much, even organizing public displays in rural areas. Images of the famine in Wollo were in the documentary interchanged with images of wealthy, food-rich banquets Selassie were said to have with foreign heads of state, and how he fed his animals. Of course this manipulated contrast was for propaganda reasons.
This brings me to yet another dimension that since then has only become more influential. The power of images (television, film) as mass medium, surpassing so often those of words. Dictatorships would make use of this “visual” aspect as well. Psychological studies revealed that visual imagery can be much more impactful than words, influencing one even more strongly. “Image power” can indeed be stronger as “word power”. However, like words images and film can be manipulated, used to trick and deceive, hide the truth, as a smoke-screen. The global influence of subtle manipulation via Hollywood, television, or other powerful media parties, on cultural tastes, and shaping prejudices! etcetera should not be underestimated.
WORD POWER AND SOUND
I think that a deeper consciousness, the one that precedes words: pure intuition, the natural heart beat, life itself, may seem (as so-called “subconscious level”) to be influenced by such image or word power play, but is not. Digging deeper within one self I think one is able to learn how to sense the real from the unreal, the lie from the truth, the good from the bad.. you somehow sense that there are wrong intentions, at least eventually. That comes down to really thinking free, thinking for yourself as an individual; genuine intuition (not confused with prejudice). This thinking for oneself in the true sense has become somewhat undervalued in the Western world with the “fixed” written text or “fixed” imagery/film, shaping – eventually oppressive! - political, educational, economic, and media systems. Just like in traditional European music musicians have to play together.
Also, the entire social and economic systems in the Western world are aimed at degrading, limiting as much as possible individual human consciousness. You need for them to contribute to economy, which in most cases comes down to contributing to other people's wealth and power, by accepting a few crumbs from their people, figuring as "extra" in their dream. This also belies the self-claimed "individualism" of Euro-Western cultures. At the end individualism is amore an "ism" than truly individual.
Rastafari reggae artists speak in their lyrics, by the way, not just of “word power”, but of “word power.. AND SOUND”. That “sound” can be defined as the realm of music and dance, but I argue that it likewise can mean a deeper consciousness, beyond words, that is both natural and individually human..
Of course, you can rightfully argue that humans also have the natural capacity of speech, to talk, use words. It is – like I said in the beginning of this essay - a basic human need too. To speak out against injustice, defend one's rights, confirm one's existence, for self-expression etcetera.. A combination (and interaction) of this with such a nonverbal consciousness, however, can open up boundless creativity, with beautiful effects. Liberating effects. Maybe this can be called a "higher" or "heightened" consciousness as well..