Espiritu y Alma: Gratitude for the Spirit and Soul of Africa that Gives us all Life

Good morning familia.

I have to be honest, I struggled for a minute with Khalilah’s call to take a break from my “identifying oppression” lens, to offer some gratitude and love for our Black history. I mean, I know that I need to be perpetually growing in my gratitude and love for all people, it’s just that I am so hot about all this false history and ignorant behavior that I can sort of lose my way.

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The more I thought about it, the more I realized how right Khalilah is. Anger can be useful as a spark that spurs us on toward the work, but it is a terrible life partner, and useless from a sustainability perspective. Anger, especially over the mistreatment of others is absolutely legitimate, but joy, love and gratitude are the only things that can sustain us over the long haul. We must cultivate love and gratitude in every corner of our soul.

Thus, in celebration of our Black history in what is currently called America, let me call your attention to one of my favorite sources of joy and healing for me and for so many of us: Black music.

I’m not the first on this blog, nor will I be the last, to celebrate the value of Black music to our social and cultural experience in America and beyond. In fact, almost everything that you think of as music has roots that reach back to Africa. The African diaspora’s impact on music is undeniable to all but those with hopelessly ignorant ears.

I’ll begin by returning to my origins with a song from my hometown. Ozomatli has been a favorite band of mine for a long long time, and I especially enjoy the way that their art embodies the concept of mestizaje–roughly translated as “mixture.” This ‘mix’  celebrates the way that diasporic cultures are like powerful catalysts, activating and bringing new life to any cultural content they come into contact with. In this particular song, the music itself mirrors the celebratory exuberance that can come from mestizaje. It takes a simple poem about loving the African diaspora and transfroms it into jubilation:

Como ves, como ves,

La historia no es como crees

Cuba y africa su hermano

Con todo mi corazon

Cuba y africa su hermano,

Y veo su dolor

Quiero besar tu espiritu

Y su alma

Taking a little poetic license with the translation for my Spanish language learners:

How do you see? How do you see?

That history is not what you believe

Cuba and Africa your brother

With all of my heart

Cuba and Africa your brother

And I see your pain

I want to kiss your spirit

And your soul

Now, when I said “Black music,” you may have assumed I was going somewhere different, right? Before we get there, I just wanted to celebrate the amazing fusion of African rhythms and melodies with those of the diaspora of indigenous Americans and, yes, even those instruments and forms of European music that are all mixed in here.

Mestizaje. It’s an amazing thing.

I was sharing this song with a Hatian brother of mine, who had just introduced me to Kompa music (which I had no idea I would love):

We marveled at the deep roots that run throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, the soul and the joy of Africa that makes our lives so beautiful if we can permit our very bodies to follow the music’s call. From Port-au-Prince we can find it again in their hermanito next door, Dominican Republic.

…or again from the streets of Havana…

…or in Viejo San Juan…

…and even in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero (that’s in Mexico, guys)!

…or down in Bogota…

…and you know I can’t leave out my Brasileños…

I could easily go on and on all day celebrating that joyful heartbeat of the world that is African diasporic mestizaje music. I hope that you listened to some of those, and that as you did you started to feel your body move with that rhythm, swaying as the blood in your veins filled with that espiritu and alma of Africa.

Since I promised I would bring it back to what you expected me to talk about when I said we would celebrate Black music.

Odds are, you thought I meant rap or hip hop, right? Be honest. If you didn’t, you might just as well have thought of just about any song, genre, or artist–because they all beg, borrow, and steal from the espiritu y alma de Africa, which is so generous and abundant when it comes to music.

I particularly enjoy the way that Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) frames this legacy of musical greatness that breathes life into all those tiny headphones on your subway car:

My grandmomma was raised on a reservation
My great-grandmama was from a plantation
They sang songs for inspiration
They sang songs for relaxation
They sang songs, to take their minds up off that
Fucked up situation
I am, yes I am, the descendant
Of those folks whose backs got broke
Who fell down inside the gun smoke
Chains on their ankles and feet
I am descendants of the builders of your street
Tenders to your cotton money
I am hip-hop
I am rock and roll
Been here forever
They just ain’t let you know

Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul
Chuck Berry is rock and roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But they ain’t come up with that style on they own
Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul
Little Richard is rock and roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own

Guess that’s just the way shit goes
You steal my clothes and try to say they yours
Cause it’s a show filled with pimps and hoes
Trying to take everything that you made or control
Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul
Bo Diddley is rock and roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But they ain’t the first place the credit belongs

I ain’t trying to diss
But I don’t be trying to fuck with Limp Bizkit
When I get down in my zone
I be rockin Bad Brains and Fishbone
I ain’t tryin to slow your groove
But that ain’t the way I’m trying to move

I don’t turn on Korn to get it on;
I be playing Jimi Hendrix ’til the dawn
That’s my word is bond
Sitting up on my front lawn
Got the volume turned to ten
Playing Albert King the best again
When the morning in the cooker
Got to turn on some John Lee Hooker
When I want some rock and roll
Go to Otis Redding to get some soul

I struggled with whether to include this, or whether to choose something like “Touch the Sky” or maybe “Glory” with John Legend’s incredible tenor and that beautiful church choir sound in the background. I want to respect the moratorium on angry talk, but I think that it’s just part of that mestizaje, once it’s all mixed in it’s not so easy to ‘unmix’.

So yes, let’s acknowledge that he is speaking about appropriation (which Erin also just got through talking about, right?).

I think the essence of appropriation is the same as gentrification or of any other settler colonial habit or enterprise: will we consume a unit of housing? Or will we join the community that was there, learn its norms and adopt their children as beloved as our own? That is what separates a gentrifier from a person trying to find a place to really and truly live.

Will you simply consume this cultural capital as entertainment? Wear it like a costume and hide it in your closet when the respectable company comes over? Or will you really live and love the people who have blessed you with their very espiritu y alma?

It’s not so much about appreciation or exchange for me, and it’s not mixture in the sense of the assimilationist’s melting pot, which destroys (consumes) the essence of everything in its dehumanizing fire.

Mestizaje as I insist on using it is about love, gratitude, and creating a mix that doesn’t erase identity, but acknowledges and affirms it.

Let me end with this: There was a time when the song was the noblest possible form of human expression, not just in “western” culture (whatever that means), but in every culture.

The king, the chief, the elder, the medicine man and the midwife–all used songs teach an infant humanity which plants to eat, where the sweetest water and the most abundant fish were, what their role was in the village and from whence the spirit of their people had come.

Throughout most of human history we spent many hours every day singing and preparing food together, music was as essential to survival as food, I’m not sure that much has changed since then, except that we neglect our souls and our bodies in ways that would embarrass and confuse our ancestors.

I know this because I have been a student of literature, a close reader of the ancient and contemporary cultures for the better part of the last two decades. I have read from some of the earliest written works, mostly in translation but sometimes by stumbling through the original languages.

From the epic “song” that Homer sang in a tavern about Odysseus wandering home from his battles in Illium, to the “song” of Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s friendship, to the “song” of Hiawatha and Deganawidah founding the Haudenosaunee alliance that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson borrowed from when they crafted our representative democracy.

What they called “songs,” we would probably think of as “poems,” but that line has been blurred for as long as the human voice has endured. Believe me when I tell you the future will emerge from the songs we train ourselves and our children to sing today, and the soul of Africa is not only alive and well, but it is leading that song.

As the great philosopher Nas once said:

No political power, just lyrical power
Sittin’ on a crate on a corner, sippin’ for hours
Schemin’ on a come up, from evening’ to sun up

Or as the celebrated (by some, by others derided) Miranda puts it:

I know abuela’s never really gonna win the lottery
So it’s up to me to draw blood with this pen, hit an artery


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