Decolonizing Music- Presentation

The following is an excerpt from a presentation given at the Decolonizing Music conference which was held Oct 8-10 at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico in San Juan, PR.

Good morning. Thank you for being here. It is truly an honor to be presenting alongside you all in this conference. I am learning so much from your presentations, and look forward to continuing conversations about the decolonizing power of music in our persistently conflicted world.

I will begin this talk with a brief self-introduction, and from there delve into a presentation of my current work.

I am a writer, singer and climate activist. Intellectually speaking, I describe myself these days as a human geographer. In other words, I seek to organize what I know about the world into questions of space and ecology. How do our geographies – where we are and how we are – inform the way we move through the world? I am intrigued in particular by how we can use the places we are made of as sources of healing and inspiration. I believe that in a globalized world, this necessarily requires creative effort, and a willingness to entertain notions of space that depart from the ways in which we have been taught to organize ourselves—as markets, for instance, or as nations. I believe that a crucial project for my generation is to embrace the challenge of becoming rooted in place even as we realize our ability to transcend divides as creative agents. We might call this a geography of sustainability.

Much of my work has focused on the greater Caribbean. Specifically, I research the ways in which people in this region have defied the colonial practice of “divide and rule” through counter-hegemonic practices of hybridity. Now, inspired and nourished by this creative tradition, I work with climate activists around the world who strive to affirm our common humanity through spirituality and art. We believe that this humanity can save us, even as its weaknesses have also led to the challenges we face.

I initially was going to give a talk about some of the music projects that I am aware of here in San Juan that are offering important decolonial alternatives to the commodification of bodies and cultures that is part and parcel of neoliberalism. Bomba classes which provide opportunities for people with Down Syndrome to communicate with confidence and joy. Workshops for children in classical North Indian dance. These are two examples. In light of more recent research, I am going to offer a broader context within which to place these local arts initiatives. However, if you wish to learn more about the work that I was going to describe, which is centered in a studio called DanzActiva, please see me after the presentation.

What I would like to do today is introduce my new project—which is a collaborative human geography project, aimed at bringing music to the service of the global climate movement.

This project is rooted in a concern not only with key features of our time—globalization and planetary ecological crisis—but also with a colonial way of interacting with the world which thrived in the so-called European “Enlightenment,” and was exported to the Americas.

We might call this way of viewing the world the “Nature versus Society” ideology. At the heart of this paradigm is the division of life into “Nature” on the one hand, and “Society” on the other. As we all know, the colonial prerogative often involved the plunder of lands and people (especially women) who lived outside of the changes that were taking place in Europe at the time. These changes include: the emergence of a non-mystical, reductionist Science; the industrialization of the Earth; the continued prevalence of patriarchy, and its resulting asymmetries of political and sexual power; and, crucially, the militarization of many aspects of social life, in keeping with colonial priorities. So on the one hand, we have the elevation of a certain kind of “Society” based on these qualities. And on the other, we have the degradation of a certain kind of “Nature” based on the opposite attributes, resulted in splits within and between humans. I would argue that these fractures continue to exert their toll when we try to solve ecological problems on a global scale.

How can music help us move beyond this binary? How can we, as practitioners of decolonial music in particular, question these categories and the violence that they imply?

For all of the local cultural life that we celebrate in cities throughout the Americas, including San Juan, we also live in a globalized world, where much is circulating but not with a wise purpose. We also live in a world that continues to be defined by colonialism, and full humanity is frequently denied. Promises and palliatives of multiculturalism and global community are pitted against continued dynamics of marginalization and inequality.

All too often, there is an absence of spaces to inhabit and contribute to the world that needs to be—a world that is ecologically aware, and is committed to the art of diversity and hybridity. We are hurt by this absence, because it prevents us from facing with courage and optimism the geographies we live in. The truth is that we are bound to the world, but often lack spaces to re-imagine it in creative, complex and collaborative ways. And under neoliberal, neocolonial forms of globalization, we are bound in a way that does not make us feel whole.

In other words, we often live in geographies of incompleteness, and of injury. We are in need of a more complete way of engaging with ourselves, each other, and the ecologies around us. We need a geography of healing.

Healing geographies which already exist, including in the Americas, are not acknowledged by the world’s most powerful. Many of us from the Caribbean region are thus doubly frustrated, in the bewildering position of not having access to what already exists.

Music can arguably be engaged with multiple levels of human geography—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, ecological.

On the one hand, music can certainly be used as an instrument of power easily. On the other hand, music often creates its own geography—which is not exclusively human, but rather which can speak across the divides imposed by the Nature versus Society ideology that I just described.

Such a musical geography can be rooted, and it can also travel. It has the capacity to break the “self/other” binary, and can bypass political agendas because it does not consist of written or spoken language alone. It can touch hearts.

Music can potentially participate in a different kind of dialogue, one that is decolonial, that is healing, that is based upon human-to-human collaboration. When brought into contact with the environment, it can help promote a consciousness that can reassure and connect us all.

The geography of environmental music is by definition more vast than we are. It thus helps us get over our anthropocentrism, even as it also helps us to understand the ways in which we are all connected. This is extremely healing because it allows us to explore our spiritual (as opposed to economic or technological) interdependence. It allows us to be in a state of listening, a state of learning. And lastly, it allows us to intuit the social links between us, through the ecologies that link us.

Which brings me to my present work. I just initiated a collaborative project called Music & the Earth, which aims to understand how music can be a force for change within a global grassroots climate network. Its core motivation is this: climate activism on a global scale is intensely complex. Since it requires us to engage with legacies of colonialism but at the same time affirm a common humanity, it is fraught with risk. Music carries great power, but the age of social media and the Cloud has made it so diffuse. It is hard to know who it affects, and why. Among my intentions with this project is to map the landscape shaped by the two realities of contemporary music and climate activism, to understand how each can uplift the other.

I am fortunate to be working within several, overlapping networks of young activists who raise awareness of our connections to the Earth through art, education, and healing. My hope is that with their support, and yours!, I can articulate, many times over and over the course of many years, a global geography of musical environmentalism. I am currently working on my second book, a work of fiction which articulates the guiding framework for this project in greater detail. Once it is complete, I hope to collaborate with like-minded people to illustrate how Music & the Earth is a tradition, a challenge, and/or a movement in different places. At present, I envision our collaborations taking shape through creative, written and musical resources, at times created by us and at times by established leaders in the field, such as yourselves!

As I am currently based in Washington, DC, my intention is to provide an alternative to the heavily structured and culturally homogenous landscape within which usually defines environmental politics and social life. In a city as multicultural as DC, there is no reason why the wisdom that exists in the Americas and elsewhere regarding Music & the Earth should not be known and celebrated. There is no reason why it should not be used to protest Washington’s continued imperial power. My hope is that the multi-media resources that we create will do the following: engage the explosive cultural heritage of DC’s diverse population; convey the latest achievements in the world of musical climate activism; and also express the inextricable physical and social links between Music & the Earth in the “Global South.”

Given that this is a vast goal, my timeline for this is, to be honest, the rest of my life. I am currently seeking funding to cover basic costs, such as my salary and a stipend for part-time staff. I would be very grateful for any suggestions you may have for possible sources.

I have started to build a small network of people in South Asia, Africa and the America who are interested in this project. They are willing to contribute to it through research, music, and their own examples of bringing music to the service of the climate movement. With such people, I wish to affirm a form of activism that honors music, a form of music that honors the Earth, and a form of living that acknowledges how connected we are, at every instance, to the link between sound and space. I hope that we can remember this connection every time we take an audible breath—and that we can delight in a world where the healing power of music is being used to change the systems we have endured for so long. My dream, our dream, is for a geography made of peace songs—where voices from the Americas, and voices from other vibrant ecologies around the globe, might lead the way out of our present climate crisis and into a truly decolonial future.

Thank you !

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