Western Thought and the African Dilemma

The world is very troubled right now and I think a large part of that is due to how most people have been conditioned to think. Just the idea of thought itself is problematic. To many, thought is often seen as an active proposition — but at its best — thinking is more of a passive state. Thought is very elusive, as the harder you think, the less thoughtful you are.

The mind is like a glass; it’s most useful when empty.

The question is: With what are we filling that glass?

When Europeans colonized, raped and pillaged Africa, it wrought devastation upon the Motherland from which she still has yet to recover. Of all the atrocities the Europeans committed against Mother Africa and her peoples, perhaps the biggest was Christianity. Of all the infectious disease they brought with them, religion may have been the worst. The Europeans’ distorted recount on the history of Jesus has proved to be one of the most effective means of enslaving Africans. Shackles are easy to shake, but to free a conditioned mind is near impossible.

What I am expressing here is not anti-Jesus. I love Jesus, what I don’t dig is what has been done in His name.

The good news is that Black people have known themselves longer than not. With respect to the history of the world, African displacement — both physical and mental — is a relatively new construct. From that point of view, 500 years isn’t that long at all. Which means the amount of work required to remember who we are may not be as bad as some might think.

The biggest obstacle towards reclaiming Black Thought is not teaching Africans who have forgotten their old ways, but how to get them to think outside of the Western ideal.

New habits are easy to adopt, but bad habits die slowly.

We were taught that everything we practiced was wrong; our spiritual ceremonies, our gods, our relationship with the ancestors — all of it. Most African people are ashamed of their history and the only impression they have of it is typically the one they’ve been given.

Blacks in America are taught to be afraid of voodoo; that to connect and communicate with the spirits of the otherworld is evil and can be deadly. And if one violates what God and Christ wants, your soul will be damned to hell. This is all untrue.

The truth is: Our survival depends on ancestry. It is our insight into the past, present and future. Without a connection to them, we are not really alive. When a White woman bonds with her White Virgin Mary, she is connecting to her ancestor. As a Black woman, don’t you deserve the same?

This physical world is only a finite reflection of a vast spiritual universe that exists beyond. The ancestors act as intermediaries. We, too, are ancestors, but by denying our agents on the other side, we deny ourselves.

This ain’t no spooky stuff I’m talking about here. This is all about energy. Energy is a force of life and that which is living never dies; it just changes form. I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation in the traditional sense, or a heaven that people go to when they leave their physical bodies — but as energetic beings — our loved ones never leave us. And in that sense, an earthly loss is an ancestral gain.

We actually know all this already, but most of us have either forgotten or have suppressed it because we are taught to be afraid. The reality of it is there’s more harm in us not establishing a relationship with our ancestors. We need them. They also need us. We have a responsibility to help and heal each other. There’s an ongoing dialog that is to take place between us and them. In fact, there is no “us” and “them.” We are one.

We don’t learn anything, we just reawaken the dormant areas of our mind.

We are trained to think in binary terms, so if you are not for something, you must be against it. Life is more colorful than that. It’s almost like saying you can’t be spiritual and scientific. The idea that these are diametrically opposed to one another is a hindrance towards understanding the full spectrum.

For instance, there often appears to be a fundamental split between those who operate by logic versus intuition, whereas the only difference in my mind between these two things is the process by which how quickly one comes to a resolution. Another example of how the Western concept of time creates a conundrum.

Those who play music should be intimately attuned to negotiating between the physical and spiritual realms. Sound is an invisible but quantifiable force. We use physical instruments to produce a spiritual result. This is why music is a universal language. It defies category.

It’s why I don’t consider myself a musician at all. I am an artist, who at times uses music as a means of expression. Music is a very powerful tool, and the space from which it emanates within one’s soul is of primary importance.

The greatest artists are not working with music, they’re building sonic mythologies by which people can use to breakdown the elusive obstacles that tend to separate us from our best selves.

So, that is what music does at its best. So what can music do at its worst? Well, it can do just the opposite. It can be used to create or reinforce chasms with the individual’s mind/body/spirit or divide people up amongst themselves. Conversely, it can be used to bring people together.

Music is inherently empty, it takes a life lived to imbue a set of notes, chords and rhythms with meaningful purpose.

When I speak of the African Dilemma and Black Thought, there’s a larger operation at play here. I speak of reclaiming what’s originally ours; that our gods and methods were good enough that we didn’t have to adopt those of our oppressor. And I’m not sure if the gist of what I’m saying here is an anti-West sentiment. I can’t say for certain that Western thought is intrinsically bad, but for the Black mind, it has proven to be quite harmful.

For the Black American community, music has been our greatest ally. It has swept contempt from the corners of our oppressor’s mind that the broom of justice could never reach.

The Black artist is needed to change the images his people identify with, by asserting Black feeling, Black mind, Black judgement. 

— Amiri Baraka

The commodification of our cultural language has served to put a damper on what progress we’ve made post-chattel slavery. Along with our desires to be accepted and assimilate into Western culture, it has been our downfall. To the point where the more superficially dangerous we appear to be on the outside, it’s likely we’re less of a threat to the system.

We’re slow to pay deference towards our great ancestors, but will hastily give our last dollar to adorn ourselves with the physical trappings of a failing capitalist structure that was designed to keep us on the outside. And we will remain this way as long as we allow others to define who we are, what we do and how we do it — and that’s no JAZZ.

We have been removed so far from our ancestors, for so long, we don’t recognize them when they show up. We’ve erected such a massive wall of protection just to survive, that we’ve obscured the vulnerability and humility needed to dialog with them. We have shut our ancestors out. Our circuitry needs to be rewired — posthaste.

Our strength is in our sensitivity.

We need to embrace our traditions now more than ever. The light on our recall is growing dim and the spark needs to be reignited, in the name of all things Black. We must work tirelessly to reestablish and fortify our genealogical ties with those who came before us so that we leave a better place for those to come.

Even though we haven’t really been listening, the ancestors still talk to us. Those whom I’ve known and many I don’t know have shown up in my life often — particularly while I’m in performance. There’s something about the bandstand that attracts a high ancestral presence, especially if you emit a certain energy that is conducive towards their kinship.

I don’t practice to sound good; I practice to prepare my temple for whenever The Spirit or The Ancestors decide to pass through my playing. If you don’t create a comfortable environment for them, they may not show up.

And — Black or not — we’re all African!


— Nicholas Payton aka The Creator of #BAM