Sleep Baby, Slumber

there’s a quiet space inside you that is tender
and its solitude will sink you like a stone
everybody likes to tell you it gets better
’cause they all have tender spaces of their own

and they’d rather do anything but remember
when they knew that space was eating them alive
so they sometimes have to empty out their corners
but that somehow leaves you no place left to hide

so you think maybe with your life
you can buy back your illusions
maybe in your time
you will turn towards what’s to come
and maybe in a dream
you will stumble upon something

that is more than what it seems
more than what it seems

so sleep baby, sweet baby
sleep baby, slumber

i once heard a song that rocked me like a cradle
but its whispers make me shiver in my bones
they remind me of a place i’ll never get to
to a time before i knew i had no home

and i never thought the day would finally find me
when i’d lay before my feet my soldier’s shield
when i’d say before the buzzards all around me
take my flesh, for i have nothing left to wield

so you think maybe with my life
i could buy back my illusions
and maybe in my time
i could turn towards what’s to come
and maybe in a dream
we would stumble upon something
that is more than what it seems
more than what it seems

so sleep baby, sweet baby
sleep baby, slumber


LIGHTBULB MOMENTS – Hypothesis

Hypothesis by Kemi Bennings
Kemi Bennings is a poet/griot, actress, healer and vegan/vegetarian chef based in Atlanta, GA. Her life's work is "inspiring a generation of artistic change..." Learn more at www.soulsistasjukejoint.com or myspace.com/kemibennings

this moment’s thought:

You = U
U = Universe
“uni” + “verse” = One Journey
One Journey – U = OM

Song for the End of Days

This is a song for the end of days.
Rest your weary head.
Take a long look, steady your gaze,
Remember how you bled.
Take a good breath and let it go
Deep into the darkness.
Never regret what you didn’t know.
This is a time for yes.

chorus
You will stand again
And yes you will dance again
Even here at the end of days.

This is a song for the end of days
There no use in denying
All the wrong turns that set your life ablaze
Give no excuse for crying.
Take a good breath and let it all go
Deep into a sweet caress.
Never regret what you couldn’t know.
Just this once say yes.

chorus
You will shine again
And yes you will smile again
Even here at the end of days.

Yes you will dance again
And yes you will laugh again
And yes you will live again
Even here at the end of days.


Tavis Smiley Takes Me To Task, Part II

Yesterday Kenito asked for specifics that support my position on the “responsible citizen” remaining critical of his own propensity for criticism, and I woke up thinking about when I first got exposed to the value of digging deeper and not just pointing the finger.

I went to a New England boarding school for high school where we had students from all over the world. The school tried to be as socially progressive and responsible as it could, and fairly extensive sensitivity training was built in to our orientation upon arrival. The school’s motto was “Non Sibi,” not for one’s self, and they made an effort to drive that point home through almost every aspect of the curriculum. As a result, we were some fairly socially conscious teenagers.

I was in high school in the years right before the fall of apartheid, and en masse, we naive little progressive intellectuals were simply outraged that a socio-economic system like apartheid could still exist. We wanted to blame someone and we wanted to make a difference, so we started accusing our school administrators of being hypocrites for not having divested in South Africa. We had a list of 30-40 products being imported from South Africa, and we wanted to know exactly where were our granny smith apples coming from! (To this day I get a little sick to my stomach when I see diamonds, even though they’re my birthstone.)

So we urged our school to divest and we urged our families to divest. When we went home, we took our lists to the grocery stores with our parents and were quite effective product police. When we got back to school, we were incensed enough to hold a demonstration on the steps of our library. We’re talking kids from every socio-economic background. Everybody seemed to care, and we thought the only way to make a difference was to keep pointing fingers until someone felt compelled to own up to their hypocrisy.

Then one day, one of the South African exchange students asked me why we were making such a big deal about divesting. Did we not understand that world-wide divesting was squeezing their economy dry and the poor were bearing the brunt of the burden? Our hearts were in the right place, but perhaps our tactics were misguided.

That was 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and apartheid finally ended as the functioning socio-economic structure in South Africa in 1993. The struggle to end apartheid was by no means simple, nor was the effort to begin the work of rebuilding the nation. And even though the evil nature of apartheid was an obvious no brainer, (I swear I had dreams that Pieter Botha was the devil himself), that obvious reality didn’t make ending it or rebuilding in the context of a new paradigm any simpler.

One of the first things done under Mandela’s presidency was the assembly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – TRUTH *and* RECONCILIATION – both were required and all sides were held accountable for their actions, but not without the option of amnesty if requested. I remember thinking this was the most revolutionary act I’d ever witnessed, an oppressed body expressing the difference between “blame” and “accountability,” meeting pain, despair and injustice with humanity – WHAT?!! Moreover, the TRC ended up being the first of nineteen public hearings for Truth and Reconciliation held internationally. I think it quite possible that apartheid would not have ended when it did, nor would this important work have occurred, if Nelson Mandela had come out of prison spitting hate and pointing fingers.

According to Hunter S. Thompson, “at the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.” Human beings have so much more power than we sometimes realize. No matter what our intentions, we all have the ability to feed the flames of our crazy world or to help something else emerge. Even when we, the responsible citizens who still give a damn think we know what is “right,” we can’t always know the right thing to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t act, just that we should continue to do our best, but remain curious about the results of our actions, and do what we can to try to grow into more effective forces for productive change.

Tavis Smiley Takes Me To Task

This week I was honored with a chance to talk to two of my living heroes Mr. Tavis Smiley and the venerable Dr. Cornel West for their weekly Radio Broadcast “Smiley and West” from Public Radio International.

Although I expect my next conversation with these two fine gentlemen to be about my work, this week I was asked to elaborate on a comment left on their “Speak Out Hotline” regarding what I heard as their challenge to mainstream media and public officials to comment more on the long-standing hypocritical relationships our government has sustained with the now crumbling regimes in North Africa. I don’t know how our talk will be edited, but I’m posting this for anyone interested in my notes on my position.

The episode should air Friday morning and can be downloaded from their official website www.smileyandwest.com.

A Criticism of Unilateral Criticism
1. There is a difference between criticism and critical analysis, and our current climate of reductionist criticism creates an environment where something that might be subtle and complicated can easily be painted or construed as unilaterally hypocritical.

TWO DANGERS OF CRITICISM OVER CRITICAL ANALYSIS:
1. DISCOURAGES transparency
2. ENCOURAGES imperialist arrogance. Takes away leadership’s incentive to learn how not to disrespect and ultimately underestimate other world leaders, whether or not we agree with them.

***We don’t want to be complacent, but we have to project the sense that we are open to more multi-dimensional and sometimes very difficult truths.***

SO:
A. Yes! ENCOURAGE TRANSPARENCY. That’s what I think you’re aiming for hoping that transparency can yield more responsible decisions. But ‘m not convinced that we encourage transparency with criticism. I think we have to be more creative in our approach.

B. I would hope we could DISCOURAGE our current “SELECTIVE” IMPERIALIST ARROGANCE and ENCOURAGE UNILATERAL RESPECT, especially among leaders we don’t agree with. (For example, maybe if we had “respected” Hitler and his power among his people we wouldn’t have underestimated him…) We must be mindful about how to approach that. Acknowledge that now we’re doing it only with countries we need something from. How can we, the people, propel that into broader policy? Again, I think we have to be more creative.

For those of us who believe in the vision and peaceful warriorship of Dr. King the truths we pursue and reveal have nothing to do with being right. Now as far as I’m concerned, it’s fine for Mr. Smiley and Dr. West to go on about it because you try to speak from love and, from what I can tell of your listenership, you’re preaching to an already glorious choir. But It doesn’t make sense for us to get mad when our elected officials prove that they’ve never seen the promised land. We share this planet with them so it’s up to us to get them there. We have to show them the way, cause if we don’t, we’re all going down together.

A FRUITLESS SCENARIO
Politicians are like crazy teenagers who think they know everything and will say whatever they think we want to hear in order to get us off their backs. Always trying to get one over on us and don’t even know it when they’re in over their heads until it’s too late. The “responsible world citizen” meaning one who still feels some degree of responsibility for creating a better human experience, can seem like the well-meaning, nagging parent that criticizes everything the child does. If we want the child to tell us the truth, we have to let them know we’re open to hearing it. Some times our anger and disdain does the opposite. So we don’t want to be complacent, but we have to project the sense that we are open to more multi-dimensional and sometimes very difficult truths.

How Can You Keep From Singing?

Jazz singer and fierce, self-made woman René Marie was featured on NPR’s homepage today, along with a clip from her controversial rendering of the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” from her folk/jazz/blues/gospel/freedom suite “Voice of My Beautiful Country.”

Read the full story here.

I’m glad the conversation is still open about this. Incidentally, Liz and I went by personal invitation to see Ms. Marie perform this piece when her ensemble debuted it in Denver back in 2008. By the end of the piece, Liz was in tears and Ms. Marie’s audience was on its feet. They had all been “taken to church” in a way I rarely experience in the best of Jazz clubs these days.

Incidentally, Ms. Marie had also asked me to attend the fated event that led to this amazing controversy. I didn’t get to go due to a debilitating spider bite of all things. She had said she wanted me there “for support,” but to be quite honest, I really didn’t get what she meant.

Call me naïve, but I never could have imagined the rage and controversy that bringing these two beautiful, resonant and hopeful songs together would stimulate. I guess growing up Black American, I had never had the disadvantage of learning to fear this song known as the “Black National Anthem.” Furthermore, I never imagined that any song, much less one so fundamentally peaceful and humanist in nature, could inspire such vitriol, regardless of the context in which it was delivered.

I think it can sometimes be an act of compassion not to threaten the fearful at every turn, and because of that at times as musicians and artists, the many roles we play can show up as duplicitous. But as much as I appreciate the calming effect of pleasantries as it were, I fear for a culture whose art appreciators can no longer accommodate challenge. I mean, in what context can you reveal a song like “Dixie” as the strange-fruit-terror it is for some of us, if not in jazz?

The jazz language is plenty rich and nuanced enough to do the work of revelation and reconciliation in a context where angst and anger aren’t even relevant. It can point to fuller truths, dark and light, in ways that can do so much as to point to new possibilities for the evolution of the species, and yet its “appreciators” are driving a market where opportunities for these challenges and revelations are less and less likely to occur.

This being said, the seemingly conservative audience in Denver LOVED the challenges posed by Ms. Marie at those Dazzle performances in Denver – all of which were sold out, including a last minute added matinee. Perhaps it was because the artist had the opportunity to build a bridge for the listener – place her journey with each song in a broader context and help repel quick assumptions.

I just feel like there must have been a time when the artist was granted a little more autonomy – a little more authority – like a medicine man, poet or preacher… and that seat made the tough truths they delivered go down more like a much needed asofoetida tonic, never mind how unpleasant the taste. But nowadays it seems, and this is certainly not to discredit the very real virtues of the placebo affect, that otherwise fertile minds have become slaves to a market that in large part only distributes sugar pills.

I wish you all could have been there at those first Dazzle performances. At the show Liz & I attended, the audience applause was so enthusiastic, it could only be hushed by Ms. René’s humble encore: an a cappella rendering of “How Can I Keep From Singing.” Oh, you should’a seen me cryin’ like a baby during this one! I guess my tears could be a function of the fact that as an artist and a singer, I’ve been very much a “tree in the forest” for as long as I’ve been making music. I’m sure you can imagine that despite all the voices and the endless beauty present in any internal landscape, it can quite lonely out here in the forest, and I sometimes find it difficult to persist. But in the two and a half minutes it took for Ms. René to sing this ageless tune, I was reminded of just how penetrating our simple, quiet honesty can be. How could I keep from singing?

From what I know of her, René Marie is an artist who does her best to remain true to the still small voice of her inner experience, and for that reason alone, I hope you all go out and get her new recording, “My Beautiful Country.”

LIGHTBULB MOMENTS – Who do you think you are?

OK! I am celebrating people!

For once, my typical creative-person angst has chosen to subside and right now I am deep in the throws of a total anti-crisis. I’m sure my life-long torrential pursuit of purpose and meaning will re-surface in its usual incarnation of self-doubt and ennui, but in this moment, I feel like I may actually have some idea about who I am after all, whatever on earth that means.

So here’s the deal:

Lately I’ve been asking myself some of those existential questions that at some point in my life I could take for granted as self-evident, only to later realize I didn’t have words to clearly articulate their answers.

They are:
1. What is my ikigai/raison d’etre?
2. What would I like to be when I grow up/ Who would I like to be in this lifetime?
3. What would I like to do with this lifetime?
4. What’s the point of my art?
5. Why music?

When I went to reeeeeaaalllllly focused in on trying to discover answers for these questions, the words “to awaken compassion” kept popping up… but the light didn’t really start to fade in until today while I was shamelessly reveling in my love of music.

Now I love music. Have I mentioned that before? I love music so earnestly, so deeply, that it’s actually kind of embarrassing. I’m like a teenager who has a crush so all they know how to talk about is object of said crush. “Music this, music that…Did music call today? I wonder if music likes me back…I bet music is gonna go find a prettier girl, etc.” I’m a one trick pony, a broken record, a hopeless obsessive.

I used to assume that the love of music was enough reason to pursue it. I used to say the one good thing about my relationship with music was that at least it left no ambiguity regarding what I would be doing with my life. (Boy did I miss the mark on that one.) Recently, let’s say intermittently over the last 3-4 years, I’ve been going through a season where that basic precept has been in question. Pouring my very best love and intentions into the music I’ve made had yielded only marginal external validation. Knowing this was not an unusual circumstance for people living alternative lifestyles of the creative persuasion, I was left wondering why the validation factor mattered to me, and if it mattered so much to me, why even bother trying to make art? Better I should just get a little office job, and quietly humble myself into I life without passion.

After a while, it became clear that passion or not, music was not going to “go quietly into that good night.” No matter how uncertain I felt creatively, music just kept showing up. For example, the whole time I was recording “Out From Yonder,” my most successful (and incidentally, my most self-representative) recording to date, making music was as essentially “uninspired” as going to the toilet. A fundamental function of my being, but certainly nothing to write home about.

Well life threw me a few curve balls last year, and these days, I’m just so thankful for all of the love in my life that this particular line of questioning and self doubt has essentially has been rendered irrelevant. Simply put, I am in love with making music, and though we can’t ever really predict who or what we fall in love with, we sometimes get glimpses into why our love feels so penetrating.

Well folks, today I caught just such a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. It flickered in the light a little, and when I turned my head to face it dead on something rang out as both focused and true. What was it about music that hit so close to home for me? I’m still figuring out what this means, but it suddenly became clear that it is music’s unique and immediate ability to awaken compassion that was my hook!

Well that’s all well and good you might say. A lot of people would agree that music has some mysterious ability to access emotion, or that it’s fundamentally a social modality. There’s certainly plenty of research being done on why that may be, indeed how music may have been an integral part of our evolution. But my question was why would music’s ability to “awaken compassion” be such a hook for me in particular?

I quickly realized that as far as I can tell, my soul/heart/mind/being/higher self’s clearest motivation has always been to awaken compassion. Sounds a bit lofty and somewhat self-important I know, but this theme is present in nearly every conversation I’ve ever had, certainly every conversation I can remember. I seem to always be trying to find pathways to awakening other people’s compassion, primarily for themselves, although I sometimes enter the rocky terrain of trying build bridges towards compassion for others. Now this fundamental motivation, my home key if you will, can go all over the map when it starts modulating. It can manifest as naïve, self-righteous, tedious even. But it is the most persistent presence in my life in fact… and when I follow this feeling down its windy little rabbit hole, it goes straight to the center of what I know how to experience as being-ness itself. It goes to that space and FILLS IT COMPLETELY.

This feeling can and does distort itself into an intense yearning or desire, but it too has a steady nature that lies beneath its more emotive manifestations. It appears to remain constant, despite my relentless efforts to assess it, judge it, subjugate it, question it, devalue it or entirely dismiss it based on my ego based orientation to it. I will admit that because this fundamental vibration could care less what I think of it, I do take a little comfort in knowing that it at least appears to point at something that is “basically good.” With my luck, I could have been born with a fundamental playing in the key of serial killer.

The interesting thing is, my egoic self seems to have a tendency to want to direct this intention/vibration inward and apply language like “awaken compassion in myself, awaken myself to compassion, awaken to my own compassion” etc., but the fundamental actively asserts itself “against” this language demanding that I (ego) try to understand that while those things may very well be involved in helping it accomplish its goal, they are by no means the “point” as it were. It goes on to assert that it is not necessary for me to “wait” to be fully awakened to compassion in order to go about the work of awakening compassion in others…it says I shouldn’t delude myself into thinking I need it any less than others do, but that in this lifetime, it is others that matter. it won’t tell me why and it says, quite frankly, it doesn’t have to.

All of this is a lot of words that boil down to the following:

1. What is my ikigai?
To love my family and to use music to awaken compassion.

2. What would I like to be when I grow up/Who would i like to be in this lifetime?
a vessel for awakening compassion

3. What would I like to do with my lifetime?
To use music to awaken compassion in others in order to help alleviate the suffering of suffering

4. What’s the point of my art?
to awaken compassion

5. Why music?
Because of its unique ability to awaken compassion

That’s it. That’s me in a nutshell. If i look back, those answers have been true for as long as I can remember, but they’ve been too close to my nose for me to see. Maybe they’ll shift into something else later, but for this moment now, I think I know who I am.

Yay!