A BaNtu proverb says: “What you think belongs to you, but what you say belongs to the community.” This consciousness is extended further through the dynamics of African musical expression which, from a culturally-centered perspective is properly regarded as an enhanced form of speaking. By Malaika Mutere
The African term nommo (meaning ‘the generative power of the word’) conveys that speech is itself conceptualized as being the equivalent of the seed [masculine]. Before its media-related usage, the term “broadcast” originally referred to the sowing of seeds by scattering them widely over the land [feminine]. Using the broadcast of pop music as a paradigm of proof, one can thus extrapolate that Africa has made unique contributions to communication which are globally-significant. From American platforms, Africa’s cultural custodians who’d inherited and harnessed these ancient, organic modes of communication were able to evolve music genres unlike any other that captivated and cultivated the popular imagination and guided people’s sense of engagement.
UbuNtu, the philosophical term meaning “I am, because We are…” (masculine-feminine, individual-collective, etc.) is key to understanding the state of communal grace and balance towards which Africa’s fully-matured, humanizing modes of oral discourse have aspired over the millennia. Given the traumas of having family affiliations, cultural identities, and communication networks destroyed as stolen Africans were shipped under horrific conditions as chattel to the Americas within the last 500 years, it’s a wonder that any cultural heritage survived let alone became one of the world’s most powerful civilizing forces.
Joseph E. Holloway (2005) posits that a culturally-homogeneous foundation for expression in the New World came through the BaNtu from Central Africa, who comprised about 40% of enslaved Africans. Typically assigned to the fields, BaNtu were less subject to assimilation than other African counterparts who were enslaved to work in the masters’ houses. Holloway explains that it was largely due to this set of circumstances that the BaNtu presence remained relatively unhampered and became firmly rooted as the predominant influence in what we recognize today as African-American music and cultural identity. In New York: the Secret African City , as elsewhere (2005: 283-325), Robert Farris Thompson details how influential African orally-based communication traditions continue to be in America today.
“Music is culture and what musicians do is society… Of all the functions of music, the communicative function is perhaps the least known and understood.” This argument by American-school ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam was aimed against the preoccupation with laboratory-based analyses of music samples collected in Germany’s African colonies which birthed the comparative-musicology discipline. Mantle Hood similarly believed that in the latter half of the 20th century, the very existence of humankind may well depend upon the accuracy of their communications, therefore this should be ethnomusicology’s critical mission. (Waterman, 1993)
However communication studies in the same American knowledge industry are themselves preoccupied with “transportation theories,” according to Marshall McLuhan (1964:15), which (i) are intimately tied to the phonetic alphabet’s linear patterns, an ideal sequential technology for industrial-mechanical processing; (ii) confuse this single technology of literacy with a “universal” thesis of reason, uniformity, and progress; (iii) thus provide a “rational” basis for the objectification of different communication paradigms and conquest of those who operate from them. This ‘conquest’ has often been waged through the execution of contracts…
“If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you,” Prince famously argued as he battled against the Warner Brothers [WB] label for control and ownership of his creative output (a notorious problem for Black artists in the White-owned music industry). “WB took my name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music I wrote… The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for WB.”
Prince fought back in 1993 by changing his name to an unpronounceable ankh-like ‘love-symbol’ and sporting the word “SLAVE” on his cheek, effectively taking his very name out of the industry ‘massah’s’ collective mouth. To copy-editors and others unable to pronounce let alone write his new name, Prince became the Artist Formerly Known As… “It is an unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified. It’s all about thinking in new ways, tuning in 2 a new free-quency,” the artist explained about the resources he’d accessed and strategically deployed from his cultural heritage.
By operationalizing his “free-quency” of origin in this way, Prince was opposing Eurocentric transportation modes with an effective, pre-existing Africa-centered transformation communication paradigm. As Walter Ong (1982: 8) has pointed out, “Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality.” Arguing against extended transportation models [‘…author-text-dealer-agent-etc.-audience…’] as patriarchal and alienating, Heide Göttner-Abendroth (1985: 83) advocates for the matriarchal alternative – a dynamic “process which takes place between the participants… with a positive impact on reality.” In his two-cradle theory of humankind, Cheikh Anta Diop (1990: 163) argues that an aggressive northern, Euro-patriarchal cradle emerged as a latter-day antithesis to the southern cradle which is African, matriarchal, and humane in its cultural ethos.
The oral-aesthetic perspective offers an organic, Africa-centered transformation communication theory by which Africa’s unique cultural agency and contributions to humanity might be evaluated on their own well-established terms. Cultural expression and musical genres in the Diaspora (spirituals, blues, gospel, soul, funk, jazz, reggae, ska, rumba, samba, merengue, R&B, hip-hop, etc.) are thus viewed primarily as aesthetic manifestations of a dynamic orally-driven BaNtu heritage and its guiding philosophical principles and intentions. Characteristic motifs and principles that comprise the oral-aesthetic perspective within this Africa-centered universe of forces include: UbuNtu; MuNtu/BaNtu; KiNtu; HaNtu; KuNtu; Nommo; Call-Response; Mojo/Kimoyo; Masquerade; Talking Drum; Kinetic Orality; and Jazz.
Sankofa is an Akan expression that advocates reclaiming that which was lost/stolen from our heritage in order to move forward. The oral-aesthetic perspective does so under the cultural mandate of UbuNtu by reevaluating the communication motifs a brutalized African community has exercised as part of its unique heritage, ability and agency to repair and transform humanity itself.
*This article forms part of a larger work Br Dr Mutere which appeared in Communicatio