The music of black souls

With music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me’ Freud (1914)

‘I am black. I am the incarnation of a complete fusion with the world, an intuitive understanding of the earth, an abandonment of my ego in the heart of the cosmos and no white man no matter how intelligent he may be can ever understand Louis Armstrong and the music of the Congo’ Fanon (1952)

Music and the self

I have been thinking about music and about writing about music for a long time. I am not entirely sure where I am going with the present piece, I have not written in a little while but I have been thinking. About African music in particular and, my attachment to it. But also about music and love. Music and sex. Music and intimacy. Music and roots. Music and liberation. Music and connection.

I am not a musicologist but it’s no secret that I am a music lover. I listen to all genres although I do have a sweet spot for African music particularly for Congolese music.

It is a strange experience. Each time I try to write about music, I struggle. I usually find things that are deeply meaningful, can be the hardest to ascribe intellectual meaning to and so I wonder about the depth of the issues, about the root of this thesis which may make vocalisation hard. Perhaps this is because this vocalisation is attempting to translate into conceptual language what is best spoken through the language of the body and the senses. Still, I want to give words a chance.

I have been wondering why black people and white people at group level at least, dance so differently. Why we differ in how we move. I think it speaks something of our relationship to our body. Our relationship to the world. With the erotic. With intimacy. I continue to be curious about how we’re socialised to occupy space so differently. How we learn to move, respond and hear different rhythms and how this in part, says something about domination and power.

I think our relationship to the musical holds important cues about how we inhabit the world and how we relate to it that can be difficult to speak meaningfully to, outside of the embodied. That it speaks of our connection to others and, our connection to our self but also to the past and, to the universe and, our place within the same.

Splitting, fear and mastery

The quotes above capture something of this tension. For Freud, music is clearly evocative of fear, of danger. Fear of losing control of the self, of relating to or being in the world outside of a rational frame of understanding. The fear of being thrown into a dark abyss and entering a realm where the self is experienced as out of bound, ultimately unknown, verbally indescribable and intellectually ungraspable. A fear perhaps of the preverbal, perhaps even of the unconscious, of the repressed. A fear of losing self-mastery thus mastery of the so-called ‘primitive’ Other that exists within.

Engaging with African music at soul level necessarily takes us to a different realm of communication, a different world of sense making, a dimension which fundamentally challenges linear and dualist engagement with the world and separatist worldviews. The opposite of Cartesian mind-body dualism. An engagement that connects rather than splits and separates thus consequently something that calls for unity, integration and interconnectedness.

Music has long been associated with spirituality and transcendence of the self. In the West, this relationship was lessened during the so called enlightenment. As I have previously noted, individualism or disconnection from the sensory realm, the spiritual and natural world, make it easier to rape, murder, dominate and destroy the planet and to rationalise the same away.

And so we can see that sensory mastery and control of the unconscious, betray a colonial relationship with the self and the world and the reproduction of capitalist socio-economic configurations. Music, particularly African rhythms invite us to re-connect to the natural world, to ourselves and to others in an intimate manner. This intersection of multiple subjectivities, across generations and history is a rich source of life and meaning.

Music and heritage

When I was a child the nostalgia filled stories and memories of my parents were recounted to the sound of Congolese drumming (sebene) in the background. African parents are not culturally the most routinely demonstrative when it comes to love or affection. Particularly when it comes to romantic feelings. Not those of my parents’ generation anyway. But they danced rumba. And rumba dances are pretty much the only occasions I remember my parents showing each other affection and staring lovingly at each other’ eyes in public.

Rumba is a sensual and fluid dance. It is quite erotically charged too, like so much Congolese music, yet it has a tenderness and intimacy at its core which makes it bonding and connecting.

My parents and migrant and displaced parents generally do not consciously seek to pass on their love of music or the traditions and stories carried within the music they listen and dance to. All the same, music carries through time and space personal and group histories. Passing on music is thus also passing on heritage, culture and again, connection. With this transmission, collective knowledge, worldviews, healing and resistance practices are shared and thus, survive.

The musical experience transmits implicit and explicit messages such as freedom, trust and, an attitude of openness to what comes, the celebration of the body or of the erotic, harmonious union. I do not speak the language of my ancestors but I can dance to the same drums and my heart vibrates to the same rhythms and so somehow we can still be at one. I find this incredibly vital to my wellness in this world. I have previously argued that one of the reasons that there is so much psychological distress among the second or third generation of so called migrants within the African diaspora and those even further removed, is in part because of this disconnection. Disconnection from ancestral lands, cultures, ways of knowing and being.

This disconnection is amplified in contexts of exclusion and marginalisation. This cultural homelessness that so many of us have to learn to be at home with, is constantly triggered by everyday micro aggression and subtle othering messages within white supremacy. It is within this sense of homelessness that so much intergenerational trauma resonates and that it is carried through, beyond individualised coping and resistance strategies, there must therefore be community-level healing which nurtures the soul and strengthens our bonds, music has always had this potential.

The politics of African music

When I started individual psychotherapy, a few years back I shared in an early session that I loved African Music with my then psychotherapist. I will never forget her response. She looked intensely at me after I spoke these words. I observed her carefully. We remained silent for a minute or two, she eventually remarked, ‘I can better understand why you would be experiencing some of difficulties within structures’.

A part of me was puzzled by her response. Another must have thought it understood since I did not seek any clarification or asked her for an explanation. Something about my affinity with African rhythms caused her to pause and to think. Something which perhaps spoke to a structural mismatch, my dancing to different drums. Perhaps it was evidencing some kind of cultural if not epistemic clash, perhaps a rebelliousness. Perhaps a defiance. An irreverence. Certainly this is how I now make sense of it all.

There may be more than a kernel of truth in this swift assessment. It is clear that my love of Congolese music is deliberate. In a context of anti-blackness and anti-African hatred or contempt, we are all socialised to both despise so called ‘primitive’ African artistic and intellectual productions and to exploit them, in the same breath. This is how the Master operates, remember?

So, there are many of us who miss out on African art and creations to their own prejudices and the decolonisation they’re still to engage in within themselves. I do not believe it is possible to love and revere all music inspired and rooted in African beats, rhythms and traditions and truly dislike the source or original, it does not make much sensory or intellectual sense, unless you factor in whiteness.

African drums are good for the soul. They ground and heal. And my love once more, is political. In the same way one may choose to wear an Afro not only because they’re beautiful but also out of defiant conviction, we can choose to remember the culture of our ancestors or heritage rather than assimilate it away within white supremacy. By embracing that heritage, we choose to resist. We choose to trace the traces of our being through time and space and we honour those who came before us.

Concluding thoughts

Drumming has been repeatedly found to have positive effects on trauma related distress. It seems to me we could all learn from this ancient healing practice used to build community, restore wellness and seek liberation. A remedy that comes free with African music…Evidence also suggests building racial or ethnic identity strength may be a powerful buffer against racial trauma and racism related distress. Another reason for us to engage with ancestral or parental culture. But that is not all, for Fanon, being and indeed being black, represents living in this rhythm, in fusion, connected to the world in a way that allows access to deep meaning and truth through means that are not necessarily dependent on rationality. It is trusting the self enough to let go, to abandon it to the forces of the universe. Without wanting to essentialise whiteness or blackness or even magnify racial binary constructions or contrasts, I think there is something in this perspective that is dancing around what I am grappling with. A connection that is deeply spiritual. An ancestral truth. An experience that transcends words and which is a source of wellness and power. Perhaps a song that can only be danced rather than written.


For a few of my favourite Congolese tunes, click here.

References (not hyperlinked)

Fanon F (1952) Black Skin White Masks. London: Paladin.

Freud S (1914) The Moses of Michelangelo”. Standard Edition, Vol. XIII, p. 211.

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