The origins of my ancestry go back to Portugal and Africa; the colonizer and the colonized. I used to joke about it being one more contradiction in the endless list that make up my being. However, when I began to ask my mother about her side of the family I learned that they were not from the main land, but from the islands of Madeira and Cape Verde, which was formerly an African island, with a revolutionary history of struggles for liberation. My family was poor and immigrated to the central valley as farmers. I found the connections between my ancestors on both my mother and fathers side so fascinating. There is a shared history of being colonized, and colonial situations often produce an interesting exchange of culture that we see reflected in the arts. One example of this is in the music of Cape Verdian singer Cesaria Evora, who is also the subject of this post, and who I am happy to share ancestry with.
The Republic of Cape Verde is an island country off the coast of West Africa. They were ‘discovered’ and colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century, where the country became an important location in the international slave trade, and the main economic source within the country. When the slave trade declined in the 19th century the country went into economic crisis with the Portuguese doing little over the years to fix the situation, and refusing to give autonomy to the people, who inhabited the islands. This created a sense of anger amongst the people, who were already politicized by the colonial conditions. A revolutionary anti-colonial movement developed on the islands, led by Marxist, nationalist guerilla Amilcar Cabral, pictured above. Cabral was a military leader within the movement, setting up training camps to train other guerillas in military tactics to prepare for the insurrection to take back the islands as an African nation. He was a skilled military leader, as well as a poet, and an anti-colonial, revolutionary theoretician, who is as significant as Frantz Fanon. Cape Verde won their independence in 1975 becoming The Republic of Cape Verde. This revolutionary history provided the backdrop for the conditions that singer Cesaria Evora was raised in on the islands, and which is reflected in her music.
Cesaria Evora was born on August 27th, 1941 in Cape Verde. She is known for popularizing the Cape Verdian music, morna, internationally. Her career as a singer started off slow with her first album getting released in 1988, with little buzz from the music industry. Her music didn’t start gaining momentum until the 90′s, where her 1995 album, Cesaria, was nominated for a grammy and she begin to tour all around the world. She is an amazing singer, but she is more than just an international sensation; she is more than just a few songs on a putumayo cd compilation; she is an artist, whose music gives us a glimpse into a history that is often kept away from us.
There is a tradition of colonized peoples using the arts to spread messages of resistance. On the slave plantations here in the US, slaves used music to communicate to each other; in Brazil slaves developed capoeira, which was an art form that combined music and martial arts. It provided slaves with training to survive and fight their colonizers, and is seen as a symbol of resistance today. Morna is another example of art, and its connection to struggles for liberation. When we learn about these different art forms we also learn about their revolutionary history, and can preserve it as we build upon these radical political and cultural contributions to the international struggle for liberation. Morna is the official music of Cape Verde; much like ‘the fado’ is for Portugal or ‘the tango’ in Argentina. It is often likened to the american Blues, because of its sadness and somber tone. This makes sense, because the origins of the American blues, like morna, lie within African colonization and slavery. The music is a product of this violent and oppressive encounter between European and African cultures. There is a cool weekly radio series on African and World music called Afropop Worldwide. One of their writers wrote a beautiful introduction to morna and I wanted to share a quote from it that illustrates the historical roots to this musical art form,
“The Cape Verde archipelago is remote, barren, rocky and subject to drought. During some five centuries of Portuguese domination, the islands served as a distribution point for West African slaves. Cape Verdeans were prized as crew on wailing ships, one of many opportunities that would steadily spirit them away from their families and homeland, so that today at least half of all Cape Verdeans no longer live on the beautiful islands their ancestors called home. Separateness, longing, scarcity and bitter memories of both man’s and nature’s wrath—such is the stuff of Cape Verdean sodade and of the wistful poetry at the heart of the morna repertoire.”
Art produced by the oppressed is often conscious of the oppressive and exploitative conditions we live in. Its not just happy or solely for enjoyment. It says something. It moves people. This is how it should be. There are many ways to express revolutionary politics and being creative with it is so important. That doesn’t mean it needs to be somber or depressing all the time, but it is nice when art is intelligent and really says something that inspires and uplifts people. Cesaria Evora’s music does just that. Her voice is incredible and rich full of emotion reflecting those soulful and bluesy qualities. Her folk songs are backed by a violin, clarinet, guitar, and other tradition portuguese and Cape Verdian instruments. Her songs tell stories of her countries painful history of colonization and isolation, as well as liberation, which is seen in the celebratory song Angola, featured below. Angola is an upbeat song celebrating the Angolan people and their revolutionary struggles for liberation. Another piece of art that spreads messages of revolutionary history and struggles that we must not forget. Culture cannot be separated from the political. One of Karl Marx’s many theoretical contributions was showing the social aspects and implications of the material structures of society; our positioning within the division of labor carries social power and effects the way we relate to ourselves and each other. Capitalism has a corresponding culture that helps support it materially; culturally it is grounded in patriarchal individualism and selfishess that helps support a system that is based on the reproduction of itself, profit, and not the reproduction of its people who it must exploit to survive. This method of thinking is reflected in bourgeois culture and schooling that brainwashes us to believe it as truth. When people begin to develop an individualistic mindset then it becomes easy for them to ignore the exploitative truths of the world, while trying to hustle to get a piece of the pie that we falsely believe we can obtain, because our schools and government tell us so. They don’t preach the reality that as long as there is one class in charge (the bourgeoisie) they will need another divided class (the proletariat), which they can exploit and control in order to reap all the benefits for themselves. As we struggle with dreams of a different way of living, one that is grounded in the collective survival of all living things, we will also have a corresponding culture that helps support such a way of life, and this will also be reflected in the art we produce. Amilcar Cabral has a beautiful quote about the relationship between culture and politics,
“A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.”
Yes! Liberation is an act of culture. Very powerful point. While I let that one marinade please check out Cesaria Evora’s uplifting song Angola. Revolutionary history that makes you wanna shake it off..what could be better!
Kreayshawn is the white woman rapper from Oakland, whose talentless performance of ‘urban’ ‘black’ culture, is gaining momentum in the corporate music world. Is it offensive? Yes! Does it make people angry at her appropriation of ‘blackness’ through stereotypes. Yes! Is it modern day blackface? To me it is. Is it anything new in this patriarchal white supremacist capitalist system? Unfortunately, no. Under capitalism everything has the potential to be transformed into a commodity, including racial identities, if it will accumulate profit. Kreayshawn is the most recent performer in a long line of white performers appropriating and commodifying racist stereotypes for entertainment and profit beginning in the 1830′s with the rise of minstrel shows.
The origins of racism lie within American Slavery and the development of Capitalism in the United States. US and British capitalists worked with the ruling class of African countries to develop this system and steal my ancestors, and exploit their labor to build the wealth of this country. Constructing racial identities to support white supremacy allowed working-class whites to internalize their ‘superiority’ while Africans internalized their ‘inferiority’, which resulted in the ideological training of people to accept their different positions and roles within the racist and sexist division of labor. This was necessary in order to prevent multi-racial class struggle, which had already started to take place between Africans, European indentured servants, and the indigenous people. Working-class whites did the plantation owners dirty work of disciplining rebelling slaves rather than joining the resistance to a system that was exploiting them too. In her groundbreaking marxist feminist pamphlet, Sex, Race & Class, Selma James speaks to the power of these false divisions becoming naturalized in our consciousness affecting the way we socially interact, and the type of revolutionary struggle we build. She writes,
“The social power relations of the sexes, races, nations and generations are precisely, then, particularized forms of class relations. These power relations within the working class weaken us in the power struggle between the classes. They are the particularized forms of indirect rule, one section of the class colonizing another and through this capital imposing its own will on us all. “
Consciousness is so powerful. The racist and sexist ideology that is built into the division of labor influences the way we relate to each other. We spend more time fearing and struggling with each other rather than against the system, and all this does is strengthen its control over us all. The ruling class knows this, which is why they feed us their lies in our public schools from Kindergarten through high school and college too. They inoculate us in bourgeois culture and their version of history and ‘freedom’ to pacify and confuse us. Fanon speaks to this in his brilliant piece of anti-colonial theory Wretched of the Earth, where he goes into detail in the first chapter “On Violence” on the various methods used by the colonizers to weaken the oppressed. He highlights education early on as a particular useful way of repressing the colonized. He writes,
“In capitalist societies, education, whether secular or religious, the teaching of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary integrity of workers decorated after fifty years of loyal and faithful service, the fostering of love for harmony and wisdom, those aesthetic forms of respect for the status quo, instill in the exploited a mood of submission and inhibition which considerably eases the task of the agents of the law and order.”
These ‘agents of law and order’ are the pigs, and they use their guns less when we passively accept our oppressive place within the system. This passivity is nurtured by our bourgeois education system and other organizations that work within the confines of the State. But the material evidence of our exploitation and oppression go beyond the point of production and our position within the division of labor. It is also wrapped up in the popular culture of our society, and reflected in the mainstream art that the masses our exposed too. Women’s body parts are commodified to sell anything from pizza to cars; black women are portrayed as ‘hoes’ in the videos and mammies in movies (still); black and brown men continue to be portrayed as thugs; and queers of all colors and gender expressions are nowhere to be found in the sea of homo-normative white gay males. None of these representations reflect the realities of my communities, but they do reflect the reality of the system and they way they choose to represent us and place us within this world.
Black people have always been a source of exploitation for the racist entertainment industry in this country beginning with the incredibly popular minstrel shows that started occurring in the 1800′s, where working-class whites would paint their faces black with charcoal or burnt cork and imitate their racist conceptions of black slaves. There was the Jim Crow character, who was a plantation slave that did little jigs for the white man. There was the Coon character, which was a stereotype of the free slave trying to be dignified (white). Then we have our dear asexual Mammy, who is sassy, independent and often a sense of comfort to white families. You can still find her image on pancake mix and syrup bottles. And our youth are portrayed as Pickaninnies, who usually look unkempt; think of buckwheat from the little rascals. Many famous white performers, including Shirley Temple (featured below in Mammy attire), have donned blackface to help their career.
The first feature length film was D.W. Griffith’s racist homage to the KKK in Birth of a Nation, where white actors blackened up to portray black men as savage rapists. Meanwhile white men, the actual rapist, continue to assault black women and nothing is done about it, because black women are viewed as unrapeable. The first talking film was The Jazz Singer, where a young jewish man defies his family’s wishes by leaving home to become a star performer. How does he make it? Blackening up. What is especially sad is that black performers also blackened up in order to get gigs in the industry. With racist white capitalists running the industry and owning all of the stages and equipment, black artists had to play by their rules in order to survive. Whites did not want to see blacks representing themselves as artists and human beings with emotions and different perspectives of the world. They wanted to be entertained by stereotypes that supported their own power and privilege in society. This was and is more than just offensive entertainment; these performances are and continue to be a reflection of the system’s belief that black people are inferior and deserving of their position within society. Many different ethnic groups have been stereotyped within the entertainment industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, but the longevity of blackface performances that still exist today when we have white women from the suburbs performing their idea of blackness is especially alarming to me. The burnt cork may be gone, but the blackface is still here.
It is important that we examine our feelings of anger when we see garbage like Kreayshawn going viral, and understand that she is not the sole problem. It is her position within the system, as a privileged white woman, that allows her to be commodified off of performing stereotypes. We cannot attack her coonery without understanding its origins within the system, and the power that supports it. Critiquing it for what it is is important, but simply banning it won’t do away with the fact that the vast majority of blacks in this country are poor and harassed and killed by the cops, who continue to view us all as thugs or hoes, as depicted in Kreayshawns ‘gucci gucci’ music video. And speaking of killer cops Johannes Mehserle, the cop who killed Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale bart station in Oakland January 1st 2009, will be released this sunday after only serving a petty few months. A protest will be happening around 3pm in downtown Oakland. No justice from and unjust system!
Until we rid the world of capitalism, private property, and the systems of domination that support it, such as patriarchy, racism and homophobia, there will continue to be Kreayshawns exploiting the systems stereotypes, and there will be a system that continues to exploit us all in the process. When we restructure our societies into a truly communist system that operates on collective ownership and survival with principles of love and real equality, our culture and social relations will begin to shift and this will be reflected in the art that is produced. This has already happened in the revolutionary struggles and movements all around the world, where we see the art reflecting this shift in consciousness. The feminist and black power movements had a vibrant cultural component that reflected their revolutionary politics. It is not an easy task of course to simply overthrow capitalism, and overthrowing capitalism doesn’t mean these systems of domination will just melt away. We must be very intentional about rooting out patriarchy, homophobia, and racism within our communities; learning from our feminist values; and valuing everyone over the individual. This will raise the standard of our lives, change our social relations, and therefore change the culture that is produced. And hopefully, minstrelsy will be something that can finally settle in to the archives of our history as we move forward truly free.