Ubuntu and Jazz have been misappropriated and misused, how do we rescue them from the hands of unscrupulous opportunists?
This morning, at about 3.30 am after changing baby’s nappies, I just could not sleep, so I put on my earphones to listen to some music I’d downloaded from You Tube. Since I am learning to play the trumpet, I selected a recording by the The Blue Notes, a song called Schoolboy, recorded live at Rondebosch Town Hall, Cape Town, circa June 1964. A band of South Africa’s heavyweights of the genre known as jazz was in full-swing. Dudu Pukwana ( the composer of the tune) on alto-saxophone, Chris McGregor on the piano; Nick Moyake on the tenor saxophone; Louis Moholo on the drums and Johnny Dyani on bass; but being a trumpet student, it was Mongezi Feza’s long solo that really mesmerised me. I fell asleep later to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s organ heavy I Pharaoh.
The reason I begin with a personal story of music is because among the languages that connect the world, music reigns supreme. While the words, messages and voices are equally important to understand, it is that intuitive appreciation of the sound that truly cuts through the barriers and creates bridges, even patterns of thought and intercultural relatability. Yet we are still not utilizing our music, Black music to gain the power we require to triumph collectively as a people. Much of the cultural productions of Afrikans and Black folks globally still benefits White owned record companies while also enriching the cultural pool that we all drink from. There is disproportionate sharing of power due to the pervasive scourge of structural racism.
When I woke up, I began thinking about Afrikan scholarship, cultural productions and their global reach, Afrocentricity and its pros and cons. There have been so many activists who have either subtly and militantly advocated for the renaissance of Afrika centred scholarship, the reevaluation and valuing of Afrikan cultural production and institutions – some are still at it as we speak. There are scholars, teachers, researchers, artists, astrophysicists, cosmologists, engineers, architects and mathematicians, nutritionists and virtually people in every imaginable field of endeavor who keep insisting that Afrika and Black folk globally have all that it takes to attain the power necessary to achieve our individual, communal and civilizational visions. Some of these visions are articulated clearly in the Afrikology, Afrocentric and Black radical schools of thought, but they are not as popular due to the scattered nature of our institutions, run by individuals and groups whose ultimate agenda’s differ. While we are are not a homogeneous bunch of robots, there are certain aspects of our being that define us as Abantu. These aspects or attributes which are intrinsic, meaning they are not just part of the social constructs that emanate from environmental determination, can be harnessed to hoist us from the social death that is a symptom of the worlds anti-blackness.
As should be expected, there are various other voices, other opinions which insist that humanity is essentially the same, and that we would be falling into the trap of eugenicists and racists if we define ourselves as unique or outside of the accepted scope of humanism. My intuition says that we must define ourselves anew, while we share various other norms, needs and identities with other peoples, it is our diversity that will allow us to thrive within our parallel economies.
Let us face it, Nina Simone and Dolly Parton may both be Americans, beloved by both Black and White folks, but it is not hard to tell who has had more impact on the world of music. This is not to put down the great Dolly, but Nina’s impact is based on the reach of her Soul, while Dolly’s is also based on the reach of her White privilege. Study that for yourself and use other examples if you have the time. Th point we are making here is that Ubuntu Bethu Asikabi Nawo Amandla Aphelele Okubusebenzisa Ukuze Sizuze Amandla Njengohlanga Lwendlu Entsundu.
An alternative view is expressed by a Black scholar named Nyasha Mboti, and I am taking the liberty to share an excerpt from his paper “May The Real Ubuntu Please Stand Up”, published in 2015 by ( Journal of Media Ethics, 30:125–147, 2015
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 2373-6992 print/2373-700X online DOI: 10.1080/23736992.2015.1020380), here:
“Gade (2011) has studied the evolution of the notion of ubuntu over a period of 165 years. He demonstrates that the term “ubuntu” has appeared in writing since at least 1846. Importantly, Gade analyses the definitional changes that the term has undergone in written sources between 1846 and 2011. Particularly telling is Gade’s observation that the aphorism umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu was used for the first time to describe ubuntu in the period between 1993 and 1995. That is, this use is actually quite recent. Subsequently, a preferential consensus of sorts grew and accreted around the application of the aphorism. As Gade notes, “most authors today refer to the proverb when describing ubuntu, irrespective of whether they consider ubuntu to be a human quality, African humanism, a philosophy, an ethic, or a worldview” (p. 303).
I aver that the preferred reading of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu since 1993 is, in fact,
hegemonic. I am obviously drawing narrowly on the definition of hegemony popularized by Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks (1971). Gramsci (1971) regarded hegemony as a kind of “prestigious” moral and intellectual leadership predicated on “educative pressure” and majoritarian consent (p. 242). On the one hand, my reading of Gramsci tempts me to regard umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu—in the custodial hands of ubuntu scholars and theorists writing since the 1990s—as a particular kind of “superstructure.” This is obviously a reference to how umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu gradually became an institutionalized idea or prestigious way of seeing spread through “educative” and other pressures. Shutte’s preoccupation with an ethic for the “new” South Africa suggests that one source of pressure was political.On the other hand, the scholars and theorists of ubuntu—due to their narrow adherence to, and influence over, a specific reading of ubuntu as umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu—constitute what Gramsci referred to as a “fundamental group” or “civil society.” It is this “civil society” of ubuntu scholars that is behind the “prestigious” adoption and spread of the particular “superstructural” translation, interpretation and definition of ubuntu as “a person is a person through other persons.” The hegemonic use of umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu as a catch-all distillation of ubuntu has resulted in a more or less widespread uniformity of definition. Such uniformity reflects, on the one hand, the prestige and confidence in which extant definitions are held and, on the other hand, a general state of inadequate rigour in attempts to define ubuntu.”
While I agree and disagree with some of what is stated in this paper, I do think that Mboti makes some strong points. I think that there are some problems related to the sort of ideological spectacles he is using to dissect this topic. The quoting of European or non-Afrikan researchers/scholars who have probably never been to Afrika is rather problematic to say the least. I would assume that the best folks to learn about Ubuntu from would be Abantu themselves and we are not only situated in Southern Africa. He appears to be weighing the hegemonic ontological perspective of Europeans and others against the lived experience and scholarship of what he perceives as an Afrocentric hegemony, perhaps that is not the best way to begin. But further reading may reveal something more, so I am sharing the link to his entire paper here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23736992.2015.1020380
In my upcoming book, The House of Plenty, we shall speak about how Mongezi Feza’s trumpet playing and personality was transmuted into Afrikan-American trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s music, noting hoe that itself is another example of Ubuntu. We shall further show that the idiom Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is highly valid and relevant even as a recent invention, but we shall also show how it had been misused and appropriated just as the word jazz has.