Nikki Giovanni: The Blues

THE BLUES

Some folk think the blues
Is a song or a way
Of singing
But the blues is
History
A way of telling how
We got here
And who sent us
The blues may talk about
My man
Or my woman
Who left me
Or took my money
And is gone
But what they mean
Is I was stolen
In an African war
And ignorantly sold …
(Read the whole poem in the Oxford American, Winter 2016)

Video: ‘I Am the Land’ by Ethelbert Miller with music by Richard Clark

E. Ethelbert Miller, D.C.’s poet-troubadour, worked with composer Richard J. Clark to produce this stunning rendition of Miller’s poem “I Am the Land,” a tribute to Salvadoran martyr and archbishop Oscar Romero.

I offer it here as a Christmas blessing to you all in these days.

Why Did We Ever Stop Singing?

Dr. Vincent Harding
Dr. Vincent Harding

I’m watching Henry Louis Gates’ series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and listening to the music of No Enemies, the music that makes America great. My mentor Dr. Vincent Harding gave encouragement and inspiration to No Enemies to sing the movement into being (see more about them below). Listen to No Enemies music at this SoundCloud link. Why did we ever stop singing?

No Enemies: Call and Response is a series of gatherings initiated by Jamie Laurie and Stephan Brackett of the Flobots. At No Enemies, the public gathers to compose, rehearse, and exchange songs that will later be deployed on the streets. A social experiment in political art-making, the monthly  meetings blend community organizing with choir practice in a celebratory atmosphere sometimes reminiscent of a Baptist church service. Someone might introduce a simple tune that the crowd practices and refines; alternately, small groups will break off to focus on building a song collaboratively, often to address specific issues ranging from transportation inequality and police brutality to gentrification and the oppression of Denver’s undocumented population.

As social activists and musicians, Laurie and Brackett found inspiration in the Southern Freedom Movement and one of its leaders, Dr. Vincent Harding, who mentored the pair before his passing last year. Those who knew Harding use words like “guide,” “sage” and “encourager” to describe him. An activist and scholar in his lifetime, he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and drafted several of his speeches, including “A Time to Break Silence,” in which King officially declared his opposition to the Vietnam War. Harding also contributed to the sit-ins that helped dissolve official segregation. He eschewed the more popular term “civil-rights movement,” because for him the struggle encompassed but also transcended individual civil rights: At stake was the unequivocal and complete freedom of minorities in the South and everywhere — hence the Southern Freedom Movement.

Breaking silence and empowering people to speak out against injustice was Harding’s talent and calling. Laurie and Harding started meeting regularly in 2000, after Laurie sat in on a class that Harding was teaching at the Iliff School of Theology. Laurie describes how, “with a few questions, [Harding] could make you feel very important. Taking an interest in us, he compelled us to be fully the leaders we could be.” For his part, Harding had always stressed the role that music played in the Southern Freedom Movement — he called it a “primary tool” — and he was compelled by the Flobots’ mix of activism and art. Nonetheless, he called on the band’s members to “do more, think more seriously about what music could contribute,” Laurie recalls. At Harding’s memorial last spring at the Iliff School, Laurie, inspired by the memory of his ally and guide, conceived of No Enemies. The idea — to create a series of workshops where groups could cultivate music embedded in social movements themselves — “basically became fully formed” that day, he says.–Luke Leavitt, NO ENEMIES EXPLORES THE POWER OF PROTEST MUSIC

Video: ‘Start Music, End War’ Say Young Syrians

Young Syrian musicians are performing on the streets of war-torn Damascus to engage passersby, despite the security crackdowns.

When people ask, What can be done against ISIS or in the midst of a civil war? Artists always have an answer. Whether it is Vedran Smailovic with his cello in Sarajevo during the 1992 siege or the Syrian youth flash performers, Meet Us On the Road (seen here), peace finds its way.

With a motto, “Start Music, End War,” the organization Meet Us On The Road (find them on FB), whose members appear unexpectedly on the street with their instruments to recite their “musical” prayers, only to disappear suddenly, sees art as the only way to motivate Syrians to put aside differences and pursue peace.

This is what protest looks like in the middle of war: reclaiming space from violence. This is what church should look like every day. This is the kind of evangelization that undercuts the brutal coercion practiced by ISIS and the others with a habit toward violence.–Rose Berger

Read more here.

Video: Zoe Keating & Jim Wallis at Davos

“Skills are not the most important attribute. Sacrifice is. Nelson Mandela taught us that.”–Jim Wallis

“We here are the most included people in the world, let’s include the most excluded.”–Jim Wallis

And more about amazing DIY cellist Zoe Keating in the January 2014 issue of Strad. She performs “Leap.”

Video: Monks of the Desert on Today Show

It’s a funny ol’ world. You never know where grace and the monastic moment might appear.

For example, Abbot Philip (who I quote frequently on this blog) and 5 of his brothers from Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico appeared last week on NBC’s Today show!

They sang “Alleluia Lustus Germinabit” off of their new album, “Blessings, Peace, Harmony” by “Monks in the Desert.” Watch the video below:

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The lyrics are taken from the prophet Hosea: “Alleluia. Justus germinabit sicut lilium: et florebit in aeternum ante Dominum. Alleluia” (Alleluia. The just shall spring like the lily: and shall flourish forever before the Lord. Alleluia.)

Abbot Philip: How to Get to That Inner Space of Peace and Tranquility

In April, our brothers at Christ in the Desert Monastery released a new disc of music titled “Blessings, Peace and Harmony: Monks of the Desert.” They were also interviewed on NPR last weekend about it. I urge you to practice mutual aid by purchasing this music. You will receive much more than you give!

Abbot Philip writes this week about The Cloud of Unknowing and practices of resting in God:

Someone wrote and asked me to write more about how to get to that inner space of peace and tranquility. What concrete steps are useful for reaching/learning to reach this space of inner tranquility? As I thought about that, for me, the most important step is to recognize that I have lost my inner peace and tranquility and need to return to that space where I am aware of God’s presence and where my whole being is quiet in His presence.

Years ago, my brother-in-law, who is a psychiatrist, taught me self-hypnosis. Then later I sat in Zen for some years. Both of these practices taught me a lot about myself, my body and my spirit. One does not have to be into psychiatry or Buddhism in order to practice such techniques. They are simply techniques for calming the body and spirit so that one’s inner being can then rest in the Lord and be aware of His love.

I am a Catholic Christian through and through in spite of early forays into various other expressions. Personally, I have one chair in which I sit when I am not living from that inner center of peace and tranquility in the Lord. I sit there and let myself relax. Sometimes I simply focus on breathing and at other times I focus on the name of Jesus or I use the Jesus Prayer. It is not a matter of pulling myself away from anything else. It is a matter of focusing on one thing. Always I find that if I relax first, then I am able to be aware of God present in that space/time reality. I go to that relaxation with the intention of becoming more aware of His love for me, not just with an intention to relax.

Much of this I also found in The Cloud of Unknowing, a book of the late 1300s. It is based on earlier Christian writings, but has always been popular among those seeking to know God more profoundly and those seeking union with Him. Here is an example from this book: When we intend to pray for goodness, let all our thought and desire be contained in the one small word “God.” Nothing else and no other words are needed, for God is the epitome of all goodness. Immerse yourself in the spiritual reality it speaks of yet without precise ideas of God’s works whether small or great, spiritual or material. Do not consider any particular virtue which God may teach you through grace, whether it is humility, charity, patience, abstinence, hope, faith, moderation, chastity, or evangelical poverty. For to a contemplative they are, in a sense, all the same. Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God.

For me, always I find that I must begin with composing my physical body: letting go of everything and relaxing my body. Once that is done, then I let my heart be with the Lord, think of the Lord, be for the Lord.After all of these years of seeking God in the monastery, I cannot imagine any other way of living except prayer. I may not be as faithful to prayer as I would like to be. I am not always a very faithful person. Yet in the deepest recesses of my being, I know that this is what God calls me to every day.–Abbot Philip

Read more from Abbot Philip at The Abbot’s Notebook.

Abbot Philip: ‘Aware of God’s Loving Presence’

In April, our brothers at Christ in the Desert Monastery released a new disc of music titled “Blessings, Peace and Harmony: Monks of the Desert.” I urge you to practice mutual aid by purchasing this music. You will receive much more than you give!

Abbot Philip writes this week about the importance of spending time allowing God to love you:

“If I were to name one aspect of life that is the most important, not only for the monk but for anyone who is seriously following Christ, I would immediately think of that deep and intimately personal relationship of prayer.  As we seek to do God’s will, the most important aspect of life is deepening our relationship with God and that is done in prayer.  If we don’t have a strong and deep relationship with God, it becomes practically impossible to seek His will and strive to do His will.  The deepest question for me, many times, is this:  do I really want to do His will?  I have to admit that my answer is not always positive!  But I work at it.If we are going to pray, we have to take the time to pray.  Some people are able to do a million things and keep their hearts set on God.  Most of us need to focus on being still and trying to keep our heart on God.  Even for us monks who spend several hours a day in formal prayer and other time in personal prayer and adoration, there is a challenge to keep our hearts set on God.

Personally, I must take time every day just to sit in silence, aware of God’s loving presence.  It is really important to my life that I deepen my awareness that God loves me personally just as I am right now.  Being aware of God’s love for me allows me to love others in a very strong and wonderful way.  Being aware of God’s love for me allows me to go about my life with energy, joy and compassion.  There are stages in my life when I have abandoned God—never entirely, thanks be to God.  There are times when I lived my life externally but inside was in complete rebellion.

Thanks be to God for the grace of staying and persevering.  Why do we pray?  Somehow God has touched our lives and in that touching, we have found that prayer is important.  God has drawn us to Himself, even when we are not always sure what that means.  As we grow older and continue to try to do what is right, try to respond to this touch of God in our lives, there can be a wonderful flowing of faith and commitment.”–Abbot Philip, OSB (Abbot’s Notebook, May 2, 2012)

Pope Benedict’s Homilies on Hildegard Von Bingen

It’s rumored that Pope Benedict may this year complete the canonization process for the great Rhineland mystic Hildegard von Bingen and also make her a “doctor of the church” to honor her tremendous contributions to the Christian faith. If you have never listened to Hildegard’s music, please treat yourself here.

Below are excerpts from Pope Benedict’s 2010 teachings on Hildegard who has long been regarded as a feminist icon for strong female leadership within the Church:

In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. “The Church”, one reads in it, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine“genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (n. 31).

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of St Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women’s monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

Continue reading “Pope Benedict’s Homilies on Hildegard Von Bingen”

Obama on Hip Hop and the Role of Art in Social Movements

I heard this quote sampled on WPFW, the local Pacifica station, last night during the Soul Controllers hip-hop show. It’s from a 2008 interview that then-Senator Obama gave on Black Entertainment Television.

“I love the art of hip-hop; I don’t always love the message of hip-hop. There are times where even . . . with the artists I love, you know, there’s a message that is not only sometimes degrading to women; not only uses the N-word a little too frequently; but — also something I’m really concerned about — it’s always talking about material things. Always talking about how I can get something. … The thing about hip hop today is that it’s smart. It’s insightful. The way that they can communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable.

A lot of these kids are not going to be reading The New York Times. That’s not how they are getting their information. So the question then is what’s the content, what’s the message? I understand that folk want to be rooted in the community, they want to be ‘down.’ But what I always say is that hip hop is not just a mirror of what is, it should also be a reflection of what can be. A lot of time folks say ‘I want to keep it real’ and ‘I want to be down.’ Then we’re just attracting what is. Imagine something different. Imagine communities that are not torn up by violence. Imagine communities where we are respecting women. Imagine communities where knowledge, and reading, and academic excellence are valued. Imagine communities where fathers are doing right by their kids. That’s also something that has to be reflected. Art can’t just be a rear view mirror. It should have a headlight out there pointing to where we need to go.”–President “B-Rock” Obama

Watch the video here.