The Diaspora NOW…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2014 by Josslyn Luckett


nduduzo profile
We are hosting a beautiful conference this week at UPenn called “Diasporic Circuits Reconsidered.” If you catch this post today and are in the Philadelphia area, come on through! Find more info and today’s schedule here.
Last night at the Painted Bride in conjunction with the conference we hosted an amazing night of diasporic grooves…from South Africa, the sublime Nduduzo Makhathini (pictured above), from Jamaica (and Brooklyn) the Nyabinghi chants of Ancient Vibrations as well as Junior Wedderburn’s UZALO, and last but not least a deeply tender set of duets between Penn’s own Professor Guthrie Ramsey and his stunning vocalist daughter, Bridget Ramsey. I had the honor of hosting the event and providing some opening remarks, included below…
I first give thanks to this space, this generous, generative and welcoming space the Painted Bride, which I knew about long before I ever moved to Philadelphia because of the important relationship so many of my writing mentors, had to this space, people like Ntozake Shange , Sekou Sundiata and Toni Cade Bambara.Tonight, we also give thanks to our musical ancestors Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Oscar Brown Jr, and Babatunde Olatunji as we respectfully riff and reflect on their pan African masterpiece, “We Insist” The Freedom Now Suite” recorded in 1960. We decided to call tonight’s gathering of music and visual art from South Africa, Jamaica and Philadelphia: The Diaspora Now Suite as homage to the diasporic circuits considered then by Max Roach and company.From crushing cotton field stomps
To baleful Johannesburg cries,

“Ain’t but two things on my mind…driva man and quittin’ time…”
Those percussive prayers and unholy screams served then and still serve now as down beat to our antiphonal emancipation meditations, our atlantic-wide ring shout.When I say whisper, you say listen,whisper




listen say we’re free.
Say we’re free?…CAN IT REALLY BE? is it freedom day?

We gather this week, 20 years almost to the day of the election of Nelson Mandela, and wonder from the Western Cape to Coral Gardens to Old city Philadelphia, when is freedom day? And in our blues we feel at times like Abbey Lincoln, worried and wondering, are these just rumors flying, must be lying because the broken promises, broken bodies, broken hearts in our paths post apartheid, post colonial struggles, post civil rights, post 9/11 do not ring in the key of life, do not sound the bells of liberty.

It is holy week for our Christian brothers and sisters, holy (Maundy) Thursday to be specific, so brokenness is a theme in the meditations of many across the globe tonight. One of my favorite lines on brokenness comes from the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inyat Khan who tells us, god breaks the heart over and over and over until it stays open.

Until it stays open…

As engaged thinkers and seekers, activists and teachers we stay open to the kinds of conversations we are having this week at Penn in our Diasporic Circuits Reconsidered conference. And while most of us still insist on FREEDOM NOW, this week we do the work to collectively whisper and listen across oceans, across differences of region, race, gender, discipline, color, class, spiritual and secular practices, asking the question, not freedom now but freedom how?Tonight the extraordinary musicians gathered here, Ancient Vibrations, Guthrie and Bridget Ramsey, Nduduzo Makhatini and Uzalo, get to do a different part of this work with us…. and here I want to wind down with some lines from Robin D.G Kelley’s recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers…lines in praise of the power of jazz and other black musics of the diaspora to energize our minds and souls for this challenging work ahead. Kelley writes:
In short, the musical and political dialogue between Africa and America continues, and jazz–along with hip hop, reggae,
afrobeat, makossa, rai, zouk and countless styles and genres remains a vibrant language. But like everything else, the conversation has changed and will change again. The essential qualities of the music have not. Jazz knows no borders or boundaries, it is a music of lamentation and hope, pain and exhiliration, crisis and resistance, and above all…FREEDOM, UHURU! Jazz speaks and will continue to speak from every continent, every city, every culture around the globe. And before we answer, let us listen–listen to the music and listen for the music…wherever it might be. It will not solve global economic crises or end conflicts, but it can do what it has always done–
Thank you so much for coming out, hope to see you tomorrow at Penn. And now let the marvelous begin….

Cleanly and Freely…Rest in Peace Brave Baraka

Posted in Uncategorized on January 10, 2014 by Josslyn Luckett


Who will eulogize the greatest eulogist we’ve ever known?  Week this hit me most was the week I saw him deliver the eulogy for Sekou Sundiata bout 3 days before he offered one up for Max Roach. “For me, writing a eulogy is very much part of a writer’s central purpose, which is not supposed to be serving as a spontaneous reflector of one’s self, but as an investigator of a useful shared vision” -that’s from the intro to his collection of Eulogies. I have no further words at this time–just gratitude for Baraka’s generosity, his generous ears and eyes receiving and revealing our blues…all blues.

(here’s a lovely interview with Baraka on WBGO discussing the 50 year anniversary of Blues People.)

In gratitude…

Posted in Uncategorized on December 6, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett


This photo is by Alf Khumalo. I was actually trying to find his image of Hugh Masekela jumping 10 ft in the air holding the new trumpet he’d just received from Louis Armstrong, also by Khumalo, but this one came up first. It will take a while to write more coherently about Madiba’s passing…but I’m just thinking about my gratitude for his teaching, the gift of his wisdom. I’m also moved because just hours before hearing of Mandela’s passing I finished the last “Jazz Speaks for Life” class of the semester, the amazing course I’ve been T.A.-ing for with Dr. Guthrie Ramsey. The applause we had at the end of class and these testimonies from the students we’ve been receiving about how taking this class and being introduced to this music has changed their lives has served as a sweet upbeat to the blues of my grief for our planet’s loss. And all this makes me turn to another wise teacher…this is from Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your community and the World”…part 2 of the Five Touchings of the Earth ceremony…

In gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my spiritual family. (bell, touch the earth). I see in myself my teachers, the ones who show me the way of love and understanding, the way to breathe, smile, forgive, and live deeply in the present moment….I ask these spiritual ancestors to transmit to me their infinite source of energy, peace, stability, understanding, and love. I vow to practice to transform the suffering in myself and the world, and to transmit their energy to future generations…

My deepest bows and smiles to you dear Madiba. Viva!


Posted in Uncategorized on December 6, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett


“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela


“If We Had Known You in a Time of Peace…” Miles Davis and The Cry of Winnie Mandela

Posted in Uncategorized on November 9, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett


“If we had known you in a time of peace, we would have loved your peacefulness…we missed our chance”

This line is from Alice Walker’s poem, “Winnie Mandela: We Love You.” I think it was one Christmas in college that my mom bought me the Walker poetry volume, Her Blue Body, Everything We Know that contains this poem…and it was right around the time the recently released, Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum…oh did we dance that day! I recently googled the “ain’t gonna play Sun City” video and realized I’d forgotten so many of the artist who joined Little Stevie Van Zandt, including that insistent opening trumpet line from Miles Davis. These are blurry thoughts running together, but I’ve been in such a wave of late 80’s early 90’s nostalgia as I am taking an amazing graduate course on Nelson Mandela this fall taught by Rita Barnard, as well as T.A.-ing a History of Jazz course taught by Guthrie Ramsey who just got through 2 weeks on the Miles Davis Autobiography. With his permission I also loaded up Pearl Cleage’s “Mad at Miles” essay on the course website, along with my sister Imani Tolliver’s poem “Kind of Blue” (visit her site and read that glory right now! One of the most amazing poems about forgiveness I’ve ever read.) . tutu_backAnd it hit me, Miles Davis helps me with Winnie Mandela. The photo at the top of the post is one I took of a poster-sized print of Winnie in the house she shared with Nelson on Vilakazi Street in Soweto (now a museum, though she still lives in Soweto not far from there they say…), and captures the Winnie we all loved, well many of us African Americans circa 1980’s loved unconditionally…

Reading through the TRC hearings, and other recent writing about Winnie, at the same time we are exposing 50 UPenn undergrads to the life, brutality and brilliance of Miles Davis, I’m invited to grapple with Winnie’s story/stories in new ways. In my mind and heart I have to consider what I really believe about “the truth”, whole truth, half truth, hard, hidden, horrifying, every kind of truth and figure out how I can get to the grace of Imani’s forgiveness…. I do know my life is more full if I hold Miles and Winnie in all their humanness rather than reject them as monsters….
Really enjoyed Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (just got re-released in South AFrica, hopefully the new kindle edition is coming soon our way), which imagines four South African township women in conversations, letters, ultimately a roadtrip with Winnie. The imaginary Winnie in the text seems so relieved to have four women to talk with, to share her story without an obligation to confess…made me wonder if/how lonely she was, is…. Did Winnie ever listen to Miles…I kept hearing “Someday my Prince Will Come” while reading the Ndebele novel which is essentially a meditation on women and waiting…hmmm

Forgive my long absence on this blog…so much going on with UPenn life…so many Philly joys and demands…I so appreciate folk for continuing to pop in to the site…hang in if you can!

Also have had a couple nice pieces published the last few months that I’ll link here. One was a review of Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion:The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora…a joy to read and to write! And just last month I had a piece published in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin on Martin Luther King’s trip to Ghana in 1957.

“We Are Changing Afrika Ourselves…”

Posted in Uncategorized on July 21, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett

Malcolm Jiyane at Afrikan Freedom Station (Malcolm Jiyane at Afrikan Freedom Station)

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

The Afrikan Freedom Station’s founder and freedom dreamer, Steve Kwena Mokwena hosted our first Bad Friday screening in Johannesburg. He handed me the venue’s postcard which features his original painting of a bright red heart with what looks like planks of wood across it…any building must have the foundation of love? That’s my read. On the back of the postcard, the gallery and performance space describes its mission like this:

WE ARE AT THE CROSS ROADS OF A NEW AFRIKAN CONSCIOUSNESS. This is the place where those who want POSITIVE CHANGE come together and grow together—We are A CONSCIOUS STATION, each one teaching one. WE DISCOVER OURSELVES in loving head and heart-space where talent flourishes in A COMMUNITY OF PROSPERITY. We are CHANGING AFRIKA, OURSELVES. We are inspired by the highest hopes of our courageous ancestors! WE ARE THE LEGACY!!

There is also a logo near the spot one might place a stamp that is an image of a green Africa with the words “show more love” at the center, at the continent’s heart. Our days in Johannesburg have coincided with Nelson Mandela’s 95 birthday, and so our group’s tours of the Apartheid Museum, the streets of Soweto, even Wits University where Madiba attended law school, have been especially poignant. Each day of this trip, in fact, there has been a palpable way in which we have been standing in solidarity with all of the country as we collectively wonder how many more days our courageous elder’s heart will continue to beat, and in our grief, what will inspire us, all of us, to continue to show more love?

There has been a quality to the question and answer periods of both our student led media workshops and our film screenings here in Johannesburg–from the Afrikan Freedom Station, to Soweto’s Credo Mutwa Cultural Village, to last night’s event at the Katlehong Arts Center—that has mirrored or amplified the energy of the movement histories we’ve seen documented in the Apartheid and Hector Pieterson museums. It’s been my sense that there has been a bit less of the question, “what now?” and more testifying: “This is what I’m doing, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re visioning.” We heard one young man describe his decision to leave his job as a policemen, because he says “I was Rasta from birth” and he had to free himself to fully embrace that identity. Another Rasta sistren shared her strong belief that Rastafarians must unify and seek political representation, a seat in parliament. Last night we heard reports of over 50 Johannesburg Rastas thrown in jail for protesting police brutality. This group participated in hunger strikes and as a result of their efforts, the food in the prison was changed to accommodate the dietary needs of Rastas and the prison’s chapel system apparently expanded to include space for a Rasta church. And so I return to the Afrikan Freedom Station statement: We Are Changing Afrika Ourselves. A few of us went back to the Freedom Station last night for an evening of live jazz and sand painting, and as I looked over at Steve Kwena Mokwena, his eyes closed, his groove suggesting he was as mesmerized by the trombone solo as I was, I thought of a quote by James Matthews I saw in the Hector Pieterson Museum. The District Six born poet, Matthews, could have easily written these lines last night watching these dazzling musicians sounding joy in the house of Freedom:

My Blackness fills me to the brim,
Like a beaker of well seasoned wine
That sends my senses reeling with pride.

Dr. Deborah Thomas enhancing our freedom!
(Dr. Deborah Thomas enhancing our freedom)

Our group was reeling with pride the morning of Mandela’s birthday when we watched our fierce leader, Professor Deborah Thomas deliver her stunning guest lecture in the department of Anthropology at Witswaterstand University. As she challenged us to reconsider both the way we approach and create archival materials, she so movingly demonstrated how her own work gathering testimonies from witnesses and survivors of state violence in Jamaica embodies Mandela’s mandate that the work of freedom is about living (working/researching/teaching) in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. And as our journey together moves to a close, as our hearts burst with gratitude, we can’t help ourselves from showing her and each other and this beautiful land more and more love.

“Let them Come Home”: Marcus Garvey and Mama B in the Western Cape

Posted in Uncategorized on July 16, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett

Just a stone’s throw from the white, marble statue of Queen Victoria in the center of Cape Town there is a faded monument, a circular stump really, empty and silent unless you listen close for the Ibo ghosts, Malaysian ghosts, the ghosts of Ceylon, Zanzibar and Madagascar. Earlier, inside Cape Town’s Slave Lodge Museum we heard stories of how these captured brown bodies were brought to this Cape to serve British and Dutch landowners, to build their homes, businesses, places of worship, to nurse and bathe their babies while their own children were brought to this monument, this dull and dusty auction block to be poked, prodded, felt up, and stained by so many greedy, lusty stares …bid em in, bid em in! Some of us have seen similar monuments of the trans-Atlantic slave trade’s points of disembarkation in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, or visited slave castles in Senegal, Ghana, Benin, but most of us on this Bad Friday in Africa journey were not as aware of this Southern African point of disembarkation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our amazing host and tour guide, South African filmmaker, Kurt Orderson arranged a slave route tour for us with the dynamic Lucy Campbell, beginning with the Slave Lodge museum and closing with a short walk to the site of Cape Town’s auction block, a site so thoughtlessly skipped over by pedestrians racing to lunch appointments or overpriced lattes.
So when we arrive later that night to the Marcus Garvey Community Centre–an informal settlement and Rastafari community in Cape Town’s Philippi Township–there is so much to process. I’m personally aware how much I associate Garvey with black and white images of UNIA rallies in Harlem, USA, and I associate this tsunami of red-gold-and-green with Rastafarian culture of Jamaica. Now, combined with everything we’d just learned about the Afro-Asiatic masala of the slave population of Cape Town, I had to on some level reconsider Garvey’s famous cry: “Africa for the Africans” especially because later in his poem of the same title, Garvey’s lines are filled with black men doing this and black men doing that and at the Marcus Garvey Center in Philippa, we were primarily surrounded by so-called coloured Rastas with Dutch surnames quoting their Ethiopian King of King and Lord of Lords.

“Let them come home!” Ras El Fire, our MC for the screening and musical performance at the Marcus Garvey Community Centre as well as an active participant in the following day’s workshop at the University of the Western Cape preached ceaselessly about the need for Jamaican Rastas to repatriate to Africa: “If we can’t get them to Africa, the culture will die….” He lovingly introduced us to Mama B, an elder Jamaican repatriate who proudly burnt her passport once she moved to South Africa. As Ancient Vibrations ecstatically chanted, “Never get weary, yet…down in the valley for a very long time but we never get weary yet” Mama B rose from her seat, waving her Lion of Judah flag, embodying the lines like no one else could….

The University of the Western Cape actually has a student group devoted to Rastafarian culture. Their student leader, Hein Scheepers explained to me that the group, The H.I.M. society has been on campus for 10 years and is open to anyone in the Rasta community of South Africa, university enrollment is not required. Their group hosted a documentary film workshop, Bad Friday screening + Q&A, and a musical presentation of the Ancient Vibrations, followed by a generous and lovingly prepared Ital feast. Over spicy broccoli and vegan pasta, reflections were shared…our group of Jamaica and U.S. based Rastas pointed out how the discipline of the Rastas they encountered at both the Garvey Centre event and the UWC workshop had tremendously inspiring elements, such as the tradition honoring rituals of the worship ceremony and the precision and breadth of the chanting. There were elements that were also a bit more challenging regarding the strictness of appearance for women especially, and one of our male band members was questioned about having pierced ears. Today just peripherally scanning the web for articles on the Cape Town Rastafarian scene, I found a statement from a 2011 Mail and Guardian article called “The Rise and Rise of the Rastafari” by radio DJ, Judah Bush wrote, “Cape Town Rastas are definitely the most fundamentalist and divided in the world. When Rastas from other countries come here they are surprised at our lack of flexibility….” (for more see: For me it was the first time I was proselytized by a Rasta whose fervor put some of my born again Christian brothers and sisters back home to shame…for him the “right” (as in correct and only way) of “righteous” seemed more urgent than the peace and love of I-n-I that always feels so welcoming in Rasta gatherings. But his was just one voice. There were others, sisters so loving and so welcoming they literally took off their bracelets and earrings to give thanks and honor to our lead female vocalist, Queen Takiyah. The humility and generosity of these women had our Queen tearing up the whole bus ride home. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We left Cape Town for Johannesburg before dawn yesterday. Our most faithful hotel clerk, Ebrahim told us he came in two hours early for his shift so he could see us off, hug us up and deliver gifts of wooden prayer beads. And our tour bus driver, Mveni–who not only patiently and brilliantly delivered us to each event in Cape Town but often sat in and listened with deep curiosity to the documentary and palpable joy to the Nyabinghi chants–actually had something like a speech prepared for us before dropping us at the airport, thanking our group for our spirit, our sharing, our teaching. We didn’t know all of this would happen. We didn’t know this tour of film and chants and workshops would evoke such overwhelming generosity, would be drenched each day in such staggering grace and growth. We all can’t stop thanking Professors Deborah Thomas and John Jackson and composer/co-producer Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn for dreaming this up and gifting us with this profound experience…and that was just Cape Town…and now a whole new set of screenings, performances, conversations await us here in Johannesburg and Soweto. Endless thanks and praise for all our sisters and brothers in Cape Town who loved, guided, hosted, and engaged with us so sweetly.


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