Strong and free

Posted in Uncategorized on December 9, 2014 by Josslyn Luckett

blk sonshine

And never G.I.V.E. U.P and keep your H.E.A.D U.P….

Who knew Jaheim would lift me this week but I stumbled on that old tune, “Fabulous” and had to play it about 5 times in a row.  The other album that is offering such healing grooves are my dear brothers Neo and Masauko, Blk Sonshine…especially their song of Peter J Harris’ poem, “Fingerpainting a Masterpiece” and the supremely uplifting, “Building”…here’s the youtube for that here.

Thank you all for the healing, hopeful, head-up sounds…

I’m gonna let it shine…Bernice Johnson Reagon on the collective “I”

Posted in Uncategorized on September 27, 2014 by Josslyn Luckett

freedom singers

Watching a video of this amazing interview between Bernice Johnson Reagon and the recently late beloved beloved Vincent Harding for his Veterans of Hope project, I was knocked out about what she had to say about a collective “I.”

Starting out by explaining the emphasis in Western choral music on blending, she explains:

…there’s an aim for a blend so you cannot distinguish where the parts are coming from. With congregational singing, I could drive up to the church and they could be singing and I could tell you who was there. Because, the individual timbres of the voice never disappear. And so one of the things I think that’s important for democracy is that congregational style, where the individual does not have to disappear. And it does not operate as an anti-collective expression. There are some others in the repertoire with the I songs: “We shall overcome” was originally “I shall overcome”; “We Shall not Be Moved” was “I shall not be moved.” I’m so glad they didn’t change, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”…but if you’ve got a group of people, and all of them are saying I, you actually have a group. If you have a group of people and they’re singing WE, you don’t know who’s going to do what. And you know just try to organize something. You say, like this, you know, “We gonna bring food tonight.” And if you are the nervous wreck organizer, you will leave that meeting and you will end up bringing enough food for everybody because you won’t know who or if anybody’s going to bring anything. So you’re the one who comes in, you’ve got the vegetables and the chicken and the cake, just in case because nobody said, “I’m bringing this, I’m bringing…you don’t get a group until you get some individuals who will say, “I’m in.” And so you’ve got these collective expressions in the African American tradition that are “I” songs and those songs are the way to express the group.


However, one of the wonderful things about the evolution of songs, is that the change of some of the songs to “we” document black people coming together with a white left, predominantly white left, that’s heavily intellectual about collectivism and group, and they like to say, tell us very quickly, “I means individualism and we expresses the group. We means we’re together.” And we looked at ‘em and we said (chuckles) “Okay, if you need it….because basically the important thing is that you’re here and if in order to be here you need this we, we gonna give you this we, you got this we, we gonna do all the “we”s you need.” And so you get a document of when another presence joined in collaboration and commitment against racism by following the changes in the words of the songs.

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.


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