Monday, 24 June 2024

CyberSoulMan: An artist's unique perspective


T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.


…build your penitentiaries

we build your schools

brainwash education

to make us the fool …

– Bob Marley, circa 1976

In the academic year 1968-69, I was a freshman at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. The school was founded in 1842 by Jason Lee and the Christian Pioneers. It is the oldest university west of the Mississippi.

Trust me, I was no Rhodes Scholar, but one day in freshman English class, I did excel. I had the dubious distinction of being the only African-American in the class. There were only 12 of us enrolled at the campus of, I believe, 1,200 students.

Our English professor was a kindly matron whose name I recall as Mrs. Bothun. On that fine day of CyberSoulMan excellence, Mrs. Bothun asked the class in general, in whom did Dr. Martin Luther King pattern his nonviolent civil rights movement strategy after.

I remember the stunned, what-on-earth-is-she-talking-about, blank stare from my classmates. Mind you these were the peerless, fearless, cream of the Pacific Northwest scholars. I was astonished that they didn’t know that Dr. King had studied Mahatma Gandhi. How could they not know of some semblance of the train of nonviolent thought?

In what may very well have been my only verbal response of the whole semester, I gave the correct answer. I may not have been able to talk much, but my little brain was rapidly spinning toward the precept of what Mr. Marley was singing about above.


Just about this time last year, thanks to my association with, I was on the legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise somewhere in the eastern Caribbean. It was a blues-studded voyage. There was a slew of performing artists aboard including Charlie Musselwhite, Papa Mali, Michael Burks, Irma Thomas, Cyril Neville, Shemekia Copeland and the great Master, Taj Mahal. All in all, there was something like 70 artists on 19 different stages. You’ll have to trust me on this one. This is not a commercial.

We embarked from Fort Lauderdale and made ports of call in San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Kitts, West Indies. Taj Mahal’s family genealogy wove its way through St. Kitts in generations past. It was very interesting to see Taj come off the boat to headline the St. Croix Music Festival when we got there. I reported on it for Excerpts from that coverage are reprinted with permission here.

Taj Mahal, the “Grand Marshall” of the cruise, afforded me an opportunity for an exclusive interview, most certainly African in its points of origin, yet globally universal in its content.

Approaching the halfway point in the weeklong cruise, the ship docked at the island of St. Croix. Taj came off the ship to headline the St. Croix Music Festival. He reached the stage at about 9:30 p.m. after a daylong lineup of great music. The crowd was jubilant and in the zone.

I noticed that during some up-tempo numbers, Taj's singing voice slips into what I perceived as kind of an “alter ego,” lower register voice that seemed to inject spurts of party down, dancing energy into the crowd. I asked Taj about that alter ego and he clarified my perception by saying, “That voice exists deeply in Africa. It's a spirit channeling voice. You find it in West Africa, Central and South.”

If you listen to the South African vocal group Mahiathina & The Mahotello Queens, they have a section with two different guys that sing real low. They're called Groaners. They channel the spirit voice of the ancestors. It's like the song says:

when you hear that spirit

movin' in your soul,

it's a message from an ancestor

who lived a long time ago

(ruled the world and all of its gold).

(The following is, transcribed to the best of my ability, the words and thoughts of African Elder Taj Mahal, Ethnomusicologist, Philosopher and Funky World Traveler and Musician …)

The Master's Dissertation

We've had to go through the experience of re-aligning ourselves after slavery disconnected us from the cultures in Africa; west, east, wherever people came from. We had no cohesive cultural situation short of redeveloping ourselves in this new land that we were brought to and enslaved in.

By the time the technology to record came around, of course the dominant culture first recorded everything that had Eurocentric ideas. Then they recorded black music. The technology recorded the information but someone outside the community decided what got recorded. They made the choice according to what they thought was the most commercially viable music and that's where a lot of confusion stems from.

This history is a bittersweet pill. Everybody has to take the position that they took. Number one was coming up with the information and giving it up. Two was getting the information and deciding it had commercial viability.

So, over the years, it was a hand-in-hand thing, but we, the ones generating the information were not necessarily conscious of it. It was always tied to the monetary factor that was not connected to culture. If you're lucky enough to visualize how music fits in our lives as a cultural aspect then you realize the necessity of getting busy and passing it on to the next generation.

You see, the music is connected. It's a common mistake that African Americans make when we say, “Well, I don't wanna hear that because that's taking me back, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Brother, you can't get forward if you do know what's goin' on in the back. There's a wealth of information that's there in modern antiquity as well as ancient antiquity. Information that is empowering to you being in this world. You don't necessarily have to be, or feel outnumbered. You can feel you! You by yourself. Are you with? Are you without? Wherever you are, you’ve got to stand the ground that you're on.

My perspective is that artists like me have a huge audience that's under serviced. I'm talkin' bout Keb' Mo', Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Sparky Rucker, Jerry Ricks and Otis Taylor, among others.

Responsibilities of black artists

If you know that what you are doing as an artist is important, then you need to protect that work. It needs to be protected all the time. You can't allow yourself to get so far out there that there is no protection around what you are doing. You don't have to go back too far to understand how deep this is. All I have to do is say Fred Hampton or Sam Cooke and let it rest.

The real point of it is, not what you are against, but what you are for. In the end, it's what you are for. Oftentimes, because of the way we were raised in this environment, we tend to use the negative as the conversational point. We sit up and spit all day long about how this person is or ain't this or that. It goes back to that master/slave relationship. "If "Massa" would do right, kind of thing. Then, when "Massa" walk up on you and wanna know what you talkin' bout' we say, "Oh, nuthin' Massa. We ain't got nuthin' ta say roun' h'yar. Whus it lak? We sick today or sump'n?"

It's all a version of that mindset that we must grow out of. We have to move toward a more global way of doing things. We must face the fact that we are not going to be able to refit the pieces the way they were before they changed them. You gotta go from where it is now.

One of the reasons I take people off the cruise to St. Kitts, where my father's people are from, is that most Americans have very little idea beyond themselves about anyone around them. No common understanding about other peoples. The whole system was designed and conspired to keep people workers. You don't wanna be thinkin' too much. Now, there ain't no jobs so they don't care. You can starve! Go to jail. We'll let you work!

We need to get above all this craziness that they have layered in on our minds and become proactive. Information like The Secret and The Four Agreements is great in that respect. That is what I liked about the '60s. There was so much information around. So much they didn't want you to know. A lot of it only went through a couple of different printings and it was gone. Great stuff on alternative energy and alternative spiritual stuff. Yogi Bhajan, Baba Meir, they were all coming through. Of course it didn't come through on the commercial side of things. You have to have your antennae up. As the Rastas say, serious reasonings for you mind. That's what I appreciate.

The failure to support originators of the music

Everything is tied to the money scene. People are used to making decisions based on having or acquiring more money. When you do not have, you make a different decision the decision to go play for $125 at the casino as opposed to $35 at a juke joint, for example. What's a brother to do? One is the environment, the other your pocket being fat.

You really figure out the politics involved in what people are supposed to do. They are not going to work on what's right. It's going to be based on the politics. You see, the average guy can never afford to fail upwards. You see these other guys come in, lose several billion dollars, get ousted, beat down in the public's eye, then somehow in a couple of years, morph into the head of blah, blah, blah, inc. Wait a minute. You know that wouldn't happen in the community. You mess up, we don't forget it.

Ultimately, we must become responsible for creating the places that young people can study the history of and play the music. Until we do that we just have to put up with the way it changes.

Conservative estimates say that over $500 billion goes through the hand of African Americans yearly. That would make us somewhere between ninth and 13th as a country in terms of gross national product. Can you imagine the impact on Haiti and other Third World, Central and South American, South Pacific Island and African countries we could have if we actually controlled that? Anywhere we wanted to really. That's as opposed to still having to come out from under Massa's house. "Oh, Massa, you really gon' let me go to Africa? Oh, Lord have mercy, Massa."

Why do we have to have the table set for us? And I ain't mad at nobody. I'm just talkin' 'bout, well, here's the money. And we have all these people posturing, sitting around.

I'm sure the dominant culture looks down on us. We have all this money coming through and we don't even have national convention hall!

So our work is cut out for us. We sorely need a sound economic base if we are to begin to implement real change. We need to impress upon our youth the historical connection and impact it is having on what they/we are doing and not doing.

And what might be working for us spiritually is the fact that the one drop theory may yet come back and kick the dominant culture in the butt!

(End of Excerpt.)

When Taj Mahal makes his point above in the paragraph that starts with, we need to get above all the craziness … I believe he underscores the the pervasiveness of the brainwash education theory.

From my personal experience here in Lake County, working with students at two of the local high schools (that shall remain unnamed), I was appalled at the lack of discipline exhibited by students at one of the schools. In one classroom I visited, it was very sad to observe the obvious disconnect from learning by the students. Some of the educators appeared to be just doing time. We as parents and citizens have a huge amount of work to do. It is imperative that we come together and get busy.

Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts!


Join me on Monday, Jan. 26, on KPFZ 88.1 FM for Blue Monday. At 8 a.m. I will be interviewing Teeny Tucker, nominee for best independent blues CD of 2008 by the Memphis Blues Foundation. This interview also will be streamed over the Internet on Tuesday, Feb. 3, at 3:00 p.m. on, In The Blues Spot.

Upcoming cool show: Morris Day & The Time at Cache Creek Casino; Saturday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m.

T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at


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