Finding Jazz: Discovering the rhythm of my Afro Diasporic Identity
I am what my life says I am
Art helps to turn the intangible into the tangible; it turns memories and experiences into artefacts; and eventually, it colours the nooks and folds of our mind to give us our identity. Identity is not something that is handed over, it is passed on; delicately, precisely and if we are lucky seamlessly.
Let me try to explain.
I have learnt a lot from conversations I have had; so, naturally, I am here, starting a new one. I will start exactly from where I stand. I have always hoped to see the truth in my reflection. I hope the truth will come out as I begin a series of essays to reflect and to share who I am and how I became with the hope of shining on an important topic- Identity.
The Chicken or the Egg?
I was born in Lilongwe, Malawi in 1986. I am a proud Millennial; mainly because I like the way that word sounds. I was raised between 3 continents. I realise now that I moved a lot. A lot of the time, I had to adjust; I have had to learn and relearn who I am in different contexts multiple times. I thank my parents for teaching us to bring home everywhere we went. My mother once said 'never detach from your root, you will get lost…worse still the detachment will kill you'. I was afraid of that death.
My sister and I have a joke about having a 5 year itch - we have both moved every 5 years since we were little girls. It's ok though, now that I have found my rhythm between loss and trauma; now that I have thankfully found my timing amidst a big mess, it's ok. Now, we joke about the somewhat inherent need to leave and start over. Now, we know what that urge to leave is: it is the rhythm and it is always on time.
Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with timing. I got clarity and fell in love with navigating and learning to find space in the chaos. I fell in love with improvisation, and now, collaboration. I found all this love in the mess; love and clarity started with a conversation with my brother about Jazz.
Jazz is art. Arguably, it is art popularly known to be born out of the African American experience. It made, and continues to make, the intangible experience tangible, it has created artefact out memories and has been passed on generation after generation, delicately.
Finding jazz helped shape and guide my awakening in a way that would not be possible otherwise. The waking up happened suddenly, within me. It felt like remembering or realising something. The Christian in me calls it a revelation. The African in me can only describe it as: coming home. As a woman: I feel seen by the notes, the rhythms, the soul connections that exist in the melodies and tones that are put forth to be experienced.
Jazz is so forgiving. You can come as you are. There seems to be only one rule you cannot circumvent: "you cannot cheat". The value is in the authentic expression.
Like jazz, I refuse to cheat, and I refuse to move in the rigidity of traditional rhythm and timing of an already established structure. It is not a blind revolt; instead I see the moving away from the structure as an elevation; a suggestion to see beyond the established experience. There is more to music than what is already established.
In jazz, there is what they call blind notes: music that is perceived in between the established notes. In order to accommodate that process, I imagine one must be extremely cognizant of the structure. Afterall, isn't the point to navigate? One would have to understand the terrain that they are traversing.
I want to understand the terrain and see where I fit. I want to find my inner rhythm and time and melodic contribution so as to add to life; to add color, tone and texture to the structure and allow it become.
I believe in the jazz analogy I am developing. Simply, I want to explore the blind notes in identity as we know it. I will be diving deeper to understand why I am inspired to follow the order or disorder that Jazz offers my identity as a black Malawian woman. In the subsequent conversations through my essays, I hope to explore the potential of combining the tradional economic structure and Art especialy but not limited to Jazz.
I didn't always know what it meant to have an identity. The self certainly isn't a tangible thing.
Having sat with a South African black woman for what seemed to have been a bottomless conversation for months, I learnt that national identity must be defined.
South Africans and Malawians share the African identity. However, we do not have shared experiences. It is correct to think of Africa or 'African' is an identifier in itself; because it is. However, I do think there is value in nuanced distinctions: drums are drums of course; but do they all beat the same? The black South African has memories and experiences that one can find in the jazz culture. I could hear the confidence in the woman I met. She spoke about her experiences and I listened. Her experience and memories were not carved out to create discomfort in me. I did not feel defensive or offended. In that moment I realised I was not experiencing a caricature of a South African black woman, it was human in front of me, sharing her life, who happened to be the real deal.
Who are we, and what do we stand for? In Malawi, this is unclear. Our history and shared experiences are fragmented and hidden. As a Malawian I am not clear on the specific nature of my nationality; this realisation was devastating. After listening to a proud black South African, I finally breathed a sigh of relief: I knew it, I am not crazy: knowing the specifics has value. Identity must be defined, if not for the self, it must be defined for a selfless pursuit of the nation’s agenda; in order to build historical data and inform accountability. What I mean is: one needs to know who they are and the experiences that have created the environment in which they reside (internally and externally).
Value in Structures
Why does it matter that she was South African, a woman or black? In history, white male westerners successfully defined their own experiences and valued their memories. They have named streets after wars and people who they do not want to forget. They have valued paintings and sculptures so that they can be traced. Most of us, live and value the things in our own lives based on the adopted value system that were developed or defined by these men. I personally do not find anything wrong with this. In fact, I have historically supported it. It works. It has been proven time and time again, that what we are currently vilifying in this generation; what we now call toxic white male agendas, we have sought after in the past. History teaches us some of us pursued these things without question and with great certainty that we will also find success if follow their "yellow brick road." But perhaps this is simply because of my own identity, my story: I am a black African woman that was raised under Judeo-Christian principles (in other words white male ideologies). Might I ask, however, what is on the other side of this coin, anyway? I think Jazz is on the other side. On the other side is a different type of order, a different type of sustenance and sustainability, a different type of intellect: one which weaves and improvises.
Authenticty, not imitation is essential in building things that stand the test of time. I have seen the long time effect of imitation. Of imitators. They do not serve us in the long term. I have lived in failed systems of borrowed ideas. Haven't we all? Are we not guilty of adopting and aquiecscing to identities?
To move forward into building a future where we collectively flourish, it is time to develop the ability to listen differently. We need new imaginations. New ways of making sense of rivaling or antagonistic experiences within our collective without offense. That can come in the form of finding the authenticity in a shared human experience of the person in front of you, a painting, a song, a lyric, a photograph, it might startle you in order to remind you that you are alive but it certainly won't offend you. Fear and offense comes from a dependency we have developed from accepting a version of ourselves we cannot deliver on. Aquiescing to an identity that has been established by outside forces leads me to believe we are cheating ourselves, as Africans.
Autonomy is the true shield that protects our authenticity. We should fight to have it. And the way to do it is to borrow from those who succeeded in building generational momentum: learn to understand what is valuable, then guard it. We must learn to name our streets after it so that we do not forget it. Then build up so that others can understand why we have agreed to that value system. It has worked in the past for others; why wouldn’t work for us?
The only way to turn the intangible memory into something tangible is by protecting it and preserving it! And then we improvise!