Reggae, joy and pan-African feminism: a conversation

Awino Everjoice

A conversation between Dr. Awino Okech, lecturer at SOAS’ Centre for Gender Studies, and Everjoice Win, Professor of Practice at SOAS, for our Black History Month series.

Awino: Everjoice (EJ) — I was asked to write a blog for Black History Month, and I thought a conversation with one of my favourite thinkers would be more valuable. I want to begin by acknowledging that this year has been especially hard for Black people globally – watching Black death and Black pain on a global scale is never easy. Consequently, I have become more deliberate about a praxis of wellbeing with joy at the centre of that wellbeing. I tell my Black students that we must find spaces for joy, because resistance, revival and rejuvenation will emerge. It has to be driven by both rage at existing conditions and joy as the space within which to build possibilities.

In claiming joy, I want to signal-boost the work of the Nest collective who run Strictly Silk a queer women’s only space in Nairobi. These parties are intentionally designed to support queer women from the service providers to the creative productions. I have also been drawing lots of inspiration from the music of South African Thandiswa Mazwai. I have known Thandiswa’s music for a while, but her more recent investment in creating musical healing spaces for Black queer women is sparking joy.

Finally, I am celebrating the work of Just Associates whose board I co-chair. JASS’s Women Radically Transforming A world in Crisis dialogues bring together indigenous, Black, queer activists from different parts of the world in conversation about the urgent questions of our time. All of these spaces are about building community and providing a broader framework of care, wellbeing and solidarity that allows Black people to witness the full breadth of their lives that is not always framed by pain. Does this resonate with you? Which music or podcasts are holding your attention at this moment and why?

EJ: Music is balm for the soul. I have found this to be so true in 2020. Reggae is my genre of choice. From Alton Ellis, to Ziggy Marley and everyone in between, Reggae has always been my go-to genre. Reggae is largely Black people’s music, with deep roots in Jamaica where slavery brought the Black peoples there from Africa. It is also connected with Rastafarianism, a religion based on the worship of a Black king, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and is a form of resistance and protest against white-Christianity with its white Jesus. 

If it’s about love, and joy, I often turn to Beres Hammond. Very often, reggae provides protest anthems, and political commentary as well as consciousness, (Peter Tosh. Culture, Bunny Wailer, Queen I-Africa, Jah9). Long before ‘youth’, became a development so called ‘target group’, it was reggae artists who stridently called for respect for young people’s rights, the teaching of strong values to the youths, and most times, calling out the youth to fight for justice. Naturally, it was mostly to reggae that I turned in this dark time in 2020, and I was spoilt for choice. The weekly podcast, Sounds of the Caribbean with Selecta Jerry is four hours of nothing but the best, old and new reggae. 

Black music; Reggae
Beres Hammond. Photograph: Beaver on the Beats/Flickr

In times of crisis, artists are at their very best, and reggae artists did not disappoint. New songs for the times came from Beres Hammond, of course, in Call to duty; a very short but beautifully powerful call to arms against injustice, racism, corruption, and the climate crisis, Gramps Morgan did a beautiful cover of ‘People Like You’, in support of frontline workers and all those helping others in this time of Covid. Young Grammy Award winner Koffee released Lockdown, asking: where exactly we will go? The one thing that gave me much joy for the past six months was helping a friend put together playlists for their three times a week radio show. I realise that the hours of research about each song, the singer/group, when it was produced and why, and packaging the playlists in a meaningful order, has been a way to soothe my soul.

Awino: EJ, you need to run a class on music! You have definitely schooled me. Let me turn to a conversation that has haunted most of us in 2020 – white supremacy and racism. I was invited to do a welcome talk to first year students at a UK university in September 2020. I almost laughed out loud (because some statements are too ludicrous to draw anger), when a student asked why we must read Black authors – surely it is intellect that matters, not race? The speaker also hoped their university would teach them the positive and negative aspects of colonialism. The speaker further argued that insisting on Black solidarity, as I had, creates further divisions amongst people. The British government has recently issued revised curriculum guidelines for schools that, in a nutshell, argues that critical scholarship and pedagogy that shapes much of the power analysis that feminists like you and I challenge should not be part of what students are taught. This happens at the same time that there is public rhetoric around a commitment to deal with inequalities.

When I observe these developments which are not surprising, the urgency for transnational Black solidarity work becomes pressing. This is the moment to read each other, build with each other, and be deliberate about working together as people of Black heritage across the world. Blackness travels very differently across the world but the roots of anti-Blackness remain the same. There are also lessons from African feminist organisations, that the rejection of race as a social construct that shapes our experiences does not help us. Many people are forced into the false idea that we must transcend a claim to Blackness because it sets you back in the same way many women in the corporate sector, for instance, would argue, ‘do not draw attention to my gender, my skills matter more’. This is of course based on a false idea that our world is not structured by capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy.  However, sometimes these statements emerge because Black allies where we work are so few and being a champion for anti-racism becomes exhausting. What is your take on allyship and cross movement work in relation to global Black feminist struggles?

EJ: We really have not had a very deep conversation on RACE in the African Feminist Forum, have we? This moment demands of us to talk about race and talk about loudly, if nowhere else, amongst ourselves, what it means, how we experience and live it, and how it shapes what we do and how we do it, as well as how we organise and resist. An opportunity has opened up, with younger women talking about their experiences in mixed-race (mostly private), schools, which many middle-class parents in Africa often send their children to, since the dawn of independence. In Southern Africa in particular, private schools, which tend to be white-run, white-dominated, and based on a Judeo-Christian values, are where many of us have sent our children to schools. The painful experiences recounted by these now young people, should give us moments to pause, reflect and really challenge ourselves across the many generations, as to how we can give our children and generations to come the best decolonised education, and the need for us to fight for public education that is affordable, yet still providing the best facilities and curricula. 

The question on allyship is another still to be discussed with our white sisters on the continent and those in the global North, as well as our sisters from Asia, and the Americas. Let me tell a little story here. In 2016, when Fidel Castro died, a Brazilian colleague and I took to Twitter to express our sorrow and celebrate his contribution to global struggles of different kinds. A white sister, on seeing these tweets, was very upset: she wrote us a long email, questioning how we could celebrate a man who, in her words, ‘violated human rights, was a murderer, whose people seek asylum in the United States and don’t want to go back…”  To say we were dumb-founded would be an understatement. This was a colleague who, yes, is often in solidarity with us, and our current struggles. The fact that she took it upon herself to school us on her definition of who Fidel was, and how we should remember him, showed me the challenge we have in front of us. Yet, this was not an isolated incident.

The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 2019 was the most telling moment of failure in allyship. In the first 24 hours of her passing, most media houses told only one story about Winnie – a “bad woman”, no wonder Nelson divorced her. Black women from across the world reclaimed Winnie. They did not know what to do with us. I have also struggled with white colleagues’ narratives about various African leaders, Thabo Mbeki and Mugabe being prime examples. There is often only one narrative about Zimbabwe or Kenya, and of course, what our movements should or shouldn’t do. 

Black allyship; Winne Mandela
Funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Photograph: Government ZA/Flickr

I think we have to be more deliberate as Black people about building cross-movement solidarity. We have yet to find one another. I have seen some positive attempts, largely, thanks to COVID and the Black Lives Matter movements. We have organised webinars bringing Black thinkers, movement builders together. We need to sustain this beyond this moment.  We have to feel comfortable with building spaces that are squarely for us and about us. The time for a Pan-African Feminist Forum, a Black women in international development leadership network, is now.  We have to sustain the virtual linkages and translate them into on-going cross-movement dialogue spaces. 

Awino: Thank you taking the time to speak with me, EJ. I hope this wisdom permeates our virtual classrooms this year as you begin your tenure as one of the Professors of Practice at the Centre for Gender Studies.

Awino, who teaches at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS, also serves as the co-chair of the JASS board. She anchors her broader political work through feminist movement support organisations in Africa and building the next generation of peace and security scholars with the African Leadership Centre.

Everjoice is a Professor of Practice at SOAS. A Zimbabwean citizen, Everjoice has been active in feminist and social justice movements in her country, the African continent and globally. Everjoice served as ActionAid’s International Global head of Women’s Rights between 2004 and 2011. Since 2014, she was ActionAid’s International’s Director for Programs and Global Engagement.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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