b l u r r y
This is often how I feel in conversations around permission, integrity, and cultural appropriation, which are essential topics that live in the heart and run through the veins of my work as an aural tradition song carrier. This was the topic of yesterday’s class with my high school students, who are learning how to carry the gift of song bravely and well themselves.
What usually comes up for me whenever this topic is on the table is a realization that there aren’t any real, objective answers or rules for us to follow here. This matter is as mushy and complex as the power structures and histories that shape its need to exist. For me, the real integrity, as I told my students yesterday, is in committing to remaining curious, to stay in the question, to always be looking and asking, to change when change is needed, and to be willing to mess up. In a world in which everything seemingly comes from nowhere--a key perpetuator of the obliteration of meaningful culture and thus healthy communities and ecosystems--it is a direct push against capitalism for song carriers to tell the stories of the songs they share.
In other words, How matters. A lot. Also, who? When? Where? Why? When sharing a song, try and answer as many of these questions as possible. If you just don’t know and yet the song is needed? Trust yourself! Name what you don’t know. Ask those you are leading if they have any of the missing pieces. And of course, before you get to this point, do your own research and attempt to come as prepared as possible. Ask “Why should we sing this song?” “How am I connected to it?” Do the best you can to sing it as it was made to be sung. If there are parts of the song you don't know, or if can't quite remember the melody or words, ask yourself if you're better off waiting for the sake of you, your singers, and the song. If it’s in another language, learn and say the translation. Say the name of the people or the language of its origin. Learn something about that place.
This is a smattering of things we can all do as song sharers looking to uphold integrity in this realm. Beyond this, I believe what gets shared is a matter of personal process and context. For myself, these days I pretty much never teach songs that have origins in places and among people I know are tied into a power structure with me that involved my people oppressing theirs. This litmus of looking first into power structures works well for me. After all, there are plenty of songs that come from my own ‘people’ and from lineages more related to my own history. And if we ever run out (we won't), I'll write us some more.
My way is not the correct way. And for sure, I have crossed the vague and invisible boundaries in this realm a whole lot in the last 7 years. I’ve shared friends’ songs before they were ready to be shared, taught things out of context, not known translations, mis-taught words and melodies, incorrectly credited people... sigh. These mess ups are bummers, and yet I keep going and asking and learning and adjusting. These are the dilemmas of our time, far bigger than us as individuals, and I’m not about to shy away from them and the work for fear of messing up!
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A student in yesterday’s class posed a great question to the group. “What do we do if we see someone overstepping their bounds and not carrying a song with integrity?” Yeah! What are the ways to engage with one another as we fumble, which we will, to keep growing a more vibrant, conscious, and inclusive community of folks in this particular web? Once again, I look to trusty old curiosity and a commitment to keep asking the questions that need asking--ideally in a way that is skillful, direct, and compassionate. For example, when the someone who sparked this awareness in us has finished leading their song, ask simply and openly, “Can you tell us where that song came from?” If they don’t know, ask, “How did you learn it? When? Where?”
Your curiosity alone, when truly curious and without charge, can invisibly point everyone listening into the awareness and importance of storytelling and keeping the origins close to what’s shared. If you can’t ask without charge in that moment, wait a while, and ask the person privately later. As with all learning, giving someone a talking to, publicly shaming, or approaching them as an authority with something to teach them--the non-authority--are highly ineffective ways of getting your message across. Rather, directly and curiously addressing something in the moment or soon after in private can spark new awareness, new relationships, and organically create a stronger culture of integrity among those gathered. Another simple way to preemptively address this issue is to establish story telling and song honoring as a norm from the beginning, naming it clearly and giving a sense of “this is what we do here.” And then it is.
Once again, there are no rules in this realm. Only individuals upholding their own personal sense of integrity, shaped by their personal experience and story. I say, keep asking, keep looking, keep adjusting and keep attempting first and foremost to build community and exemplify what we want to keep alive in that community through what we say and share, and HOW!
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Thanks to all the teachers and co-leaders who have helped me learn how to share songs well through their example and intelligent guidance over the years. "We all do better when we all do better," as Paul Wellstone said!