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The Rhythms of Black Folk and The Enduring Quest for Somebodiness: A Reflection in Light of Black History Month 2022

The title of my paper is borrowed from two of the most profound analysts of the issue of racial and allied justice: Michael Spence and the late James Cone. My reflections take me down memory lane in search of historical contexts in which this thirst for justice has been expressed, notably in the form of music and dance. I will give examples from the African Continent, the Americas, e.g. North America, as well as the “Black Atlantic,” including the Caribbean, e.g. Jamaica.

We start with the continent of Africa, specifically South Africa, a country which was colonized by European powers (Dutch and British) for centuries (1632-1994). Until the 1990’s, the policy of government was the notorious apartheid system, a system of intentional racism perpetrated by a government against its own citizens. Under this system, black people were deprived of the right to determine their own destiny, a right that is commensurate with the definition of the human person both at the individual and collective levels.

While de jure apartheid declared black people as de facto “nobodies,” in reality, they were “somebodies.” They asserted their somebodiness by organizing pro-black political parties, including ANC (African National Congress) led by Nelson Mandela. As a result of his political organizing, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the notorious Robben Island. Among those who were subjected to mass murders were young people students living in Soweto (South Western Township), that is, the slums of Johannesburg. When the students protested the racist education that defined them as nobody, the government responded by incarcerating, torturing and killing many of them. It is noteworthy that while the students protested apartheid by peaceful means, e.g. boycotting the Boers’ businesses, they also protested through dance and songs of liberation. Hollywood has documented these protests in the movie Sarafina, while the film Amandla also captures these moments of quests for racial justice and the search for somebodiness.

Closer to my home, Kenya, we have a second example of racial injustices: this time in the form of colonialism by the British for at least a century. This colonization was protested by the colonized almost immediately. In the 1920’s, the protest was in the form of song and dance called muthirigu. Later, as peaceful means seemed to go nowhere, the colonized, mostly the Agikuyu from Mount Kenya region and the so-called white highlands where the British had settled unilaterally, took up arms and fought a guerilla war to reclaim their right to determine their own destiny. They still sang songs to mobilize themselves and to celebrate victory which they attributed to Ngai—the God who lives on Mount Kenya, or more accurately, Kirinyaga. Their songs are documented in the book edited by Maina Wa Kenyatti, Thunder from the Mountain: Poems and Songs from the Mau Mau. One of the songs rerecorded by Kwame Rigii captures the faith of the Gikuyu people in a God that cares enough for their somebodiness to accompany them in their struggles for independence. The song invokes God (Ngai) who lives on Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga) as am ally in the battle against colonialism and its roots in racism. In the words of the song (loosely translated from Gikuyu):

O Ngai, Our God

The recipient of prayer and sacrifice from Black People

With you on our side no enemy will over whelm us

O Ngai, Mwene Nyaga, we beseech you, hear our prayer

It is noteworthy that while the guerilla war was primary fought by the Gikuyu people, the push was for the independence of the whole nation, not just the Gikuyu. As a nation, Kenya has over forty ethnic groups whose self-determination was also at stake. This push for Uhuru (freedom) beyond ethnic boundaries is is in keeping with the African understanding of Ubuntu Ethics, an ethics based on the African worldview which recognizes the intimate relationship between the individual and the community, belief in God, and that the universe is a living, interdependent whole. From this worldview, Africans have developed a a system of virtue ethics in which the cardinal virtues include reverence and communality. As Sambuli Mosha explains in his book, The Heartbeat of Indigenous Africa, these virtues are expressed and taught through song and dance. It is not surprising therefore that the Gikuyu people expressed themselves and their quest for somebodiness through song and dance (for details, see Sambuli Mosha).

Fast forward to the 1960’s and the anti-racism movement in the United States, commonly called the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. While part of the struggle was an armed struggle led by the Black Panthers, most of the movement was peaceful; for example, protest and writing to the government asking for change. Song and dance were parts of this protest.

Like the Agikuyu in Kenya, Black people in the United States mobilized each other through believing that they shall overcome some day!  Like then Agikuyu, they also invited God to accompany them in their struggle as they sang:

Kumbaya, My Lord


Someone is hurting, Lord, Kumbaya

Oh Lord, Kumbaya

Now, one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of Christianity is the emergence of what are referred to in the literature as AICs—African Independent Churches or African Indigenous Churches. Initially dismissed as heresy and culpable relapse into primitive African cultural traditions, they came to be recognized as a Pan-African form of defiance against racist European churches. It is estimated that there are thousands of such Churches, ranging from the Alandura (praying churches) in Nigeria, Zionist Churches in South Africa and ubiquitous “roho” churches in Kenya. They did not mirror racist Church protocols (when, how, and where to worship) but instead worshiped uninhibited as Africans. The churches also adopted song and dance as their preferred mode of worship.

They have in fact developed a remarkable repertoire of what in Kenya are referred to as “Nyimbo Cia Kiroho,” (Songs of or in the Spirit) reminiscent of the Spirituals through which black people in Black Churches in the Americas reclaimed their somebodiness according to Cone.

Constraints of time and space will not allow me to do a more exhaustive account of the role of music and dance in Black people’s push against racism. Suffice it to say that the struggle has been enduring and continuous, as is evident in the several examples discussed here and in the recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This endurance itself is a positive virtue of Black people, a virtue that Bob Marley from Jamaican Diaspora recognizes in his own songs, two of which I cite here by way of conclusion:

“Get Up Stand Up” reminds Black people to “get up stand up, stand up for your rights.”

The other inspires and celebrates the resilience of Black people:

“How can you be sitting there

Telling me that you care

when every time I look around

The people suffer in the suffering

In every way, in everywhere


We’re the survivors

The black survivors


Like Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego

Thrown in the fire but would never burn…..

We’re the survivors,

The black survivors”

Bob Marley and The Wailers – “Survival”