Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Can Be Learned From Rwanda About Battling Depression (and bad music).

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 14.8 million adult Americans experience clinical depression in any given year -- or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population over 18.[1] It’s possible the number is even higher, but even this is sufficient to show that there’s a mental health crisis in the US, despite the fact that the “mental health” industry is one of America’s few growth industries in recent years. As someone who has been diagnosed with a form of clinical depression, I have seen first hand how such "depression" is often treated by the mental health industry, and American society in general and have come to some understanding about why current “conventional wisdom” proffered by the mental health establishment is ineffective.

I was thus especially happy to read this quote by an unnamed Rwandan about “western mental health workers.” This quote not only offers a diagnosis of what is wrong with the mental health industry, but also suggests an alternative, which could be very helpful here, if we can apply some of this wisdom to America’s secular, individualistic, commercial society and an industry still by and in large based on Freudian models (to say nothing of pharmaceuticals):

“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave."
~A Rwandan talking to a western writer, Andrew Solomon, about his experience with western mental health and depression.  From The Moth podcast, 'Notes on an Exorcism'.

Many Americans got a taste of the hell of the genocide in Rwanda from the movie Hotel Rwanda. This genocide is a direct result of Colonization, or European attempt to control the population of Rwanda, and other countries in Africa. The most brutal, dramatic manifestations of the genocide may have subsided, but these “western mental health workers,” however well-intentioned, are not significantly different from the “Christian missionaries” who beheld “the white man’s burden” in Africa and attempted to “enlighten” them into Western ways. Less generously, it’s a form of cultural imperialism based on a spurious notion of Western cultural superiority that can be seen in every area of our culture.

The Rwandans have different cultural rituals and believe that they can heal their own collective wounds as they are manifested in individuals. They have enough of their own problems after the genocide, and obviously have no interest in trying to colonize America and impose their own cultural rituals here, but reading this statement makes me wish they would! At the very least, I wish to make the authority of this perspective more permissible and part of a serious discussion on the American mental health crisis. Mental health is understood not in isolation from physical health; being out in the sun makes you feel better. Music and drumming get your blood flowing again, and the spirit flows through the blood. Nor is mental health understood in isolation from the community: “There is no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again.”

The Western Psychiatric industry makes a little room for “environmental factors,”
It even sometimes acknowledges that a sick society produces sick individuals, but it rarely proposes healthy collective outdoor rituals with drumming as a way to address this societal crisis. Neither does American secular culture in general encourage this.  The “music industry” in America is usually viewed as entertainment (and it either involves alcohol or drugs, whether legal or not). Even more innovative programs such as “expressive arts therapy” that make an effort to combine the power of music with the paradigm of mental healing often lack that collective, holistic, outdoor, ritual that the Rwandans prefer, and that should at least be considered a legitimate health-care option here.

If the Western mental health professionals in Rwanda can be viewed as a “kinder, gentler” form of “brain police,” this policing is running rampant in America. We, too are being colonized by such professionals. When the mental health industry became dominant in America during the 20th century, for many the “mental health worker” replaced the traditional role of the “spiritual leader;” but the individual in the dingy room that is based on what Freud called “the talking cure” is somewhat similar to the Catholic Confessional.  Many believe the health care worker’s an improvement on that confessional, and on the metaphysics of the church with its “original sin” and sometimes strict, and unjust, moral codes. Freud’s “Copernican revolution” is still, in the official reality, viewed as a sign of progress.

But whatever the failings of the traditional church to combat what is now called “depression,” at least some churches make much more room for the kind of healing activities the Rwandans describe. The gospel music that has characterized the Black Church since Thomas Dorsey brought it in almost a century ago (contemporary to Freud) has been one way to bring this Rwandan wisdom in to the largely dominant secular society. But it need not be restricted to the church. What the Rwandan is speaking in favor of can not really be understood in terms of the specialization of disciplines and professions as we understand them: The Psychiatric Industry, The Church, and The Music (and Culture) industry, need to be combined, to see their common roots. We need a ritual that serves all three of these purposes in order to have any hope of getting out of our contemporary cultural malaise, and truly address health issues at the root.

Because we’re all born into, even baptized, into this individualistic, specialized, fragmented culture, we often have to choose one of these specialized disciplines to work in—if we need to move beyond it. These specialized disciplines, however, can all become “these dingy little rooms:” the office cubicle or heroic artist’s studio, the individual coffin buried in private property you must pay for, the private authentic, “real” self, with an “internal” problem that might be part of his salient character, or essence. All of this keeps us divided, fragmented, an alienated from each other, and thus ourselves. It’s grounded in a false consciousness. Can we operate “in” this world without being “of” it; I tried to.

I tried to start from music and drumming, music as drumming, music as drumming and dancing. Of course, I couldn’t do it alone. Of course, one doesn’t have to do it alone. That won’t help; that won’t really be music. In contemporary America, however, we call a “singer songwriter” a musician the same way we call a psychiatrist a mental health expert—both without drums, and both laboring alone. This might do some good for some people, and I’m not suggesting we ban it from this country. But I do think there are many of us who, like the Rwandans, would like to ask them to leave and stop being so damn paternalistic in speaking for a “norm.” We would like the option of “alternative” medicine, even if this “alternative” is ancient wisdom of the oldest culture on earth, a culture that has been threatened by hostile outside forces, been subject to cultural rape, and yet still preservers!

What the Rwandans propose is, in American culture, threatening to both the “mental health” industry and the music industry. This is one of the reasons there are so many depressed musicians; however well-known they are, they still are not permitted much of a context in which to present themselves as healers, or at least part of a healing process, and at their most "fun." The highest most profound purposes and functions that music can have can easily get lost because of an individualistic definition of what “music” is, and what the "self" is.

Sure, the vast majority of commercial popular songs today still make room for drums and dancing. Even this, however, is often created by electronic machines in dingy rooms, and recorded or broadcast. Real drums are harder to find. Musically, this was sold as “progress.” It’s cheaper to make music on your computer; it’s less likely to “disturb the neighbors” And it can even sound just as good. I don’t quarrel with any of these assessments. Except when it becomes an industry standard, just like you can only get Obamacare for western mental health care; they don’t cover “body workers” such as cranial sacral, chiropractors, and masseuses, who have at least done more good for me personally (and many others) than pharmaceutals have.  I am enough of a product of American society to find a Rwandan drum circle somewhat alien (I don’t really crave to be part of the social scene based on what some white Burning Man types call “ecstatic dance)” but I do hold up Soul Train in the 70s as superior to American Idol in more recent years, in part because Soul Train was less individualistic and more embodied.

In 20th century mass-culture, America never really had a ritual like the ones Rwandans describe, but the rituals of what Nelson George refers to as the “rhythm and blues world” (circa 1950—1975) came close. The music was closer to, and much more integrally, a part of the culture, and more connected to the “social body.” And, today, even with the synthetic, isolated, drum beats, such dance music can still touch the collective soul in a deeper way than other forms of music being pushed. I’ve seen the power a recent pop smash like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” can have in bringing together, however momentarily, a wide group of people that transcends specialized “niches” the music industry usually pushes.

When I got into music, it was with the mission and purpose that we could at least bring more of this back, to use music as a force to bring people together. Yet, in Hollywood, I became a terrible heretic to music and to mental health and even a traitor to my body, when I became known as a “singer songwriter.” Of all the musical roles, “singer songwriter” is perhaps the stiffest, the most like what the Rwandan describes as the “western mental healthcare professional”-- at least it was for me. This doesn’t mean that I can’t find some pleasure, and health in the singer songwriter (the ability to make one, or many cry, with a heartfelt ballad is nothing to be sneezed at), but I saw firsthand how being cast in this role can be as destructive to mental health as the state-hired health care professionals were. This is not a coincidence. And if I wouldn't be surprised if they asked the singer songwriters to leave for the same reason. 

I am not saying that in order for music to truly have any power we must aspire to exactly the same kind of drum circles that one can still find in contemporary Rwanda. We are a different culture; at its best, America produced a music culture that combined elements of African music with elements of European music. “The singer songwriter” is much more a Euro invention of white America, but it can be brought much closer to the African paradigms, and if one feels a deep, authentic, need for drums and dancing to get the blood flowing, we should be able to include it—especially if we’re going to be called musicians (but even if we’re going to be called mental health workers, teachers, preachers, or other culture workers).

And this is only one aspect of what I learn, and admire, and long for, from this man in Rwanda. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind if this view “colonized” America; it wouldn’t be colonization however. The Rwandan isn’t telling the colonzing shrinks (or music professionals) that they’re wrong, they’re just asking them to leave. If they continue to speak for us, and tell us what’s supposed to better for us (despite the testimony of our senses), I wish they would leave here too…or can they change? Can they understand the damage they do? Can they give us an alternative that doesn’t rob of us our heart-beat, especially if they sincerely believe they are trying to help us (and I’m willing to grant they are sincere).


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wisdom from 2 veterans of the Black Liberation Struggle that could be very useful today (and not just in Ferguson, MO)

Bobby Seale

It was mind blowing for me, Bobby Seale, to see the images of a tear-gassed, smoky night in Ferguson, Missouri where the people were protesting the murder of an 18-year-old African American male, Michael Brown, murdered by the Ferguson police with his hands up in surrender. Im taken back to another tear-gassed, smoky night in Oakland, California in 1968 after the death of Martin Luther King. That night another young African American youth, Bobby Hutton, was murdered by the Oakland police. Bobby Hutton, like Michael Brown, was murdered with his hands up. He was kicked in the back by the police and told, run, nigger, run, and when he stumbled forward, several policemen riddled his body with bullets.
Everything was hidden about the shooting of Bobby Hutton in one way or another until six to eight weeks later when an Inquest into the shooting of Bobby Hutton began. Prior to the Inquest, Marlon Brando, my friend at the time, and I had done a television show together where Marlon had stated that Little Bobby Hutton had been murdered by the Oakland police. In response to this accusation, five or six policemen filed a lawsuit against Marlon Brando. At the Inquest, after two or three policemen had sworn and testified attempting to distort the facts of the murder, a young, black female officer, fresh on the force, testified that those police officers who had just testified had murdered Bobby Hutton. The Inquest was immediately shut down and Bobby Huttons family was awarded $250,000 and, of course, the lawsuit against Marlon Brando was dropped.
With Michael Brown, we are still in the situation where the police are not forthcoming on the details of his killing, holding off on releasing the Officers name and trying to assassinate Michaels character and, like Bobby Huttons murder, stalling for time. Recent examples of Oscar Grant, in Oakland, California, who was murdered while laying on the ground with his hands behind his back in a subway station when an officer pulled out his weapon and shot him in the back, or Eric Garner who was strangled in an illegal choke hold by police while struggling to breathe and asking for help, these incidents seem to me endemic of a fascist mind-set in police and law enforcement agencies.
Of course not all policemen are like this, but many departments get out of hand. With the Black Panther Party in 1969, I put together a campaign for greater community control of police. The Party and our coalition partners actually put a Community Control Of Police referendum on the ballot in Berkeley, California. Before the actual voting took place, they had falsely arrested me. My peoples control of police concept was set up in four different cities in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area: San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley. The Black Panther Party, working with different organizations and groups, crossing all racial and ethnic lines, was able to get enough signatures to place the referendum on the ballot in Berkeley, California only.
This was basically community control of the police. The referendum called for, rather than the appointment of a police chief, a tri-level body of police commissioners to be duly elected by the people of the community. It called for three community review boards with not less than five members duly elected to each of the three community board members. These review boards had the investigative power to review questionable police shootings, undue, unnecessary force and community complaints. If the board found in their investigation unnecessary force was used or complaints more than credible, then the peoples voice would be heard. With this method, in the community control of police, we add a broader framework above and beyond the police internal affairs, i.e., police investigating police. By having duly elected members as a peoples investigative body, from there they can recommend legal action to be taken against any specific policeman violating the law, such as Eric Garner being strangled in an illegal choke hold in New York. While I was in jail, the coalition committee with my Black Panther Party put this referendum on the ballot in Berkeley, California. We lost only by one percentage point. Besides the need to get all police operations to recognize peoples constitutional democratic civil-human rights, these are the things that we must realize and the people must do to change the relations with the police.
Ferguson, Missouri has become another example of the militarization of police departments across America which is being used to repress the First Amendment rights for people to redress their grievances. Those people in Ferguson, demanding information on the killing of one of the members of their community, found themselves surrounded by police in military vehicles armed with officers pointing guns into the crowd, and being bombarded by tear gas and smoke canisters. For them it is nothing more than an example of the avaricious, rich, corporate machine controlling our politicians, police and law enforcement agencies. Whats needed is greater democratic community control of the police.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for any one people to dissolve the political bondage which has connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the co-operational and equal station to which the laws of nature and natures god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of humankind dictates that we the people should declare the causes which impel us to dissolve that oppressive bondage. Implement a greater peoples community control of police.
We, the people, can organize and structure things to defend our human rights. What I was doing in the late sixties was in the spirit of and in line with Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other progressive human rights activists. What my Berkeley referendum to the ballot meant in those times is what needs to take place today in cities across America.
All Power To All The People!
Bobby Seale, Founding Chairman and National Organizer of the Black Panther Party (1962-1974) SPEAKING Across America.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"A Stadium" (from Speculative Primitive, 2005)

(Preferatory Note: Coming to terms with, and trying not to simply despise, a prior aesthetic self.... I guess I'd call this a metaphysical--or even visionary-poem [in the best possible sense of the word], but I don't mean it as a brag. I could also see it as in the "Ashberrian mode," what he calls "ingenious mode,"or others would dismiss as "mannerist" ("excellent scribbling in a period style"). And, yes, it's got some of those ticks. It's equally "discursive" and "lyric," makes room for lyric. It could be an exasperating embarrassment of riches--especially if read in one sitting, but it could be more effective to some if considered a suite of shorter lyrics (with a lot of white space that wastes trees). Still, more than a decade after writing it, it can reach me and generate something new, or at least now (and Stevens, for instance, often found inspiration in doing 'turns' on his earlier published work). It feels kind of a culmination: I took that mode as far as I needed. I don't see the point in trying to "top" it by those kind (its) standards. It can still be new, and is not just what it is. And I don't say this to brag, but to be humble before a muse....)

A Stadium

There’s no need to beat yourself up (or down)
For forgetting
It’s silly to towel yourself off (or on)
While standing in a waterfall.

It’s only when you’re shivering it matters.
Not that feelings ever arrive on schedule.
It amazes me the subway even has a schedule.
For all I know the trains do follow them
As Fundamentalists even
But even though it didn’t stop
The shivering it refused to prolong,
They come soon enough for those
No longer so addicted to squeezing
The nougat out of every moment
When ignorance of their manners
Has its way with nourishing us

Our faces are poised
To fall off with the slightest gust
So we slip back
Into the wallet of social roles
As if we’re now a metrocard and 5 ones
When once we were a 20.
It might as well be
A miracle of fish in love
To move on reflected wings
Till nothing’s in the past
& I start feeling like the imaginary circle
That surrounds my actions again
Until a patch of thin ice strikes
Like a mine beneath a blanket of grass
A place you know in advance will not be
More true than getting there is,
A truth that will not be more pleasing than now.

Then I’m standing at the spot
Where everything passes through me
And one step in any direction
To get more gets me less and less.
Two of these could be taken to prevent
Future pain in disappointment
As continued striving undoes strife.
You’ll know when you get there
By the tiredness most likely
Unless a second wind of coffee
Pulls off the tablecloth of sleep
To rouse the glass without breaking it
Even as the beverage with which we identify
Spills over the side, into freedom at last
And growing cold.

There’s certainly worse things to say to it
Than you weren’t ready.
I was ready for you an hour ago
But now I demand your patience
With the distractions I indulge
In the jagged room of your absence
Which could spring another leak
That old time feeling 
Falling through the ice, the field,
Even the cement at every moment
Losing its notebook grip on me
For wordless remains so much
Of what this won’t seem to skirt around
Till human voices wake me and I sip…

Yes, the Christmas lights make me doubt
The wisdom of the voice that cries
“What need for black paint on your glasses
when there’s longer nights in winter?”
But really there’s really nothing to turn off
But the turning off itself, and the way to score
The urge for a place that’s dark and warm
Without borrowed civilized heat
Is paved with hibernation
Where we’re each other’s hide
Unless an overbearing personality is something to be
& the love that leads me to you
was only something society lead me to.

It says, “if you speak loudly, you cannot,
By decree, carry a big stick.”
But what kind of power can only operate
Through holding our own tongues?
What other limit to the horizon can there be
But that which the lack of place
They do not wrest from you denotes in you?

Surely your need to don what may be
But the borrowed robes of individuality
In a sanctuary itching to become
The surveillance camera’s dressing room
Only keeps you outside the game
Insofar as you remain unable
To trash unquestioning love
Along with the superficiality
Termed respect for the customs of the world.

But maybe you haven’t gone
Far enough into the wilderness,
Leaning on a lover for power.
Nor could your shunning be deemed a sacrifice.
You still want the fruits, the kindness,
And are thus as shy of contempt
As hatred born of fear.
Not that you need bother about
Our failures and frailties.

Admit this fear as you admit your flesh
Admit them and their countervalent
Contempt tapered there, fine as fashion
To let your heart be cold as winter
Under cover of the slow healing
(but healing nonetheless) injury.
Drop in as a cop, as if each moment
Has a manner in a colonized Sabbath
Like Switzerland where all sides can meet
To fight over the holes in the cheese.”

Next thing you know, I’m unable
To sustain the mesh, the cuties
In which bitterness tried to batter itself
Into a bridge that beckons and returns
Not from a point of origin
But from past acquaintances
Who claimed the privilege of family
Sufficiently enough to rub off on me
As they wiped their preventative “filth”
From the tablecloth
To bathe me in cleanliness of self
As their representative in the next generation’s court.

Then I caught my mouth saying
“Oh, were my mores society’s
all children would be glued to their afterbirth
as a consistent reminder of what cannot be known
but by our rude, biased, implements
which I praise more than your tearless objectivity.”
That was one way of taking the long way home.
But there are others, and to rid oneself
Of all thoughts of them may help
All but the infinite (and you know who you are)
Who scurry like crossing guards
That appear as insects or distorting dust
Unavoidable on even the cleanest mirror.

Swerve to miss a tree, then.
I will not block your view
(even though you secretly want me to)
And the view is too exemplary to insist
Though I can’t help but parody it by pointing
(it’s still easier,
as Napoleon and Pygmalion knew,
to shoot off the Sphinx’s nose
than its sense of self)
& it still feels kinda chilly in here…

Well, love felt it was important
To notice it was more similar
To those chronicled in it centuries ago
Than it was to your most megaphoned,
Guilt-tripped contemporaries.
The musty mirage of breathing space
Opened its doors to alienation
To open its doors to love.

I fell for that one a few times
Then bequeathed it to the will
When desire took the form of funeral orations
To the possible possum of the sun’s fiery orb…
Second best bed! How dare love rank things!
But sure as it doesn’t take
As long to say goodbye
As it does to say hello,
Words and their meanings
Only match up
As the reductive fallacy comes
In handy in baroque times.
For water casts shadows and we make do
With the inevitable whoopy of discrepancies
Not as if a torch is being passed
From the front of a line at the health clinic
To the back, but as a native smile sticky as sex
In the long look of suspended laughter
(the kind that can break those afraid to enter)
That rubs against love like its reflection
In an interrupting kitten or the stillness
Of weariness as sleep sees it in peels.

No inverting richness need
Chocolate the fog at the soy store
For it’s clear in times like these
That she alone of all women
Has given me not only herself
But also shown me the strength
By which I may keep her close
In the distract stadium of abiding calm
Within which the most severe struggles
Glimmer like glucose in a lemon-leaf
I’m on vacation from taking seriously
Though the beeper could off any second

Vacations may be overrated
For the sole purpose
Of separating work from play
And this vacation from play,
Itself a kind of play,
May only be here because
There has to be a stadium
In which the events take place
Where the difference
Between thoughts and actions
Is no more profound
Than that between thing and word
Even if there isn’t,
In the final (lapse of) analysis,
Anything to prove any need called the mind,
Any winter to necessitate the storing of nuts
In that hollow that wasn’t there
Until we gnawed away at the bark in summer.

It may call to mind a slo-mo Sisyphus
Of the ineffable that passes for materialism
Beyond alienation, and just shy of love,
Until the scenery changes and the intimacy problems
Are revealed for all to see
As you give in to the fangs
That have not yet emerged (to the naked eye)
From the precautions you take against them—
About as pragmatic as one can be
Amidst the passions too busy being the stadium
To be the concert, game, or playlet
Performed within its confines, its roof of air
To prove we have no structure
Without rebuking the skeleton

For death is structure enough for such a task as yours
As love’s and I can go long (in the lobbyists’ halls)
As if I myself was space unable to remember
The firefly that howled its hunger
From me to you and you to me
But as the chasm, the divider
Space stumbles upon
When it doesn’t want to treat itself like an object
But doesn’t want to treat you like one either
And so consigns that task to me
When I come back so into you
I never get around to saying
“You’ll never guess where I’ve been,
There were lions and tigers, Detroits and Chicagos.
Junkyard dogs that looked like jigsaw puzzles
With a couple of pieces lost, all walking
In the ways of a beautiful sun, or trampled
For a closer glimpse of the Pope, The Who
Waving a giant Union Jack when Santana plays
Yet throwing boos & things at The Clash”
But I have returned, and almost with a vengeance
As if “Higher Love”  got nuthin’ on “Gimme Some Lovin’”
As if you could tell as well as time.