Making Meaningful Music: Inspiration Behind The Oneness Project

I don’t where to begin, but I guess I have to start somewhere. I remember 2 years ago being unsatisfied with music. I was playing with bands, writing music, touring, but it was missing something. I had been playing music for a long time. It’s always held a special place in my heart, and that’s why I was feeling empty. When you know how powerful music can be, when you’ve had the ability to touch people’s hearts in certain ways, even just once, when you fall short of that, no matter how “good” the music may sound, it just can’t feel right.

The Oneness Project is a response to that. I began writing the music a little over a year ago. These songs are dear to me, they represent spiritual growth, overcoming real hardships, and finding love in all things.  It is an understanding that your soul can’t be full, and your music will never reach the highest level, until all aspects of yourself, and your art, are ONE.

It was one year ago when we recorded the first and only video, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Since then, it’s only received great responses. it’s reminded me the power of music, and what purpose it should serve, and who. Now, a year later, I’m realizing I need to finish what I started, and do an entire album.

It’s a huge an undertaking, and I can’t do it alone. I’ve a started a GoFundMe Campaign, and I’m reaching out to all of you–my friends, my family, to people I’ve never met but who have continually supported me over the years–to help make this a reality, to donate, share, and spread the word to the people they know, and even the people they don’t. Here is the link. 

The goal is to raise $1,000, it seems like a lot, but making an album isn’t easy, and that goal will only help with some of the costs, the rest I will carry on my back.

Here’s what the funds will go towards:

1. Studio Time – Studio time is not cheap, especially when you want to make something that does not feel rushed.

2. Musicians – All of the musicians involved are amazingly talented, and deserve to paid their worth. From rehearsals, traveling across the region, and the actual recording, they will be dedicating a lot of time to this project. I want to make sure it is not in vain.

3. Distribution – Purchasing CDs, artwork, and shipping are all critical to getting the music you.

4. Most importantly: Through meeting this goal, I will be able to give away this music for FREE! I don’t believe in selling music, and I want this music to be accessible to everyone. You all can help with that.

Thank you to everyone who has helped, encouraged, and supported me this far. It’s meant a lot, and you all are the reason I am doing this.

Here’s to making good music!

-Mtali Shaka Banda

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The Importance of Black History

Last month, I was invited to speak at Amherst Regional High School as the keynote speaker for their Black History Month Teach-In, here is the full talk.

Emma Watson, Feminism, and Spirituality

Emma WatsonEarlier this week, Emma Watson spoke as a Goodwill Ambassador at the UN for a new campaign, HeForShe, a righteous attempt to make gender equality a universal dialogue by bringing men into the discourse.

For many reasons, we could break down that speech for  the so many ways it was problematic. I don’t agree that Emma should have called out women for man-hating, and put the solution on women to be more open to men coming into the circle of feminist dialogue.

I also think for many of the reasons people praise it, we can also criticize it–like when she acknowledged her own privilege as being one of the few women in this world who can appreciate that level of economic, social, and professional success because of the resources she had readily available to her, claiming that the forces of sexism were never present in her life. And yes, we could make the case that that would have been an amazing moment to highlight all the women in the world who make far less than 78% of men, of women who have to rely on being sex workers to survive while privileged women criticize their choices, of a world of feminism that continually marginalize the experiences of black, brown, and poor voices.

All of these points can be debated to great lengths. But I also think that when you only focus on these points, you’re missing how beautiful the speech really is. It wasn’t until  the end of her speech that it really hit home with me:

“Men, I would like to give this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too….Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. When they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

Being a member of the Baha’i Faith, the concept of true Gender equality has never been a foreign topic, but rather one of the cores of my religious beliefs. There was a spiritual component that resonated with me when I heard this, and that is what made this so refreshing. As I was listening to her speak, I was reminded of the Baha’i Writings:

“ The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be.”

When we speak about eliminating patriarchy, we aren’t just talking about getting rid of prejudices, ending rape culture, or tearing down the walls of misogyny. we are talking about humanity’s–particularly men’s–spiritual salvation.

The older I get, and the more speeches like these I hear, the more I am becoming aware of the role that I have–as a man–in fostering the world that I want to live in, as well as a better understanding towards these Baha’i Principles I hold so close to me. It was men who made patriarchy what it is today, and so men play a crucial role in breaking down those barriers. Currently, the stakes are too high to do nothing and to sit idly.

When we allow ourselves to live in a world that lets patriarchy go unquestioned, we aren’t doing anyone any favors. We aren’t giving men the chance to be great, to raise them up as compassionate role models, to see women as equals, to go against the norms of what is or isn’t masculinity–of what makes a man a man. What we are doing is crippling their souls. Materially, patriarchy puts men ahead of women, but because of this, it puts us behind spiritually, and it makes us monsters because of it.

In an ideal world where women and men were equals, there are a lot things we wouldn’t see. We probably wouldn’t see Ray Rice dragging his fiance out of an elevator, or an institution like the NFL deem it a sufficient punishment to only suspend him for two games. We wouldn’t see men killing innocent people because they felt entitled to women’s bodies. We wouldn’t see a culture of rape dominate every sphere of our lives, and that sympathizes the perpetrators. Maybe Chris Brown would never have hit Rihanna . But even if he did, maybe we wouldn’t continue to support his music. We wouldn’t accept a government run almost entirely by men, and then allow them to dictate what women could, or could not, do to their bodies. In a world where women and men were equals, this post would be have been obsolete, because there would be no need.

Emma may not be the first to say what she is saying, but she is saying it. And for that, thank you.

The Pupils of the Eye: Before Richard Sherman, A Legacy of Black Athletes That Shed A Little Light On The World

Jack-JohnsonThe year was 1908 when boxer Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first black heavy-weight champion of the world. His rise to success came when lynching was at its peak, when Jim Crow was law in much of the U.S., and when a black man should know “their place” when in the presence of whites.

But Johnson would never prescribe to being a second class citizen because of his blackness. He would drive expensive cars, wear fancy clothes, he would brutalize his white opponents in the ring, and what drove everyone crazy more than anything else: he dated white women during a moment in history when black men were being lynched every week just by the very thought of interracial sex.

At a time when every other sport was racially segregated, Johnson’s claim to the heavyweight title shocked a white world that viewed blacks as being athletically, as well as mentally, inferior. They went to extreme measures to avenge this, calling Jim Jeffries, “The White Hope”, out of retirement to reclaim the title–not just for him, but for the destiny of the white race. The New York Times wrote, “”If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.”

It was clear that the world was against Johnson, but the odds were in his favor, and that was all that mattered. After fifteen rounds, and knocking Jeffries out twice, Johnson held his title, as well as his dominance.

If they couldn’t defeat Johnson in the ring, then they would manipulate law to bring him down. Several years later, Johnson would be arrested and sentenced to 1 year imprisonment for traveling with a white women across state boarders for “immoral reasons,” under the Mann Act. An act designed to attack prostitution, but with such loose language, it could easily be used to attack interracial couples, and would set the tone for future miscegenation laws that would define black-white relations for the next half-century.

After the verdict by an all white jury, Johnson fled the country, continuing his reign as the World Heavy-Weight champion until his loss to Jess Willard in 1915. After the defeat, he returned to the U.S., where he served his jail sentence. His career was never the same, nor was his reputation. On June 10, 1946, with a tendency for reckless driving, Johnson died in a car crash. He was speeding away from a diner after being denied service because of his race. It was racism that made him such a driving force in the boxing world, but it was also racism that would eventually bring him down.

Richard-ShermanThis last week, we saw how polarizing Richard Sherman’s post NFC championship game remarks were as he helped bring his team to the Super Bowl. What’s great is we saw immediately how people rushed to his aid. We’ve seen the racially coded language that puts African-American athletes on the margins. And we’ve seen Sherman be nothing but graceful and intelligent as he navigates through all the controversy.

Almost a complete century after Johnson reign, the legacy remains the same. It was athletes like Johnson who made the way and set an example for players like Sherman to stand up to racism. When you compare the history of sports to the history of racism, it’s impossible to not see how they both  have such a close relationship to one another.

Reflecting upon the Baha’i writings–the religion to which I follow–it refers to people of African decent as “the pupil of the eye.” Baha’u’llah writes, “Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye that is dark in color but is a fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.”

The Baha’i Faith has many progressive principles explicitly written out, and of those is the elimination of racism. The role of African-Americans, according to the Baha’i writings, is likened to the pupil of the eye. Although black, the pupil is what brings in all the light and makes sight possible. That is the role prescribed to African-Americans–to help society see, and this couldn’t be any more true than in sports.

There has been a black prophetic tradition in sports that has constantly shook the consciousness of not just this country, but the world. It was track legend Jessie Owens who dominated the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, at the height of Nazism, and who debunked the myth that Blacks were inferior to whites athletically. It was Jessie Jackson who challenged baseball, and who continually remained cool, calm, and collective despite the racist backlash from spectators. Then Muhammad Ali, a black Muslim who, on national radio, without any fear or doubt, pointed out the blatant contradiction between the War in Vietnam and American racism.

The role that  black athletes have played in sports wasn’t just to be racial pioneers and break down barriers, but also to show that those barriers existed–not just institutionally, but because people allowed them to be the norm, or the unspoken law. This last week, Sherman did just that. He’s opened the floor for a much-needed debate in one of the most followed sports in this country. He exposed the prejudices some people may not have even known that they had.

Through all this craziest, not only am I rooting for Sherman to triumph over all of this, but I’m rooting for Americans to see the light and stand on the right side of history–for once.

The Silence of Injustices: The Baha’is of Iran

965_00_rezvaniLast month, Mr. Ataollah Rezvani was murdered. His body was found in his car on the outskirts of Bandar Abass, the Iranian city to which he resided in. Leading up to this moment, Rezvani had been expelled from his University, he had been let go from his job, and the weeks prior to his murder, he had received menacing phone calls.

All of these events–being denied an education, fired from his job, the threatening phone calls–were all because of one reason: Mr. Ataollah Rezvani was a member of the Baha’i Faith.

Members of the Baha’i Faith make up the largest religious minority in Iran. They believe in the equality of men and women, the eradication of all forms of prejudices, the realization of a universal education, and the elimination of extreme disparities between the rich and poor. But because of their religion, the Baha’is in Iran have endured persecution that has extended to torture, imprisonment, the denial of higher education, and for some, even death.

In 2008, The Yaran (“The Friends”), 7 individuals who make up the Baha’i governing body of Iran, were imprisoned for no other reason than the religion they practice. They are each serving up to 20 years of imprisonment. But they are not alone. Currently, 116 Baha’is are imprisoned in Iran for their beliefs, while another 448 are out on bail.

We live in a country that prides itself on two principles: democracy and freedom, and we see it as our duty to protect these principles domestically, as well as abroad. Yet, despite this lofty rhetoric, the Baha’is in Iran still face overt persecution and discrimination because of their beliefs, and the world remains silent while their basic human rights and dignity are being stripped away. Even when then US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, spoke out against the persecution in front of congress, and when it was brought in front of the United Nations by the Secretary General, silent, the world still remained.

This silence is a legacy of inconvenient realities. Realities where we, the privileged, decide which injustices deserve to be noticed, and which ones deserve to be ignored. We see it now more than ever, when after two years of Civil War and brutal dictatorship, the U.S. now sees their obligation to intervene in Syria, without any sense of irony on how they remained silent during Rwanda, Dar Fur, South African Apartheid and so many other injustices  that continue to arise around the globe.

So today, the Bahai’s of Iran continue to endure hardships, but I pray for a day when not just the Persecution of Baha’is, but where all injustices are notably acknowledged and given the sense of urgency they deserve. I pray for a day when justice and human dignity are equally shared throughout humanity, and when the realization of the oneness of humankind becomes universally embraced.

Below are a collection of narratives that tell the plight of Baha’is in Iran.

The story of Roxana Saberi’s time in prison with Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, two of The Yaran (“the Friends”), sentenced to 20 years in prison simply for helping administer the needs of the Baha’i community in Iran.

A profile of Iranian-Kurdish human rights activist and researcher, Soraya Fallah, with her daughter Cklara Moradian. Soraya was imprisoned four times, and tortured so severely that she miscarried in solitary confinement

A heartbreaking account of Mahmoud Madjzoob, told by his widow Shokooh Madjzoob, and their son Soroush.

Political activist Jafar Yaghoobi’s first-person account of his four and a half years in prison.

The story of Soheilia Afnani and her father Nusratullah Subhani, a local Baha’i leader who was executed March 5th, 1985.

A story of love, courage, and belief in freedom with Reza Fani Yazdi and his wife Soheila Vahdati.

Notes From a Fruitful Conversation: Realizing Our Potential, And Assisting Others To Do The Same

A few months back, I had the opportunity of getting to sit down for coffee with a good friend of mine, Arnaud Jean. He is a UMass student who happens to be taking some time off in Haiti devoted to consulting and building with others in the field of permaculture. He is doing a lot of great work, and his example can be an inspiration to us all. 
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All of the work Jean is doing–consulting with people at the state level in Haiti, building with other like-minded individuals, and striving to have a positive impact with Haitian youth–had me wondering not only as to how he developed such a vision, but also how he even felt that such a vision could become a reality? At some point, a strong conviction that what he was doing could be possible was needed for him take that leap forward. What enabled  him to feel empowered enough to take such an initiative?

For Jean, self empowerment has always been a part him. “When I was a kid, my mom used to say, ‘Son, whatever you want in life, you will have.’ To a kid, being poor and your mom saying something like that was like a promise. And I remember my grandma used to tell us stories, folk tales, about voodoo, gods and goddesses, the kind of stories that made you feel like nothing was impossible.” Jean internalized these thoughts of being capable of infinite possibilities, and that belief has been manifested through his work in Haiti.

But this way of thinking isn’t always romantic. He continued to say,”Thinking this way can make you overestimate what you are capable of and set you up for failure after failure. But still, each failure is a learning opportunity. And it is this learning that leads to self actualization. So as dangerous as that mindset can be, I think it’s an important part of becoming.”

All of  what Jean had to say resonated with me so strongly because it was something I myself had been wrestling with for some time. Recently,  I have carried my own insecurities with myself and a lack of confidence in my own capacities. For many of us, Jean’s story is not much different than our own. Most of us grew up being told we had immeasurable capacities waiting to be unlocked and opened to the world. Most of us can relate to  a childhood where we envisioned a reality that could be manipulated through our own vision and hard work, a reality that we controlled. A world where we believed that our outlandish dreams could come true.

So if this story is so much like my own–like our own, then why am I so interested in it? Because unlike Jean, many of us–at one point–were confronted with the harsh reality that maybe we couldn’t be and do everything we wanted, and we internalized that doubt. As we approached adulthood, we encountered setback after setback, and eventually we become jaded with life’s harsh realities. This too was the case with Jean, but somehow he was able to recapture his youthful ambition. That is what makes Jean’s story so unique: that despite continuous encounters with life’s reality, he still believes in his own capacities.

As the conversation went on, we started to explore this idea of “youthful self-empowerment”. Jean expressed his desire to facilitate others into realizing their own potential in Haiti. In a community that has experience so many hardships, it is not hard to imagine many Haitians internalizing the present realities as their only available option.

“I sometimes talk to Haitian boys and girls. Some of them seem so hopeful and others you can tell are a bit more ‘realistic’. I think, for me, my dream is to encourage the dreamers in pragmatic ways to realize their dreams. You know, after you’ve been through so much…it’s difficult to hold steady to old ideas. But can you imagine,–if Nelson Mandela stopped dreaming, if MLK, Gandhi  or the Haitian forefathers stopped dreaming?”

In a community that has experienced so many hardships, many Haitians have internalized the present realities as their only available options–options that aren’t so optimistic and don’t leave much room for hope. So how can Jean facilitate some Haitian youth to a sense of realization of autonomy over their own destinies? How will Jean encourage those he comes in contact with to envision realities that are not visibly present , but realities that can become actualities through their own vision and endeavors?

haitian kids

The deeper we went into this conversation, the more lost we became, but also the closer we came to finding ourselves. Through discussing this topic so heavily, we were able to make connections together that we wouldn’t normally be able to do alone. I know that for myself, when I think of Haiti and other Caribbean nations, I also think of America and the depressed urban populations that live within my own domestic boarders. Being an Afro-American studies major with a concentration in Political Science and History, I have a good understanding of structural changes that have occurred domestically that have kept people–primarily of color–from achieving upward mobility and I have an awareness to the social impediments that have continually marginalized groups of people from feeling that they have any autonomy over their own reality–because for so long they have been victims to systematic oppressive forces that crippled them from having any real control. Systems responsible for joblessness, housing, and poor education–all of which keep people who are already down, down even more.

So, because of this knowledge, I find it naive for us to really expect that we can live that youthful reality that indoctrinated us to believe we could do anything we set our minds to, because it underestimates social realities that really do exist for many people. However, I also cannot just accept that social impediments are the last deciding factor in our fates. That way of thinking becomes problematic,  because it means we gave up and lost.  Too many of us  have internalized such thoughts, especially people who been victimized to such unjust social impediments.

black youthAnd so the question I posed to Jean was how do we mobilize oppressed communities? How do we give these communities a feeling that they can actively shape their own realities and combat the forces that have so long been against them?

It was at this moment when Jean saw it as an appropriate time to give me a lesson in biology. Describing the cell: “when many cells come together they form tissues, the tissues forming organs, the organs forming organ systems, and then an organism.  At each new level, there is a new reality. Now, apply that to people”. The cell is the individual, the body is the community. 

And then, the dialogue transformed and wasn’t just about how to mobilize others, but first how to integrate ourselves. Although I never grew up in the ghettos of America, I still felt  alienation growing up because the color of my skin. I remember teachers never encouraging me to push myself because they didn’t think I could, fellow students always questioning my intelligence, always being suspected as a thief when walking into stores, and a continuous stream of events where I had been profiled because of my skin color. My blackness has always been perceived as a negative trait by the standards of others, and that mainstream perception negatively affected how I perceived myself for a long time. It influenced what I believed I was capable of.  Once someone who believed they were innate with huge potential turned into a black male who  lost faith in fairy tales.  But now I long to feel that youthful empowerment again.

And my story–although it is my story–isn’t much different from others’. In fact, my life probably parallels with so many who experienced some form of alienation, but maybe not alienation based on race. Jean asked me how common is it for people like me–people who have been put down for shallow reasons–to struggle with these same kind of questions that we happened to be contemplating over? How many of us have self-actualized what others thought about us and believed that that was the actual reality–a reality that didn’t deem us as being worthy of self confidence. And because of this self actualization,  we haven’t taken risks, we haven’t reached for what we wanted, or aspired to be who we want to be because so many people instilled doubt in us, and we fully accepted it.

This might have been the answer me and Jean were searching for: that because the challenges of others are so much like the ones we experience ourselves, in order for us to truly mobilize and assist other individuals, as well as other communities, we have to first mobilize ourselves. We have to see within us–at the individual level–the latent potential of nobility that has been inherent in all of us from birth, but has yet to be activated. We have to first look inward and cultivate ourselves, then share that with others. We have to see, acknowledge  and believe in our own self-worth. Change begins at the individual level. In order for us to be active agents of change within other communities we have to start with fixing our own problems.

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But this is a very abstract answer. And when I expressed that to Jean, his response was that “every person is different, so every answer will be different. Take this idea, and make love to it”.

So that’s exactly what I did this idea:made love to it. 

Like Jean, I am a member of the Baha’i Faith. So in order to really expand my thoughts and find a solution with a solid foundation, a friend suggested I search the vast and abundant sources that the Baha’i writings had to offer, especially when it pertains to current issues–like inequality.

It was then that I came across a quote that “highlighted both the complexity and the interdependence of the problems facing humanity.” Stating that “none of these problems–the debilitating inequalities of development, the apocalyptic threats of atmospheric warming and ozone depletion, the oppression of women, the neglect of children and marginalized peoples, to name but  few–can be realistically addressed without considering all the others. None can be fully addressed without a magnitude of cooperation and coordination at all levels that far surpasses anything in humanity’s collective experience.” (Baha’i International Community, 1993 Apr 01, Sustainable Development Human Spirit)

In the same way Jean was comparing the process of the cells forming organisms to the individual and the community, social inequalities also fall into this process. Indeed, all individuals are different, our experiences may not be concretely the same, but we can use our individual experiences to relate to one another. In the same way that people are struggling with questions similar to my own, they are also struggling with similar problems. Oppression is oppression, exploitation is exploitation, no matter what forms they take shape in, because they are all unjust and perpetuate some form of inequality.

When we reach this realization that all injustices–no matter what form they are manifested in–are interrelated, then we can start to make real progress. 

In the conclusion of my first post, Thoughts on Newtown, I emphasized a need for a perspective that looks at all the layers of injustices. A perspective that understands that all the injustices the occur around the world are linked, and that in order to adequately address one, all the injustices need to be addressed and their connections to one another need to be openly acknowledged.

So to piggy-back off of that idea: we have to start understanding that the empowerment of Haitian youth is linked to the the empowerment of youth everywhere, to the empowerment of the women everywhere, to racial justice everywhere, to economic justice everywhere, to environmental justice everywhere--to justice everywhere through the empowerment of people everywhere.

This post, like so many of my previous ones, isn’t intended to magically offer any definitive answers, but rather to ask appropriate questions that put us on the right path to finding the gold we are constantly mining for.

I understand that maybe this is too idealistic for many to vibe with, but I just found that this conversation Jean and I had needed to be shared with other like-minded individuals. So take this post, and in the words of Jean, “make love to it.”