Policing Each Other
how will art survive?
Since 2015, I have experienced my fair share of expectations and cancelations (from the right and the left), as an artist. So this week, when some policing, and assumptions arrived, it wasn’t my first rodeo. That said, an unsettling, heartfelt gut punch settled in, with regards to how concerned I am about art.
There is a growing trend in the younger voices of Western Europe (read: privileged Europe), that white North American diaspora should not be allowed to access or explore their own cultural and ancestral history, because it is an act of cultural appropriation.
It isn’t the first time that this accusation has come into my world, but it was the first time it was assumed I actually make some kind of glitzy profit from my work - which is always offered as a gift.
So, before I am tarred and feathered, (which is probably inevitable if I am to be an actual artist), I wanted to express with some degree of care, and texture, and nuance, some small impression of the kind of care and integrity I have poured into preparing and researching for my upcoming album.
This week, when I was asked not to name my album “Hireath” because I would be culturally appropriating, Cymreig, the Welsh language, which is in direct lineage on my matrilineal line, I began to realize how acutely brutal the scapegoat mechanism has become across the Western world.
A bit of backstory for why I have (so far) named this album Hireath:
This album is about lost identity, and language, and I am working with my own heritages only. I know that I will already be told this is a “Euro-centric” album, however if nuance is invoked, people will see it is really a sort of cultural/spiritual memoir, a mere example of how we might use art to metabolize our stories. (And let’s be honest - if trends continue, my cultural and artistic window of allowability will narrow so much, that I won’t even be allowed to be accused of being Euro-centric… so I’d better start thinking of all the words that rhyme with bubblegum.)
Except for when I sing the Abwoon/Pater Noster (which is a spiritual heritage), I sing in English, and in the languages of the lands lost to me just two and three generations ago. On my matrilineal line I hail from the West highlands of Scotland, Wales and the West Country and not too long ago, my own people held these languages, and also lost them.
My Kashubian great grandparents from the Baltic Sea region spoke Kashubian.
One of the premises of this album is that I decided to find the words for ‘homesick’ in the languages lost to me such a short time ago. These words imply occupation and displacement, and for me, the pain of immigration, of being diaspora, and frankly, of being born to carry the weight of being the face at the edge of the colonial shadow, people back in my homelands still benefit from.
To say any of this ought not to diminish how deeply I care about what it is like to be born indigenous here, or black, or a person of colour.
The album was nearly called Cianalas, the Scottish Gaelic word for homesick… for longing.
Here in these lands, I am friends with indigenous people who were part of the ‘60’s scoop’ - and many of them have experienced not being welcome in traditional circles, because they were adopted and not raised in the tradition.
The pain of this omission and the cutting off from one’s own cultural background, is to my intuition, one of the reasons we are seeing North American European diaspora behaving in appropriating ways… because they are, I’m sorry to say, an extension of the ongoing story from back in the motherlands… we are the awkward cousins no one wants at the family reunion. And there are less and less elders to integrate any of it.
None of my family would have left their own lands, to homestead in these breathtakingly beautiful lands of the Anishinaabe people, of the Cree people, of the Dene people, the Dakota people, if they hadn’t been at the very bottom of the caste barrel back home. They were all dirt poor, the Kashubians running from rape and war, and some of them nearly starved on the boat ride over. When they got here, they were by design, sorted into whiteness, and in most cases, the assimilation was nearly instant. The hidden violence of this story, and the resulting mutations, is not touched and seen for what it is.
For this album, I sought a geolinguist who speaks both Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, a Kashubian speaker, a Polish speaker, and a German speaker because my Kashubian great grandmother also had to speak German instead of her own language.
Through this process, I donated to initiatives for language restoration, both here, and back in my own ancestral lands.
And when I sing in Cree, it is a duet with my Cree songwriting friend Phyllis Sinclair, and all I sing in Cree is: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank-you. I love you.
And I’m just going to say it… I sing these words on behalf of myself, and the white European diaspora, but also on behalf of those still living in lands that, willingly or unwillingly, are complicit in colonial violence.
To show you how carefully I have tried to curate this, I had even written a song, and had already recorded it in the studio, with musicians, that was inspired by hearing a story from a storyteller in the West Country. But after discovering this exquisite story is of Inuit origin, I opted to find another exquisite story from my own heritage that comes from Somerset, England. (I’ve literally been in my great grandmother’s house in Backwell, Somerset, and she was also very special to me.)
Here is a disclaimer: I recognize that people who see themselves as conscious don’t want to be associated with, or seen as, a white Christian nationalist, and I also know the shallowness of tourism. (We are heading out to travel as pilgrims this fall, in part, because I can sense the post tourism age, and post acquisition age, needs midwives.)
This week, however, I have hardly heard a peep about America profiteering from the further death and destruction of the people of Yemen. From where I’m sitting, it feels like more energy was poured into things like accusing indie artists of profiteering from their own lost languages.
If North American European diaspora are not allowed to access and deeply explore their own heritage - if this is truly the case- that we are exiled from our own ancestors and all the meaning making, but for the past couple of generations, what the world will continue to see is more of the same shallowness. And I would venture to say… certainly more fragility.
A tree without roots that was mutated and groomed to be the face of materialism, is fragile indeed.
This is half the reason I have made this project… because it dawned on me that I’m not going to spend my life policing people, and pretending they’re not my people, but instead I will dig deeper, and will try to love in unloveable spaces, doing the unsexy work of trying to touch this deadly wound I speak of, utterly masked by materialism, that is often only dealt with in judgement and further exile.
Maybe one of the greatest acts of service I can offer is to make an attempt to touch this wound without centering it inside the Machine. By drawing it out of that center and into life, which has no center, but has a lot of depth.
I have stated that the request to change the name of the album will be given heartfelt thought. As with all issues surrounding justice, I take it to heart. But the very idea of further cutting myself off of my own ancients, (with already an ocean between us), and especially the thought of being severed from my grandmothers, is a nightmare I’m not quite sure I’m ready to enact.
That being said, if it comes to that, the Big Gift might arrive through the birth canal of a slammed shut Overton window: that of an identity surrender so total, the stardust-turned-humus I am made of will be my ancestor, and the angels will come to attend.
In my own bouts of righteous indignation, a dear teacher has asked me, “is healing the goal?” And that is sometimes a beautiful wrench to throw into the gears of those of us still trying to point a finger away from ourselves.
I have done this finger pointing, trying to be perfect, more times than I care to confess, and I am sorry.
Oh my goodness, scapegoating and perfectionism will be the death of art!
And if art and expression end, nature will follow, and there will be nothing left standing between us and the Machine - a machine that won’t stop until all of life is extracted, and we are spending our eternity in Digital Heaven, overcorrecting each other.
How my heart hurts that you have experienced this policing even to the point of having to reconsider a title that you have already searched out with your own heart. One of the signs of our time is that we are so often unable to do our own journeying into our heart, our past, and our reality and instead weigh and measure, comment on and correct the efforts of those who are following the process of the unfolding of their own heart. It is a messy and complex world and if we keep focusing on issues that are really misconstrued and often of our own creation we overlook the work we are called to do this time in a rebirthing and a falling in love again with our Earth and with each other and what it means to be alive. It is a policing that will constrict the very life and being out of us if we give ear to it or participate in it. My heart prayer for you Alana, is the continued inner freedom to seek, search, draw from and pour out from your own heart space and heritage, in whatever form it wants to take shape. Yes, it does seem that true art is being pressed, squeezed, and shuttered in the name of being correct. The same way that instead of looking into ourselves and opening up and risking surrendering the safety of only coloring within the accepted lines, we muffle and seek to neuter the wildness of our own innate being, the wildness that is the heartbeat of the soul of the Earth within us. Continue following your path and know that there are so many of us also doing the same in our own way, through our different artistic expressions:making homemade bread, walking barefoot in the dirt, painting, music, and all the ways in which we love and seek to heal, to discover and reclaim our roots - a necessary part of our reclaiming and living out our rootedness and all that is.n
“… exiled from our own ancestors and all the meaning making…”
This deep yearning to hear and know the stories of my Finnish paternal grandparents, and why and how and when they dared to emigrate from their homeland to Canada and the U.S. when very young, led me to ask them questions repeatedly about it all, when I was very young and with a profound soul longing to *know*. They would look at me when I asked, pause, turn to each other, and start talking in Finnish. I finally got the message to not ask, questions were not welcomed, but i also felt shame at exposing such a deep inner longing that was rejected. And I learned how to mask and squish my authentic self inside smallness and “good-girl” behavior.
More than 60 years later, I am still untangling that ancestral exile/meaning-making thread, and re-weaving a different story from my history. And taking the journey to canvas and paint, wondering how ancestral exile / meaning-making will show up, from all the Voices in my ancestral lineages that were shut up because of impertinent questions.
Bless your journey, dear Alana. Standing with you in the swirling.