“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. These words of Bob Marley have tossed restlessly in my mind since I first heard them as a kid. It is only until recently that I have come to understand what they really mean.
In my work in the Middle East with Music in Common, I am constantly reminded of how complicated the situation is there. I make painstaking efforts to bear in mind all possible viewpoints and remain sensitive to those viewpoints. I strive to maneuver without any biases, both as the leader of the organization and as an individual. After two years of working in the region, I am slowly starting to accept the fact that that simply may not be possible. Everything in the Middle East is political.
It is easy to blur the lines between politics and people. There are wrongs and injustices everywhere you look, be it in the Middle East, right here in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world. Speaking out and taking action against these injustices is important, but equally important is working to improve the human behavior that causes them. I believe this is what Bob Marley is referring to when he tells us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. Before there can be a shift in political paradigms and an end to injustices of any sort, there has to be a shift in our collective consciousness. We have to change the way we think.
As a political science major in college and a self-described activist for most of my life, I understand protest. I’ve rallied against nuclear energy, against every war that has taken place in my lifetime, for women’s reproductive rights, and much more. I interned for the ACLU and advocated for people whose rights were being violated. When the Exxon Valdez spill occurred in 1989, I, along with many other people, boycotted Exxon. When our neighborhood, independently owned Exxon station went out of business as a result, I questioned whether or not I had done the right thing and began to re-examine my activism. I started to wonder if I had become dogmatic. Was I putting principle before people?
Like protests, rallies, petitions, and boycotts, working to create a shift in the collective human consciousness is a very real form of activism. Arguably, it is activism in its most primal manifestation and without this shift in the way we think all other forms of activism are temporary. Boycotting a nation, for example, may apply immediate pressure to that county’s economy and force a temporary change in policy, but it will not change the human behavior that created that policy. To do that, we must dig deeper. We must get down to the roots and plant seeds for new ways of thinking – ways that don’t allow for or validate hate, greed, and domination. That is the only chance we have of creating lasting change.
When I go to a place such as the Middle East, I do so knowing that on some levels I am walking into the lion’s den. What I call a land or how I refer to a people will sit well with some and infuriate others. Obviously. If that weren’t the case there wouldn’t be conflict there. But the importance of working towards a shift in attitudes must not be overshadowed by one’s opinion of what is right or wrong. That, in fact, becomes counter productive to creating a change regardless of what change is desired, and it hurts the people who need that change the most.
The purpose of Music in Common is not to change policy or even to right a specific wrong for that matter. Our purpose is to provide a platform for people to discover for themselves how they can create their own change. The mission of Music in Common is to strengthen, empower, and educate communities through the universal language of music. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in our MiC Youth Program in which young people come together to discover their commonality, to respect their differences, to learn how to compromise, and to work together towards a common goal. These are skills that can be applied to anything, including changing political policy and righting social and ethical wrongs. To me, this stands above all else including taking a political stand, especially if taking that stand comes at the sacrifice of providing an opportunity for people to discover new ways of thinking and co-existing. Bob Marley had it right. Only we can free our minds of mental slavery. And that is a critical first step in creating change of any type.
Todd Mack is a writer, musician, and producer, and owner of the Off the Beat-n-Track recording studio in Sheffield, MA. He is also the founder and executive director of Music in Common, a non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen, empower, and educate communities through the universal language of music. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.