H(om)e: A Conversation with Johari, Blues Musician & Educator

Interview and Photography by Zakkiyyah.

When I first met Johari, I immediately had the feeling that there was something deeply urgent and necessary about his teaching methods and the way he navigated through the classroom, and out in the world. Johari is one of the most beautiful and engaging spirits I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with. I can honestly say he’s played a large role in personal and artistic growth I’ve experienced since living in Chicago.

With this month’s theme being Spirituality, I thought of Jabir and his willingness to share spiritual affirmations in a classroom setting, in ways I had never experienced before. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this beautiful spirit is that, carving your own paths and following your heart in all that you do is the key to living a rich life.

Johari: When I moved to Chicago, I accidently found this barber in Hyde Park and he was like 80. And he cut my hair as an older man would cut it..And as you know, I’m sort of in touch with this black past of the 50’s. I’m very into that. I think kind of attached myself to him, because he reminded me a lot of my Grandfather. I was just you know afraid to grow my hair out also at that time because I thought internally about what my Grandfather would’ve thought, and what he’d say. But I would really like to have big hair.

Zakkiyyah: He reminded you of your Grandfather, that’s beautiful.

JJ: What I love about living in Chicago is the way that elderly black people see something in me and I can just sit and talk to them forever. If I found a Blues lounge with black people in their 70’s or 80’s I would be in heaven.

Z: Could you please expand more about your living space? I’m sitting in your living room, and it’s so eclectic.

JJ: I'm really into spirits. And, I think spirit is conjured and evoked in any and everything. So, I'm very much into smells, touch, and fabric. And of course, aesthetics. Like the piece of furniture behind you? That was the first piece of furniture, when my grandparents were run out of Mississippi, that they bought when they arrived in St. Louis. So, I'm interested in how the spirit and presence of our ancestors live in material objects. I insist that my space conjure all of that.

Z: Interesting, because I definitely felt that energy when I walked in.

JJ: Yeah, it's all very much intentional.

Z: So do you have any plans for the summer?

JJ: In a couple of weeks I’m going to D.C. to the National Archives, it’s research related. It’s a trip nevertheless. But after that I’ll be headed to the Detroit Art Institute, they have this huge exhibit on Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.. the murals that they created together. It closes in July, but you would definitely appreciate that trip. And I’ll get some writing done on the way there.

Z: Writing, as in for the book you’re working on?

JJ: Partly, yes. But I work in a very collage approach, even intellectually. Like today I was at the Music Center for Black Research and I came across this poster―so my book is on the first black regime of the civil war- and of course I took a picture of it. It was a poster of another black regime from World War II and they were also a singing regime, like the regime I’m writing book about.So there’s this tradition that no one is studying, that there were these black male singing soldiers. You can’t see that if you work as a monolithic artist or intellectual who’s so close sighted. That’s how I approach what I do, like these soldiers ... it’s very multidimensional.

Z: Do you that has something to do with the fact that you are an artistically inclined person? Because I’ve always felt that way about my work, that what I do has to be intersectional with my lifestyle and interests. My personal practices and beliefs have to intersect with my work

JJ: Yea, that’s how I am. You’re not only talking about multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary you’re talking about a worldview that is both theoretical and practical. I’m very much like that. I’m always asking those kinds of questions with the work I do. I found myself looking for examples. Like one of the things I hadn't thought about, is that a lot of what I’m about is embodied in Katherine Dunham.

Z: I’ve never heard of her, could you speak more about her?

JJ: She was a classically trained dancer, and later in her life she came to University of Chicago and studied Anthropology. She worked with a renowned cultural anthropologist of African American cultural history, Melville Herskovitz. She was a student of his, but she was also initiated as a Vodou Priestess. She had this relationship with the academy, with a lot of credentials and she also had her own dance company. She performed on Broadway, and was a very committed teacher. In the 70’s she found some buildings in  East St. Louis and created The Katherine Dunham dance studio and cultural center so that poor children could learn to dance.

Z: That sounds so freeing, that she was able to do all of that amazing work and not confine herself to one specific practice. That’s interesting though. I mean how does one become a vodou priestess (chuckles).

JJ: She practiced Haitian Vodou, and her dance techniques were grounded in African dance and she very much understood African dance from the perspective of spirit possession. Which you know Zakkiyyah is part of what I teach. It’s pretty amazing. She was a priestess in the tradition of Haitian vodou and spent a lot of time with communities in Haiti. That’s where her school came from, because part of what Haitian vodou does as a cosmology, is that it teaches those those that follow it, your gifts and talents exist for the sake of the community and to serve the spirits. So she understood her talent as a dancer as something that she could give back to the community. My work is very much about teaching and my scholarship is reflective of my practice as musician. All of that is also very reflective of my worldview as an African living in America. So she very much embodies that possibility for me.

Z: Could you expand on that, your scholarship as a reflection of yourself?

JJ: I think of the institution as a sick and cancerous place, and I’m there to bring life. To help people, and my students find life in what they do. The path that I have found to cultivate that is building relationships and finding community. It is evidenced in the fact I’m connected to these young artistic and activist students. And they have a different expectation from me, they want something different. It’s been quite a lesson for me to get that, and to trust what I do. I mean, you have to ask yourself Zakkiyyah, those deeply spiritual questions. What is it that you believe? And what is it that your belief leads you to commit to? There’s a type of truth telling to all of this, you have to bear witness to it.