I'm always talking about my dad. If you've met me, know me, or follow me on social media, you know my Baba is one of my best friends. It could be anything: from me impersonating him in his scruffy voice and repeating something painfully hilarious that he's said, recapping a scene from one of our many family parties, or passing along gems that he's shared with me about the power of black folks. My mom always says that when I was a little girl, I'd cry for him to come and read me bedtime stories. My nighttime regiment would not be complete unless he was there. I love my mother to the moon and she's indescribably special to me — but me and my pops have always had a unique bond because our Libra and Sagittarius signs are a match made in zodiac.
As far back as I can remember, he'd make sure that I knew the truth about everything — even the things that others would try and educate me about. He made sure that I knew my history, the people I came from, how to listen to my spirit, the weight of the Creator's love, and the beauty of my blackness. Growing up, my dad did this with all my friends, other children in the neighborhood, and even ones who he'd have small interactions with where ever we'd go. As a griot, he upheld the oral tradition of black folks that spread across African diaspora in his performances across the nation. Now, on most days, he's in the classroom as a music and culture teacher at West Philadelphia's African-centered Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School. As a spirited elder among other outstanding educators who preserve the school's legacy, he takes pride in is work that prepares black youth to go out into the world with immense knowledge of self, tenacity, and self-love.
During a conversation one morning before school, we spoke about the importance of grounding our children in strong spiritual foundations of blackness, the importance of loving yourself, using music as a vessel to empower youth.
How does Harambee Charter School speak to the importance of self-love and preservation of African culture through the youth?
At Harambee, they’re inundated with that from the time that they come in together. They’re inundated with, “Love you” because you got to love you first or you can’t love anybody else. We say, “Whenever the crock crows, it’s time to shine.” That means, whenever it’s time for me to shine, don’t be hesitant. If you don’t love you, you can’t love other people, you just can’t. It’s a false sense of love.
There’s a strong use of music as teaching mechanism and the authority that you all give the children when it comes to creating their own songs? What role does that play?
All sorts of mediums, song, spoken word art can speak to that message. That’s why we have them look at imagery of people who look like them. “Look at what she did, she looks like you, you can do it.” It’s about looking at examples that have been set and put there for you. We tell the children, “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for, now it’s your turn. You’re the gatekeeper. When it’s your turn you gotta step up and do your thing.” “I Believe I Can Fly,” that song will never go out of style. “Hero,” all those types of songs will never go out of style. That type of message transcends a feel good song for now and they’ll stay around for ages because the people who play them and the people who listen to them, they draw from them. Gospel songs speak to a higher power but loving yourself is spiritual as well. It has to be spiritual because when you’re with yourself, something else happens. You go into a whole other room when you’re by yourself. You know your special truth even though you may not be able to speak it and what’s on the outside is different from what’s inside your head and inside your heart. But, once again there goes the someone trying to be something they're not but, you know you and that has to be spiritual. So now, it’s just you and your Creator. That’s the spirit moment.
How do you feel about teaching at Harambee and the importance of the work that you do?
When it’s hard for me to get there in the mornings, I’m like, “Why am I still doing this?” what drives me the fact they need to see me because a lot of these children, little boys and little girls don’t get exposed to men in this capacity on a consistent basis, at this early age. I’m not saying they’re not around their dads, I’m talking about in a social institution because school is a social institution first. People go there to learn and be educated but even before the education starts it’s there where you’re learning. It’s your microcosm of the world, how to talk to people, how to be patient, how to ignore when someone’s getting on your nerves. “Okay, I have this man in front of me. This is not normal. I’m in the first grade.” In many cases, it’s a person in front of you that does not look like you. Most of the primary teachers are not black. So now you have a black man and this black man he’s going to be around and not only interacting but they’re seeing how he’s treating them — especially for the boys.
Giving them little tidbits of information is what I do. It’s like when you get medicine, you only need tidbits but that medicine is strong. It’s very strong. If you can bring it back, with you a lot of stuff you were immersed with the culture. There were lapses in it but Lakin, you got so much of it early on that you could recant and use it now as a woman. That’s helped to shape who you are and what you are. Of course you got your own mind but you got a road map.
With these children you create a road map, so that when you get to a place where there’s a juncture you have to make a decision at a crossroads you have a reference point. Prayerfully that reference point is you, you speaking inside of you, you speaking inside of your culture and something that makes you feel good. You feel good about yourself so that you can feel good about other people too and their uniqueness and their differences.
Do you think when you were growing up in the 60s and 70s there were more things that fortified your blackness?
Back in the day people were more rooted inside of who they were because you were forced to be. Now with widened opportunities, you see children from all over the world doing things together but that didn’t happen because that’s not the way society was set up. Your worldview is bigger but sometimes that can be of a detriment because the world is so big, now you don’t really have anything to attach yourself so you’re attached to everybody and that opens the door for self-doubt. Like when you were at Spelman, you were around all kinds of stuff and you could have been walking around like, “I don’t have two pennies to rub together.” If you were the type of person that wasn’t balanced that would’ve been an issue in your studies and how you socialize.
What’s it like when you meet children that you’ve graduated years later? Have you seen what you pour into them manifest as they get older?
I’m just a part of the machine that helps to fortify these children with their real life situations in regards to being around a man, a grown man, a pop-pop, a dad. Not trying to be outside of myself of my frailties and imperfections. I welcome them and they correct me all the time. Sometimes I’ll do things on purpose just to remind them on my humanity and how I am being funny and silly and acting crazy too. Bottom line these are someone else’s children and hopefully, they’re going to make somebody really proud of them and one day they’re going to look back and say, “You know what? I had Baba Kala Jojo and this is how he was.”
This boy came back to school, he was about 6 foot 7, towers over me and came through the door and just started to hug me — blew my mind. If all those people weren’t around I would’ve started crying. I just held it. What would the child say about you when they’re grown? What could they say? Not only what you taught them but how you treat them, how you made them feel. That’s what I think of, what am I going to give them? Whatever I’m going to say to them, good and bad, they can look back and say, “I know he cared about me and I know he loved me.”