We all have a story to offer the world. Through our stories, I believe healing can be found. In high school, I started to really understanding this more. When I was a junior in high school, I began sharing bits and pieces of my story and my perception of the world around me in the form of hip-hop songs. I wrote about my identity as an African-American. I wrote about life growing up in the Bronx, NY. I even wrote about my future plans of one day becoming a doctor. This hobby continued as I transitioned to college and I truly began to realize the power behind music and the sharing of words in general. Words are definitely powerful.
Scholar Aaron Corn states, “Songs are indeed powerful. They have the power to soothe, the power to persuade, the power to provoke, the power to educate and the power to lament.” I experience this first-hand every time I tune into my music.
Last semester, as a junior at Brandeis University, I studied abroad in Durban, South Africa, with a program focused on community health and social policy. As part of the program, I had the opportunity to explore any topic of interest and complete an independent study project. For a long time I had no clue what I wanted to study. Throughout the semester I felt a strong calling, however, to pursue the connection between music and healing.
During the semester, I had the chance to live with host families both in urban and rural communities. While living in one of the rural communities, called Sandanezwe, my host-brother, Mduduzi, introduced me and the other students in my program to a project that he created in the community. Mdu was in his early thirties and he walked with a limp. Through conversations with him, I learned that he suffered from Polio as a child. The project he created, the Disability Special Project, seeks to create a safe space for the disabled community within Sandanezwe. It is a project established and solely maintained by the disabled community. I saw how Mdu’s experiences growing up in this community shaped his vision for this project. In South African society, and many other parts of the world, many people who are considered disabled face exclusion from society and other forms of discrimination. Although I had no prior experiences working with disabled people, meeting Mdu and hearing his story inspired me to learn more.
After much thought, I decided to go back and live in the Sandanezwe community for three weeks to conduct my independent study project. I titled my project “A Mirror to Society: An autoethnography reflecting perspectives of disability through personal narrative in a rural community in South Africa,” and through this project I sought to hear the stories of members of the Disability Special Project, with a focus on their self-perceptions. I also interviewed members of the greater Sandanezwe community to learn how they viewed people with disabilities.
In the middle of my project, I remember waking up one morning very frustrated. Throughout the process, there were many times when I had to throw my plan away. For example, there were many days when the weather was too cold or rainy, and no garden members would show up to work, which meant I wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone. This morning, instead of sitting around in misery, I decided to go for a walk and climb to the top of a mountain. I found a nice spot overlooking the beautiful scenery of Sandanezwe. I looked out to my left and saw an endless array of green mountains weaving off into the distance. I interrupted my gaze to select a song to play on my iPhone. Unlocks. Scrolls. Music. Genres. Scrolls. Instrumental. Scrolls. J. Cole. Scrolls. Love Yourz (instrumental). Click. My ears were then greeted with the soothing sound of piano chords. The instrumental was from a song by J. Cole entitled “Love Yourz”. While listening, I looked up at the mountain range, and the words “you can, you can, you can” rang through my mind. I started to think of the interviews I had done so far, and the responses that I had received, especially those of the garden members. “I can do things, but they won’t let me do it!” echoed the voice of one member in the garden. “I’m strong! I am a human being,” rang another garden member’s voice. I pulled out my phone and started to note my thoughts. My thumbs moved swiftly. “Don’t let nobody ever tell you, you can’t do,” I wrote, “Can’t walk, can’t shoot, can’t love, can’t live…” I was writing to those voices of oppression. I was writing to the oppressor. I was writing to myself.
One of the last questions I asked the garden members in my interviews was, “If you were to write a song to the community to help them to understand you better, what would you say?”As they answered I took note of the responses. “I can write that God is the beginning and the end, so all our challenges if you can take our problems and put them in God I think all our challenges will disappear,” one member replied in his soft-spoken voice. “I can tell people that I’m proud of myself in a way that whatever I contribute in the project it can also benefit the community,” another determined member responded. “I will write a song and say that if they see me as a disabled person they mustn’t think that I’m useless because they are so many things that I can do for them. They must respect me and have hope in me because I can do of the things that can help them,” said another. A group of three said, “We can introduce the song to teach the community that a disabled person can do anything that a person with no disability can do.”
It wasn’t my plan to write a song for my project but sometimes the best plan is to just live in the moment. I realized that this was what I wanted in my project all along. I wanted the greater community to hear the voices of these members of the garden. I wanted the garden members to know that their perspective matters. After another day and a half of reflecting on these responses, listening to the instrumental on repeat, and writing, the song was complete! The song is especially powerful because it was created using the words of the garden members. On my final day in the garden, a celebration took place. The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs from a neighboring town came to meet the garden members and planted onion seeds with them, and I performed the song I created for them. Everyone crowded around me with big smiles as I began, and at the end of my rendition, the garden members all clapped and cheered. New life was deposited into the space. Seeds were planted both literally and figuratively in the garden that day.
You can watch the Mirror To Society video here.