When discussing the objectives of her musical career, Judy Mowatt says, “I wanted to express myself and the kind of songs I wanted to sing.” This, for her, meant centering African women’s experiences in her works and explicitly stating “for you I dedicate my song” in her 1980 solo debut album “Black Woman.”
With this realization, Mowatt wanted her first solo album to be dedicated to African women. She says, “when I look at slavery, and I see the degradation and I see the pain that my mothers and foremothers suffer, the ‘Black Woman’ album came forth out of all of that experience.”
Judy Mowatt before Black Woman
By 1980, Mowatt had already toured the world many times over as one of three vocalists of the I Threes–the two others were Marcia Griffiths and Rita Marley who were also artists in their own right. Judy Mowatt toured for the albums “Natty Dread,” “Survival,” and “Uprising,” to name a few, and, as someone who ascribed to the Rastafarian faith, saw the tour as more of a spreading of the ideals and teachings of Rastafarianism through reggae music.
For Mowatt, and the Wailers overall, music wasn’t simply a means of having a good time and reveling in escapism. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Mowatt says, “When you release a song, sometimes it’ll go somewhere where you’ll never be able to go. It goes ahead of you.” Music was a means of instilling a collective consciousness among the dispersed African Nation.
As part of this mission, reaching the African audience within the United States was an important goal for the Wailers. So much so that in 1980, at a time when Bob Marley and the Wailers were world-famous artists, they decided to open for the Commodores–a band that most argue, under normal circumstances, would’ve been an opening act for the Wailers.
Reggae’s role in African resistance
As a genre, reggae aspires to discuss material conditions of the African working class under colonialism–through music influenced and inspired by African beats–while also calling for revolution.
In the third track “Slave Queen,” Mowatt repeats the lines, “slave queen..African queen…war queens, remove the shackle from your mind,” and, “consider your beautiful richness, your quality.”
Mowatt not only uplifts African women to realize their individual quality, but also actively calls for them to shed the mental manifestations of colonialism (the idea of freeing oneself from “mental slavery” was also a staple in the chorus of “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley).
This album was part of a plethora of reggae albums of its time that critically spoke of and explicitly stated the violent history that consolidated the colonial mode of production.
In the sixth track “Black Woman” (the album’s namesake), Mowatt sings, “we are forsaken once in the plantation/ lashes to our skin/ on auction blocks we were chained and sold/ handled merchandise.”
But instead of dwelling on that, Mowatt calls for resistance with the lines, “but no need for that now/free us, stand on back now/ help me sing my song.”
Combatting the special oppression of African women
Colonialism impacts every aspect and fabric of our reality. It is a world order that has been imposed on us since the very first African was stolen from Africa and brought to the “new world” to toil until their last breath.
African women under colonialism have been vehemently unwilling participants in the violent process of birthing children for white slave owners and nursing white children, which created a social and economic order that comforts none other than the white ruling class.
This oppression wasn’t something that magically disappeared with the so-called Emancipation Proclamation.
According to a 2020 maternal mortality rate study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women in the United States are 2.9 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women are.
This chasm of a disparity is something the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), through the work of the Black Power Blueprint, has addressed by working to establish the Uhuru Wa Kulea (“Freedom to Nurture”) Women’s Health Center in St. Louis.
African Internationalism, the guiding theory of the APSP, and the 14-Point Platform (see pg. 10) recognizes this condition and its modern iterations on African women and expresses the need for all African people to combat it.
This theory properly identifies the fundamental base for the special oppression of African women as colonialism, rather than the explanation of feminism that removes the question of slavery and colonialism and instead places primacy on patriarchy.
This is what makes the African National Women’s Organization (ANWO), under the leadership of the APSP, truly significant. Rather than a formation to struggle for “women’s rights” within the colonial mode of production, ANWO recruits African women into revolutionary political life to fight to end colonialism, as part of the overall struggle to liberate the entire African Nation.
Point 9 of the Platform, for example, states, “We want an end to the political and social oppression and economic exploitation of African women,” and highlights the importance of, “the destruction of the special oppression of women and the elevation of women to the rightful place as equal partners and leaders in the forward motion of the development of human society and as leaders, makers, and shapers of human history.”
Black art for revolution
Cultural expressions like song, dance, poetry, writing, and so much more have been a significant–and not necessarily talked about–form of resistance throughout African people’s history.
Some (Richard Wright in “The Blueprint for Negro Writing” comes to mind) saw that the black artist who seeks to portray the lives of black people has, “a serious responsibility. In order to do justice to his subject matter, in order to depict Negro life in all of its manifold and intricate relationships, a deep, informed, and complex consciousness is necessary…”
Works like “Black Woman” are one of many ways that African people have taken that responsibility seriously, to build that collective consciousness–the African identity–and from that, fight the good fight that is the coming revolution.
Culture for the African Revolution!