by BAR editor and columnist, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Luci Murphy is a “cultural warrior” from Washington DC whose insights are informed by the movements and folkways of people across the globe. “Black people are constantly creating attractive new musical forms, then white people learn them and stop hiring Black people to play the same music, so the Black people go on to develop something else that white people cannot play.”
Luci Murphy: Cultural Warrior for the Movement
by BAR editor and columnist, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“There is always somebody tending the flame, even when the spotlight is removed, and the publicity vanished.”
Luci Murphy is a preeminent advocate of utilizing culture to advance social and political justice. She is often the featured vocalist at progressive events. Her boundless energy has made Luci indispensable in organizing Latin American solidarity, the peace movement, sustainable development and other progressive causes. She is a native of D.C. where she is a vocalist who often leads group singing, but “sun-lights” as a medical interpreter of Spanish and English. She has a long history of community activism, especially working with children at risk. Luci visited Lebanon to observe Palestinian Refugee Camps, China just before the normalization of relations with the U.S., Brazil for a grass-roots organizing conference, and Cuba to oppose U.S. travel restrictions.
A past president of the D.C. League of Women Voters, she has also served on the Steering Committees of the People’s Music Network, "Health Care Now!,” and Washington Inner-City Self Help. She has also been the convener of the Gray Panthers of Metro D.C., an associate producer of Sophie’s Parlor Women’s Radio Collective at WPFW 89.3 FM, the Pacifica Station in D.C., and contact person for the Community Coalition for Peace and Justice. Currently, she sings with the SGI New Century Chorus and the D.C. Labor Chorus. In 2007, she received the Paul Robeson Award for Peace and Justice from the Friends of the People's Weekly World. In 2012 the Emergence Community Arts Collective gave her its “IN HER HONOR” Award.
Luci has been performing since her childhood in the 1950s. To reach the members of the diverse human family, she sings in ten languages: English, Spanish, French, Creole, Portuguese, Zulu, Arabic, Hebrew, Cherokee, and ki-Swahili. She draws on the folkloric traditions and musical idioms of all these cultures, as well as her own roots in Spirituals, Blues and Jazz.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: How does your work as a cultural warrior play a role in the cultural liberation of African people?
Luci Murphy: I am a singer and a song leader. I select songs to sing that have a message, and I get people to sing and play instruments with me. The message makes people think, and singing together gives us a sense of power that comes from hearing others sing with you. It is also effective in demonstrations to have the whole crowd singing. That calls attention to the issue.
A good song for crowd participation has a narrow range so that people who are not used to singing can join in. The song should have repeated lines or a chorus that is easy to follow. An example is “We Ain't Gonna Move” which is based on a traditional spiritual melody. There are about 10 of those old Southern melodies that keep popping up in different songs. I think that they are in our DNA.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Could you provide a synopsis of your political/cultural history for our readers?
Luci Murphy: I started in fifth grade getting the girls to sign a petition for the girls to go out and play on the playground. There was a recreation period when the boys were sent out on the playground and the girls stayed inside.
I was really not very athletic, but I felt that we girls were bored staying inside and that we needed to play too. At the same time, I attended the radical Episcopal Church in my neighborhood – St. Stephen and the Incarnation. We marched down 16th Street to join the 1963 March on Washington.
I got the church to send me to the summer program in Puerto Rico where I met the radical priests in the Episcopal Church there. I knew about D.C. colonial status, living in Puerto Rico allowed me to see another colonial situation and meet people who wanted independence from the U.S.
The children whom I was supervising in summer camp there, taught me to speak Spanish. That summer in Puerto Rico opened my eyes to another culture, one which was much less violent, than the one I was used to; one in which the young and old celebrated and danced together. Where I was from, not only did the different races not talk to each other, but different generations did not interact socially on any regular basis.
The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee had an office in D.C. Their members and others founded the New School of Afro-American Thought in which volunteers taught anyone who wanted to learn about African history and literature. We were discarding the self-hatred which Malcolm X described so vividly, and learning to respect ourselves. As a high school student , I attended classes there after school. My mom would come along and listen. The organizers loved to see her. Many of them had been rejected by their families because of their activism or their Afro-centrism.
“We were discarding the self-hatred which Malcolm X described so vividly, and learning to respect ourselves.”
After high school I started college with a full scholarship, but I dropped out because of the isolation and culture shock at Georgetown University. The following year, I enrolled at Federal City College and married at the same time. The marriage ended in a few years and I found myself a single mom struggling to finish school. But as the college was one of the institutions put in place to calm us down there was money to keep us in school.
As I approached, after the '60s riots, my senior year in college, I discovered Buddhism, but set it aside because I was not willing to accept responsibility for my choices and wanted to blame others for my problems. It took me years to realize that I had to take charge of my life. Others might hurt me or help me, but I could decide if I wanted to respond to their actions constructively or destructively.
After I finished college, I entered medical school where the focus was on drugs, not on healing, and health. This proved to be another disappointment and I dropped out.
I had always enjoyed music, I had played clarinet in the junior high band, sang in the church choir at St. Stephen's and then joined a loosely organized group of folk musicians who led the music for a radical Catholic service called "The Action Mass." The leadership was provided by civil rights attorneys and journalists who were trying to make a difference. This was all before I decided that Christian theology did not make sense to me.
An intense two years in the folk music scene introduced me to Steve and Peter Jones, Pete Seeger and a range of political issue campaigns. Within the D.C., community, the Citywide Housing Coalition benefitted from this wave of 60s activism and 70s home rule. Tenants were organizing with Washington Inner City Self Help campaigns for rent control and against displacement. This period inspired me to write “We Ain't Gonna Move.” At the same time the group houses in Mt. Pleasant and the Food Coops introduced me to issues of Latin American solidarity.
“Some of us assisted the daily demonstrations against apartheid at the South African Embassy.”
I heard the car bomb which killed the former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and I knew his assistant Ronni Karpen Moffit, who was also a musician in the Music Carry Out in Adams Morgan. I represented progressive culture on a delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana 1978. Then I met the Arab students and those associations made it possible for me to visit Baghdad, Iraq to sing for peace and to Lebanon where I met the Palestinians in the social service institutions organized by the PLO. The Palestine Human Rights Campaign introduced me to the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick with the Deacons for Defense. Brother Kirk introduced me to Matt Jones of the SNCC Freedom Singers who wrote the “Ballad of Medgar Evers.” In the early 80’s he wrote the song “Palestine,” which caused his Zionist friends in the Civil Rights Movement to abandon him. It is an underground hit among BDS activists.
Some of us assisted the daily demonstrations against apartheid at the South African Embassy which were called by Congressman (Rev) Walter Fauntroy and the Free South Africa Movement.
In the last 12 years, I have worked as a Spanish-English healthcare interpreter which gives me the income and the flexible schedule that allows me to volunteer for the issues of police brutality, political prisoners, Palestinian and Colombian population displacement, as well as affordable housing and food security in the city.
There were times when I worked and times when I had to go on welfare when I was in school and after graduation. The childcare payments were not sufficient nor a reliable source of income. The double standard which favored men and the disregard for women and children was clear. Getting and keeping daycare was a challenge, a challenge mostly for mothers who bore the childcare responsibility. When both my children were old enough to go to school, our situation improved.
Learning who you are and your historical context is important. A positive sense of group identity is key to resisting self-destructive addictions. Regular participation in community-based cultural groups is strengthening. Being able to respect oneself and others in one's environment are key to mental health which enables the ability to acquire skills which in turn increase ones self respect. A healthy body requires a healthy routine which in turn requires a certain discipline or self-love.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: In your opinion, what is the nexus between African-American political struggle and its cultural identify?
Luci Murphy: We had our African languages and spiritual practices taken from us. Those of us with indigenous roots had those things taken also. And we were told a lot of lies about who we were and what we could do. We were given a religion of dominance and submission. We were taught to disrespect ourselves and to admire our enemies who oppressed us.
Learning to respect our African-ness and not laugh at languages other than English is important. We need to study how our ancestors fulfilled their needs before enslavement, which stimulates us to think about other ways that we might live, ways which serve our needs and not the needs of 'the system.'
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: African-Americans have lived under Anglo-Saxon occupation since we arrived in the US. How do you, as a cultural warrior, help an occupied people tap into and appreciate a culture that is constantly undermined, unappreciated and commercialized? In fact, we speak in the language of our oppressors, English, with embedded notions of Black inferiority.
What role does culture play in reversing and promoting national liberation?
Luci Murphy: It is interesting that Black people are constantly creating attractive new musical forms, then white people learn them and stop hiring Black people to play the same music, so the Black people go on to develop something else that white people cannot play. Then they play that until the white people catch on and displace the Black artists again.
Sometimes Black people will look down on the form after the white people learn it, then Black musicians will drop it and fail to pass it on to the next generation...because they won't make any money at it.
Take the blues for instance. The blues comes from Black people, but Black youth are not studying the Blues. White youth are playing the Blues. And, they are studying the blues. I remember that most of the young musicians around Mother Scott were young white people who wanted to learn those old Mississippi songs. Her own younger relatives were not interested. I went to a white high school and hung out with the young white hippies who were listening to older Black musicians.
Since we look to our enemies for employment, instead of looking to each other, we are at a disadvantage.
There are examples of Black self-sufficiency: Black people employing and trading with Black people...Rosewood in Florida, Tulsa in Oklahoma are the best known...but they were brutally massacred and destroyed by jealous white people. Similarly the countries of Latin America are
banding together in the Bolivarian Alliance, and the United States is paying sellouts a lot of money to sabotage their efforts.
The example of Black and Brown people working together and thriving is viewed as a threat to “the system.” Speaking of language, Black people have expressed their thoughts and feelings in whatever language they were forced to learn. Messages have been concealed in double meanings and metaphors. But the lies told about us in print, in movies and on television are hard to overcome.
And as Black people refuse to do the jobs that they once did for the pay that they used to receive, this system takes new immigrant bodies and exploits their ignorance and confuses them with the mixed messages and lies until they become demoralized and vulnerable to addiction to drugs, alcohol, etc.
The immigrants are able to resist some of the pitfalls because they have close family ties. But let's see how long that lasts. The young people are becoming addicted to television, and fast empty calorie food, and spend less time with their elders.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: Amilcar Cabral in History as a Weapon and National Liberation and Culture said: “The liberation struggle is, above all, a struggle both for the preservation and survival of the cultural values of the people and for the harmonization and development of these values within a national framework.” How have you used your talent as a singer and activist in the anti-apartheid movement, Cuban solidarity, peace movement and anti-police terror campaign to advance national liberation?
Luci Murphy: The music of struggle was commercial, when the movement was in high gear in the 60s. “Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud.” But the assassinations of some leaders and the buy-outs of others sent the movement into hiding. There is always somebody tending the flame, even when the spotlight is removed, and the publicity vanished. Although it is true that many movement artists were isolated, and left unemployed. And since money is the god in which we trust, many people stopped creating and performing this music.
Music and art instruction was taken out of the public schools and private teachers are not making efforts to teach those who can't pay for lessons, or instruments. Smaller and smaller areas of Black culture are being performed by Black people. Less and less Black culture is being studied by Black people. White people take it and make money with it after they learn to create an imitation.
Black companies like, Motown which developed Black artists, sold out to bigger companies in the system.
We need our own community sponsored press, broadcasting, audio recording, video recording institutions which will serve our needs. That is why WPFW, the Pacifica station in Washington is so important.
People need to belong to a group in which they can trust, and to which they can contribute. We need give and take.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: How do we use culture as a weapon of national liberation struggle?
Luci Murphy: We have to first value ourselves, more than money. Money is often a tool used to mislead the confused. Second, we need to realize that we can share value, which is not dependent on money, and then value our older artists and what they created in the past. Then we need to share with each other and study our achievements. Learning a skill increases self-esteem. Singing together can be an act of mutual respect.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: A primary characteristic of US domination and occupation of African people in the US has been its insistence that Black folks have no history or culture of importance. In fact,
the US constitution once declared that African-Americans were only 3/5th human. The American human trafficking period (slavery) forbade Africans from speaking their language, singing familiar songs and practicing indigenous religions. How has this history impacted our ability to organize and wage struggle against white supremacy?
Luci Murphy: Actually Europeans observed Africans working in their fields and heard them singing and using the rhythm of the song to coordinate the work. They recognized that this was a style of work which could be exploited.
But the settler colonialists did ban the drum, because it could be used to communicate and coordinate. The system which oppresses us has a reference book called the Bible which identifies physical work as a curse. To others outside of that paradigm, it has been a creative endeavor.
The guilt and fear of the oppressor over slavery led him to make up lies about Africans not having history and intellectual capacity. They told themselves these lies repeatedly until they and some of their forced laborers believed the lies. Those lies were much easier to swallow than the horrible truth of the crime that they were committing against people who did not need their so-called civilization, because they had their own.
While some Black people put on an act, a dramatization of inferiority so as not to intimidate whites, plantations relied on the ingenuity and intelligence of their Black labor to solve problems. Brilliant Black people like George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglass were known to many.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: You directed the cultural component of the Freedom Monday demonstrations in front of the Department of Justice. For nearly 6 months, you marched with other anti-police terror activist and mothers of slain police victims to demand that the DOJ release the reports of investigation of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and indict them for murder. What cultural lessons were learned through these demonstrations? And, what part did culture play in being able to sustain the demonstrations?
Luci Murphy: Songs made the message clear to passersby and attracted attention to the issue. They emphasize that we are not alone.
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Listen to Luci Sing: “We Ain’t Gonna Move”