It has been a couple of years since i have posted anything on here (clearly). i’ve had so much to say during that time, and there have been times i’ve questioned how to say it. This blog also (clearly) deals with my feelings surrounding someone who has not been on this earth for some time now, and even though i have chosen not to focus on every single thing having to do with him posthumously; i think about him all the time, and the ways he has impacted my life in positive ways.
The physical transition of Maurice White hit me in the same ways Michael’s transition did. i think the way he chose to use his art as a vehicle of healing was a major inspiration for Michael. It has been 22 days since his transition, and i am still processing it. In this process i decided to write something. Here it is.
I am gonna let my feelings show right now.
Maurice White, a child of the sun… has returned to the the elements. He was a lifelong student, who in turn was able to teach many. His initial mission was a humble goal of encouraging pride in African communities in the reservations (aka ‘ghettos’) in Chicago and other cities across the U.S. The ultimate mission and vision ended up being to create art which united and uplifted humanity. Many would look at this as naïve or idealistic; the thing is, what he and his family in music did actually worked. It is a truth rooted in love. A story rooted in reality.
Of course, I can only speak for myself in terms of how I experience or perceive this vision. I am not alone though. So many around the world, upon hearing of his transition have considered Maurice White to be a doctor, a healer, a big brother, a family member. Some have even stated that his leaving this earth is a loss to humanity. Earth Wind & Fire (and Mr. White in particular) consistently spoke of using music as a catalyst for healing and vibration raising.
Utilizing Earth Wind & Fire as a tool to enable this vision, Maurice White acted as a griot. While traditionally that role is passed on through familial lineage (or training), a griot continually studies, connects the past with the present and informs others of this history through spoken word, or song. A factor in the griot’s music is the ‘praise song’, as well as playing a kora (a harp instrument) or drums. Mr. White began to get grounded in jazz circles as a drummer in Chicago (most notably playing as a Chess session drummer, and as a member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio). Inspired by one of his teachers- Kelan Phil Cohran (of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble and Sun Ra’s Arkestra), Mr. White began to utilize the mbira (or kalimba) in ways which shaped much of his art, giving it global exposure without exploitation. Many, such as myself, were inspired to use the kalimba in their own art after hearing either Mr. White or Mr. Cohran play it.
Both Earth Wind & Fire and Mr. White’s solo work and production maintained an African and a spiritual sensibility. The two were not mutually exclusive. In his constant life’s education and art he tended to gravitate toward Universalism. He once said that he was “a universal being trying to accomplish as many things as I can in this cosmic trip.” There are members of EWF (past and present) who have been openly Christian, while Mr. White looked at Eastern philosophy, metaphysics, as well as the principles of Ma’at- the 11 Laws of God- as being a guide. Ma’at has consistently been present in the works of Earth Wind & Fire. The Metu Neter (or according to the Greeks, hieroglyphs) also existed on their album covers at the height of their international fame. Maurice White understood that so much of how we respond to things spiritually (as Africans) subconsciously has its roots in the continent. The mighty people of the Sun should not run from this truth. A stranded people all over the world, much of the world has encouraged us to run from ourselves, and seek truth outside of ourselves. If Africa is the root of life (as well as the material source of many things we use today), Mr. White’s statement on being a “universal being” makes a whole lot of sense.
All of the titles of their albums (save the first) are decisively about spiritual examination, enlightenment, cultural awareness and love, in the Agape sense- a love which transcends situations and areas on the map. Even the first album- self-titled- is named after elements which exist in nature.
In both his art and in interviews Mr. White maintained that the Creator was the center and guide of everything he did. He was just one of the vessels which brought this work on earth. I really do believe this assisted him in his life in the ‘belly of the beast’ of Hollywood, with its constant nihilism and negativity. He was never sanctimonious or pedantic about it; he took complex philosophies and co-designed simple messages in order to connect with many around the world, whether or not they believed in God. He took complex jazz structures and arranged them into time signatures people could dance to. He took very coded language speaking specifically to people of African descent, and co-wrote it where Africans knew he was addressing us, but also where others could interpret the lyrics based on their own experiences and feelings.
Earth Wind & Fire are one of the ONLY popular groups to openly apply yogic principles in their music, again, without exploitation. For instance Maurice and his brother Verdine White co-wrote ‘Serpentine Fire’, a song about raising the energy of the Kundalini. They outright countered the idea that the Kundalini was focused simply on the lower chakras. This was about using it to raise consciousness. The cover of Powerlight had an image of a figure with ALL of the chakras activated and balanced. There are times I listen to Earth Wind & Fire, and the first two lines of the first chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras enter my mind:
atha yoga-anuśāsanam (or, ‘Yoga in the here and now: an introduction to the study and practice of yoga’)
yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ (or, ‘When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear.‘)
An image that has also been consistent with EWF’s album artwork (and past live performances) is the pyramid, as well as the Ankh. In many ways the pyramid is associated with mysticism and regality (since they were made to hold royalty in them)- as a matter of fact, Mr. White was once a member of the Pharaohs (which proceeded the Jazzmen), prior to the release of their first album. (Maurice White was also a jingle writer, and the soundtrack to those early Afro Sheen commercials is unmistakable). Truly observing the covers over time, I began to look at the pyramid more as being a symbol for the collective experience; not just with the band itself, but with the approach the band takes in bringing its messages to the world. Everyone has the ability to experience this consciousness shift; not just the messengers. The precise science of the pyramids connects the material and the spiritual- that those inside the pyramids connect with the heavens through the sun’s light. As the rays shine on the angles of these edifices, those who build will also be illuminated. The Ankh is also crucial in this journey, as it symbolizes the connection between the male and female energies. The creative force needs balance in order to survive. This is the very reason why I think the band has survived for as long as it has.
Though pyramids and Egyptian iconography were consistent; and even though the sets, the artwork and the performance were extravagant, Mr. White never referred to himself as a ‘king’ or a ‘royal’, or a ‘god’. He maintained that what he did was in service to the Most High, and to the people. In fact, it saddened him greatly that his notoriety and fame did not give him space to be amongst the people in the way he wanted.
Examining material relationships has also been crucial in the group’s work. Amongst the mind-body connection EWF’s work also included injustices around the world regarding working class/poor communities. They spoke of how powerful it would be once the masses were to unite and rise up. They spoke of how the things we are conditioned to value in the material world are just not that important as the connections we have together as humans. They are also one of the few artists of their stature, if you will, to address political prisoners in their music. There was definitely an understanding of the mechanics and damaging effects of white supremacist ideology (hence the reason why Maurice White started the group), and utilizing art as encouragement is something that should never be taken for granted. Knowing the issues African people around the world face, they forged ahead in their messages without hatred, and the world has respected them for it.
Though they spoke to many an ‘adult situation’ in their music, one thing that was significant was their encouragement of childlike wonder in all of us. As much as so many of us as children can’t wait to grow up; there is so much truth in the fearlessness of youth; the desire to explore and learn as much as possible. As stated in many an EWF song; when we encounter the world, we become hardened- we become cynical. We feel hopeless. When Maurice requests to not “let the world change your mind” in ‘Be Ever Wonderful’, for me, not only is he speaking to Africans who struggle in a world faced with a society which rejects us; he is also addressing the ‘hardened’ side of all of us which needs to regroup and reground.
I had been aware for a number of years of Mr. White’s life with Parkinson’s Disease. I was aware of his decision to not tour because of it. I was aware of his decreasing physical involvement with the band (in terms of singing and instrumentation- he still oversaw the creative process). I recognized the ups and downs each day- and encountering a whole new series of battles. In the midst of all this I continued to listen to Earth Wind & Fire with the same joy and reflection as always. Like many I grew up with the music of Earth Wind & Fire. As an adult I grew to love them more. They, like Pharaoh Sanders, always put me in an absolute place of peace when I listen to them. I’d watch footage of their live shows and be amazed at their precision and craft; I’d consistently play them on my radio show. I’d have a list of songs i’d play specifically when I was feeling down.
It wasn’t until the evening of February the 4th, 2016- before I was getting ready to go to bed- when my sister had informed me that Mr. White had transcended. My heart sank, and I began to cry. I began to have trouble sleeping for several days. It was a similar feeling to when Michael Jackson (my teacher) left this earth. Despite a different method of delivery, I feel both Michael and Mr. White’s messages were similar, in wanting to bring healing to the world through their art.
Right after being aware of his transition (and not being able to sleep) I began listening to their music. It was incredibly difficult. I began to watch their live performances with an even closer eye, and I became even more aware of the progression of Parkinson’s in his life. It amazed me, how defiant he was in spite of experiencing something which is severely degenerative. To clearly see how much the disease had progressed, and to still watch him jump in the air is the kind of fight so many of us take for granted. I can only imagine how much it pained him eventually to not be able to be amongst the people, amongst his musical brothers, to not sing his songs of love- and to eventually watch it all from a distance.
The crux of all of this is the rare appearances he made in the few years before his transition. The disease clearly took its toll, establishing his inability to move much. He had these very gentle, sad eyes, and even with that you could tell how much love was in those eyes. At this point the primary folks driving the band (outside of Mr. White) have been Ralph Johnson, Phillip Bailey and little brother Verdine. There have also been points where Larry Dunn made appearances with them in this time. You can see how proud they’ve been of their big brother Maurice, and have vowed to maintain his creative vision. It is clear that the ancestors looked upon Maurice White, and in turn he understood that he stood on their shoulders. He recognized his role. There were always those few who walked with him in his life.
One thing I noticed is that, even in his later appearances (when he was not performing at all), he still greeted the people with a power fist. He knew he was loved, and he gave love in return.
I have begun to see several renewable/sustainable energy and alternative technology companies that have popped up, taking on the name ‘Earth, Wind and Fire’. There have been articles within the past 10, 15 years, using the name to discuss how damaging the effects of fossil fuels have been. This makes me laugh a bit because the whole point of the group was to convey an understanding about how we refuse to see how wasteful we are in our energy…. how we tend not to see the gifts before us. How we tend not to see our own gifts. We can only sustain ourselves in love, in awareness, and positive collective action. These things should never be taken lightly.
Maurice White, now you are free. You have fulfilled your mission to Live Life in Love. I thank you for being the teacher of my teachers, and to bringing your vision to fruition. May the work you’ve done on this earth be continued. We now stand on your shoulders.