Flautist, composer and Black Earth Ensemble founder Nicole Mitchell Gantt’s “The Mandorla Letters” reads like a guidebook to an imagined world. Interspersed with pages printed bright blueprint-blue, it traces, preserves materials from and discusses the evolution of her “Mandorla Awakening I” and “II”. She presents the authorial voice within the book’s pages as both coming from herself, an Afrofuturist being named “Uhuru,” and at times a panoply of other voices of both ancestors and relatives, and those otherwise unstated. Situated variously in Chicago, “Shakaakwa,” the “mindlake,” and a place identified only as “Mandorla Island,” early on in the book she describes the place as conceived to answer the question, “What does a technologically advanced, egalitarian society that’s in tune with nature look like?” To find out, we sat down with Gantt over a Zoom call from Portugal where she had just returned from performing.
I thought I’d start with the whole idea of the Mandorla Island. I’m curious if there was any specific inspiration for this idea of imagined places?
Thanks so much, I really appreciate the question, because music itself has been an imagined location for me, in my life, it’s like another dimension, and it’s a place where you can create another environment that is safer, is more supportive, welcoming, and where you can have liberation, where you can have create things and not have them be destroyed. You know, because you can make music and no one really can do anything to it.
Going back to preserving songs and passing them down through generations.
So I think for me that was my first sense of an Island, of an island within consciousness, through sound, and so that metaphor translated subconsciously over to the idea of the storyline of the Mandorla Island, because I was starting out with “Mandorla [Awakenings] I,” which was really this idea of trying to create a relationship between different beings in different locations, where it was more evident how they impact each other. That sort of extended into “Mandorla Awakening II,” which was the album.
You’ve articulated this whole mythology, with several different voices talking to each other within the persona of the creator, and I’m curious where all that came from?
That’s a question I don’t know if I can answer!
Just the right impulse, yeah?
I think about the concept, asking the question: “what is progress?” and looking at the dead end that Western culture is hitting in a lot of ways. My sense is that we have to really consciously use our imaginations to develop new paradigms, where we can actually envision then manifest a world that is more empathetic, not only to people, to humanity, but also our relationship with the Earth. So, I feel that is part of this breakdown and collision, collision between dystopia and utopia, a disruption of hierarchy, and of how we perceive the world, the order to do that. Rather than look at this race, for example, as a stack of people, with one on top and one under and another under, like that, instead I think we start to develop what I refer to as a system of overlapping wisdom. So, in order to have overlapping wisdom, you have to have all these different voices coming from different places, and that’s what the music is about, bringing these authentic voices that each have their own language and finding ways to incorporate a structure that allows these languages to express themselves and interact in a way that’s not oppressive.
You say here, “I believe our imaginations are the key to changing our lives. If more of us choose to be imagination practitioners, we can individually redesign our minds and collectively co-create our future.” So, to collapse that hierarchy and make it into an interdependency.
Exactly. You got it. So, whereas when we look at colonialism, or even when we look at gentrification, there’s always this concept of one group that has the answer, and another group that is the receiver of whatever that change is going to be, but they’re not a participant in that change. Or they don’t have a compelling sense of leadership in the change that’s affecting their own lines, it’s all about making a transformation where that is no longer an issue because it’s understood every single group of people, every single community, has a piece of the big answer, and we can put that together and co-create. But if we’re not seeing that, if we’re blind to that, we’re not going to get where we’re trying to go. Or where we need to go. But if we’re going to survive as a species, we’re going to need to do that.
There’s an interesting distinction you draw in the text between white hegemony versus white supremacy, and how that relates to the decolonization of mind that has to take place, that process. It’s an interesting distinction.
Yeah, I think that when we use the term supremacy—that’s such a hierarchical term, and you’re using the term to define and say, “I see this,” but at the same time you’re seeing it, you’re also perpetuating it. You’re validating it; so how do we find ways to use the language that allows us to crack that open a little bit, which is why I use small letters instead of capitals and things like that, because it’s kind of a jarring for your mind to see this, and you’re like, “Wait that isn’t correct, why is she doing this?” But then it’s like, “Oh, wait a minute, we decide these rules!” I just changed the rules inside of my world, you know? I think it puts it back into a place where people say, “Oh no, that’s not cool! Can’t do that.”
We started this conversation talking about how music is this autonomous place where we can live these differences in meaningful ways, but you also bring up the role of women in music history, and the difficult role even in music for women—and the voice telling us this story throughout is your voice as a woman.
Right. You can’t unwrite that!
You’re writing about the Black Earth Ensemble’s history, but also about how historically the role of women has been minimized and reduced and you mentioned here how women are praised as vocalists, but maybe not accepted in other roles, and I couldn’t help wondering if these were issues that were raised for you? And maybe at a time when these issues are being raised about women, not just in music, but in a lot of different ways culturally as well.
Yeah, I think the reality is, when I as an individual do something, when I make an act or a decision, I realize it’s not just me, but that I’m also a living symbol, I’m a symbol of women, so whatever I decide to do or act on, it’s going to have an impact on other women that come after me. It’s going to impact other Black people after me. It’s something that you have to look at, and each person has that symbology as a human, but I feel that there’s still a sense of communication, a limitation to communication that happens between genders, in certain situations.
For example, I had a gig a few days ago in the U.K., and I walked in the room getting ready to play, and there were some people there in the audience, and there was a pretty prominent musician who was in the audience. He wasn’t playing that day, but they were like, “Oh are you his friend? They just assumed we were together because I was Black. I am Black, I am a woman. We were close in age, and we were talking together, but the assumption was, “Oh, you’re his friend and that’s why you’re here.” But then I got to the stage and they were like, “Ohhh!”
You were the lead act.
They were like, “Ohhh, he’s coming to see you play!”
Right, but it was already in their head that way.
It was already assumed. There’s a lot of assumptions that we all make. I make assumptions too! That’s the whole thing, it’s: how do we make that change of decolonizing our minds? All of us have to deal with it, no matter where we stand, no matter what our position is in this whole hierarchical framework. So, it’s just tricky to navigate that. But I think that acknowledging when we see stuff, and we’re kind of like “Oops!” You know?
Yeah. Try better to get it right.
Nicole Mitchell Gantt will discuss The Mandorla Letters in conversation with Ytasha L. Womack on Tuesday, November 22 at 6pm, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell. Register with Seminary Co-op Bookstore for this free event.
“The Mandorla Letters: for the hopeful”
By Nicole Mitchell Gantt
Green Lantern Press, 272 pages, $30