Orishas Watchin' Your Back 

African-based deities figure big in the musings of one local hip-hopper.

With Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" leading a spiritual revival on the airwaves and SoundScan charts -- heard the remix featuring the once-jiggy, now born-again Mase yet? -- it's time to discuss spirituality in hip-hop and urban culture. Specifically, the orishas, and what they mean to you.

Your spirit guides for this brief journey through the realms of mythology, ritual tradition, and the universal subconscious are Carlos "Solrac" Mena, the man behind the recent orisha-affirming album Hip-Hop Meditations, and Luisah Teish, Oakland-based teacher, lecturer, and priestess of Osun, the "elegant goddess of love, wealth, and beauty."

Who are the orishas, you might ask? Well, in addition to being a Latin Grammy-winning Cuban rap group, Mena says, they are deities or gods, each with their own characteristics, that represent the different forces of nature.

"Osun is the river and Obatala is the mountains," Teish says by way of example. "Those natural forces also correspond to attributes in human nature. If I say Osun is the sweet waters of the river, and I say that she is beauty in civilization, and culture, what we know is that around the world, wherever you find a center of cultural refinement, you'll find that a river runs through it."

A lake and an estuary, in Oakland's case.

She goes on, somewhat rapturously: "If we were going to go Jungian, I would have to say that the orishas can be understood as super-archetypes of our existence."

Woomp. There it is.

Some of the better-known orishas are Ellegua, the trickster-like keeper of the crossroads; Ogun, a warrior god associated with the metal iron; Yemaya, mother of humankind and mistress of life, death, and regeneration; Babaluaye, the Lord of the World, ironically identified with the sick outcast; Ori, said to represent a person's innermost thoughts; Olokun, ruler of the ocean; Oludumare, the most powerful and ancient of the orishas and the source of ase, or universal energy; and Shango, god of thunder and of music, who is symbolized by the drum.

The orisha ritual-myth tradition is the essence of the Yoruban religion, which began in Nigeria, spread through West Africa, then expanded via the transatlantic slave trade to the Caribbean, South America, New York, and ultimately to Oakland. Although the orishas' influence is considerable -- they have as many as fifty million believers worldwide -- these deities have taken a backseat to mainstream religious icons.

What sets the orishas apart, however, is ancestor worship. Growing up "as a little black girl in the segregated South," Teish recalls, "I would ask the question, why do we interpret dreams? Why do we make rain? Why are we so different from the people on television? And the answer would always be, because that's what the old folks say. And so, this set me on an exploration of, well, who are the old folks?"

After much soul-searching, she says, "I found out that the old, old, old folks are the creators of African culture. Once I understood that, and understood there were retentions of African culture everywhere people of African descent existed, and that I could see the similarities between Afro-diasporic culture and other cultures, that leads you into an understanding that as human beings, we make cultural notations on universal principles."

Her experience parallels Mena's somewhat: Growing up in New York, he was exposed to both the orisha tradition and a then-nascent culture called hip-hop, which to him also contained a universal spirituality. "That's what I primarily explore in the record," he relates. "The relationship between the orishas and hip-hop culture. And what it is to me, is the attributes of the philosophy and spirituality of hip-hop culture that aren't talked about en masse."

Nevertheless, he adds, "It's always been there. You listen to Tupac, you hear some spiritual things in some of his rhymes. You go back to Melle Mel, and you hear spiritual themes in the rhymes. You could go all the way back to Afrika Bambaataa too, and that's one of the tenets of the Zulu Nation, the spirituality aspect of it. ... It's the idea of paying respect to mother earth and the sun and the moon, and the universe and the stars."

That's exactly what Teish plans to do for three days starting Friday, as the guiding force behind the first-ever West Coast festival of Osun in Oakland. Scheduled events include a performance of the complete Osun ritual-myth cycle with the Agitos Dance Troupe, a slide show on the history of music, art, and dance in the African diaspora, a poetry reading by spoken-word artist and rapper Raymond "Nat" Turner, storytelling, children's events, arts & crafts, and food -- all of which befit a celebration of the "mother of culture," as Osun is also known. "Ultimately," Teish says, "I'd like to see the second week in August declared the Osun festival weekend, so that we can be in sync with the Osun festival that occurs in West Africa at this time."

Mena, meanwhile, believes the orishas could play a bigger part in hip-hop culture, and the role they already play in our existence could become more apparent. After all, he adds, we stand at a crossroads -- that's Ellegua's domain -- with every choice we make. "The energies are all around us," he says. "Through the earth-based traditions, we learn how to interact and better align yourself with those energies so that you can lead a more prosperous and fruitful and elevated life."

To get you started, C2tE has devised an orisha-inspired playlist to invoke these elemental forces in your own home -- just don't forget to pick up candles and incense from the neighborhood botanica first.

Ellegua: "Tha Crossroads," Bone Thugs N Harmony

Shango: "Return of the Boom Bap," KRS-One

Osun: "Floetic," Floetry

Obatala: "Mt. Airy Groove," Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Yemaya: "Big Mama," Roxanne Shante

Ogun: "Soul Controller," Ghostface Killah

Babaluaye: "The Whole World," Outkast

Ori: "Me, Myself & I," De La Soul

Olokun: "Deep Water Slang," Zion-I

Oludumare: "The Creator," Pete Rock and CL Smooth

See you at the crossroads.

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