January 29, 2016No Comments

From outcast to Africa’s “golden voice”

People said he was cursed. Schoolchildren avoided him. His father sent him to live on the streets when he was a teenager.

Mali musician Salif Keita could be a bitter, angry man, but instead, he writes beautiful songs about life, love and fighting prejudice. His most recent is the plaintive “Folon.” The word folon means the past in Keita’s native tongue, Bambara.

“In the past/ no one wanted to know/ In the past, whatever happened, you could not speak about it/”.

Keita has lived through political turmoil, spending 15 years in exile during Mali’s military dictatorship. “Folon” is about his homeland’s return to democracy, but it could just as easily be about Keita’s own life. Born albino, he was ostracized by his village and his family, and left to live on the streets as a teenager. He found his voice and his salvation in music. Today, he has earned a place among the best and brightest on the world music scene and is frequently called the golden voice of Africa.

“Music is my life, my freedom. It gives me the opportunity to talk to people. To tell them what I want and what I feel,” he said in an interview with PBS Newshour in 2015.

Cast away by his family, Keita made his own living in Mali’s capital, Bamako, by drawing on his heritage, peppered with his own experiences as a pariah. Music and storytelling came naturally to Keita, who came from a family of griots, or storytellers, who have kept West African history alive for thousands of years through words and music. His big break came in the eighties as leader of West African supergroup Les Ambassadeurs who rode the global music wave with their fresh take on afro-pop.

Keita’s albinism, a genetic condition that causes the skin, hair or eyes to have little or no color, also caused his blindness. But looking back on his life and his success, he demonstrates nearly boundless resiliency and optimism. “If I were black,” he told Newshour. “Then I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to be popular in the world.”

When he was young, Keita wanted to be a teacher. Today, as the father of several albino children, he splits his time between family, music and his eponymous global foundation for the fair treatment and social integration of people with albinism.

“Albinism is not a curse, but a disease which, like any other, needs to be treated with care and love,” he told South Africa’s City Press in 2014.

He sent a powerful message from his life in the song “La Difference”:

Some of us are beautiful

Some are not

Some are black

Some are white

All that difference was on purpose

He found lightness and humor in his journey from outcast to one of the continent’s most well known musicians. “If I were black, I would have had good eyesight, and I could be a teacher for 40 people,” he said. “But now, I’m a teacher for a million people. That’s funny.”

As he sang in “Folon,” “In the past, people did not want to know/ today, people want to know.”

Note: this text originally appeared in Give YourSelf Permission Magazine 2015.

July 29, 2014No Comments

Value confusion


I'm more accustomed to hearing about values being talked about in a set - I'm thinking mainly of politicians touting "family values" and "American values" - as though there is some established list everyone who is important has agreed to. It also makes me think about times I've heard the word used as window dressing for intolerance and discrimination -- where "our values" means "not yours."

But what are values exactly? I wasn't 100% sure I understood the concept outside of those examples. Do values in fact come in some pre-existing set, such as a religious doctrine or mission statement? Can values be right or wrong? Are they unique or shared? Where do they come from?

What a relief to know that my friend Priya Kapoor, even after earning her master's degree in marriage and family counseling, struggled with this definition as well. Her new book, Give YourSelf Permission to Live Your Life, is about how you can live the life you want to live, rather than the one you think you are supposed to live. And the foundation of trying to figure out what you actually want from life is first trying to figure out the things in life you care about the most. Those are your values.

Values "can be accessible or tangible concepts such as family, work or respect. More often than not, however, they are emotions like love, peace and grace or behavioral traits and characteristics like communication, nobility and honor," she wrote.

Values are internal and personal, and shouldn't be based on what other people want for -- or from -- you. If you think about how you spend your time, money and resources, and how you have fun, then you will find your values. They are the things that make you happy. Basically they are how you live your life, day-in and day-out. After working through the exercises in the book, I determine that my core values include humor, independence and love. Priya's include open communications, respect and diligence. But no one set is better than another -- having different values just means that you don't prioritize things in the same way as another person.

Values are shaped by our families and the society we live in, however, they are not a moral code or doctrine that must be swallowed whole. They don't have to come in a pre-ordained set. Instead, they are unique and personal. They are our own judgment of what is important in life. Thanks, Priya, for making it clear.