There is a unique and beautiful phenomenon shining today in popular hip hop. It's always been there, in one form or another, but rarely so visible before recent years.
Mainstream artists like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are uplifting worldwide audiences with anthems about self-empowerment and positivity.
On the rise is one of today's greatest ambassadors of this ethos, New York City-based duo OSHUN. Maryland natives of the D.C. area, Thandiwe and Niambi Sala met at NYU and named the duo after a deity of the ancient Yoruba religion prominent in and around Nigeria.
Much like the duo's style, the spiritual Oshun is associated with gracefulness, harmony, and healing.
I spoke with Thandi and Niambi over the phone in NYC about spirituality and their mixture of neo-soul, hip hop, and spiritual music as a means of healing and empowerment.
Now on the pop front, smash hits like Beyoncé's "Formation" or Kendrick's "Alright" come to mind. Tracks like these confront long standing social issues like sexism, racism, and police brutality while celebrating black culture.
Today, there is a well of creativity in this vein; music, art, fashion, dance-- and a mystique to the mindset associated with them.
It is a colorful ambiance of liberation, celebration, empowerment, harmony, social justice-- and with OSHUN, a mystical suavité surrounds this lifeblood.
While Lamar celebrates with his friends in the street, and Beyoncé lines up the ladies in formation, OSHUN channels ancient gods, dives in sweet waters, and relishes in the freshness of their youth.
Music like this is medicinal. It draws power from a strong undercurrent of black youth, and indeed all people, yearning to heal and celebrate their uniqueness as individuals.
It is a mystical experience vivid in OSHUN's video "Stay Woke." It's track four on their 2015 mixtape Asase Yaa, entitled "i wake up/stay woke," in which the jazz poetry of the first passage excites the illumination and celebration of self throughout the rest.
The "Stay Woke" video is a visceral collage. OSHUN antagonizes ignorance by depicting caricatures of black stereotypes to break the mold of these perceptions within and without the black community, promoting harmony between people.
Their characters' immersion near the end of the video is a powerful symbol drawn from the Yoruba people's religion, in which orisha, or deities, are personified and walk the earth.,
Niambi offered some background on the tradition, "the different orisha are manifestations of nature... Oshun is an embodiment of fertile femininity, represented by sweet water and the river."
From a spiritual standpoint, Thandi and Niambi's characters' baptism in the sweet healing waters-- waking up-- shatters the pitfalls of self-identifying as a stereotype and celebrates the possibilities of, as Niambi characterized Oshun, "a young woman just coming into her own woman-ness."
She continued, "Giving honor to these orisha and connecting with them in our every day lives also strengthens our connection with the earth and knowing that we're one with everything. Once you realize that, you kind of create this harmonious relationship."
In OSHUN's music, that harmony is the common thread stitching together positivity in relationships, society, and with the earth on a fundamental level. As she put it, "with each other, the creator, its creations and literally with each other on stage."
Why is harmony so important?
Niambi explained that, "When you think about the demise and the corruption of the world, we did that to ourselves, and we don't even recognize our power. That's why we make music that uplifts people; we want everyone to know their power."
And it makes sense that when individuals view themselves not as target practice for police or dollar signs for major corporations, those individuals are likely to work towards their dreams and find fulfillment expressing themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, the message isn't exclusive. Niambi was clear that, "It's not about us against them or who is better or worse. It's about 'we all have power' and why don't we manifest that, and make life good because the world is f*cked up."
Thandi chimed in, adding that "those who need to hear this message are people who don't love themselves, people who don't believe that they're [made up and from] love, and people who don't think they're capable of loving."
This message of self-acceptance and personal empowerment is as old as the mystic tradition from which OSHUN draws its namesake.
It's been a central aspect of most forms of afrocentric music of the last century or so, including gospel, blues, R&B, jazz, and roots reggae for decades.
Producers like J-Dilla and Madlib largely pioneered the sound in hip hop. Neo-soul artists like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill embodied it throughout the 90's.
Now, artists like OSHUN are carrying it into the future.