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The Funk and Jazz of Morgan James Peters

Julianne Jennings
6/7/14

Morgan James Peters, 46, professionally known as "Mwalim DaPhunkee Professor," is a Mashpee Wampanoag, multifaceted performing artist, writer, media artist and educator, who swept the 2010 Jazz category with his album The Liberation Sessions winning the ‘Best Jazz Male’ as well as ‘Best Jazz Female’ for Amaris Moss’ vocal work on the same album. He won the category again in 2012 for his House Music influenced DEEP Soul Chants & Hollers album, and most recently, at the 9th annual New England Urban Music Awards (NEUMA) for the ‘Best Male Jazz Artist’ category, for his latest album Awakened By A Noon Day Sun (LMMGM/ Spirit Wind Records). I asked him how he felt about this year’s win. He replied, “It's all still sinking in. Last night was particularly monumental when the competition is considered. I was up against some of the true jazz giants of the region: Elan Troutman, Andre Ward and Walter Beasley. These are guys who play major festivals and headline tours.”

The New England Urban Music Awards was created in 2006 to acknowledge and promote the achievements of local and regional urban artists, producers, Disc Jockeys, and promoters who have contributed to the R&B, Hip Hop, Jazz, Caribbean, Spoken Word and Gospel music scene in New England. Organization members make preliminary nominations public and a pool of music industry professionals select qualifying nominees, and Mwalim was one of those selected.

Mwalim explains, “Awakened By A Noon Day Sun’s melodic structure was guided by funk and jazz as well as traditional American Indian songs and chants. This evolved into a style that I call ‘NDN Jazz’ and ‘NDN Soul-Funk’ as a way to acknowledge the combination of those influences. It’s unfortunate, but American Indian influences in blues, funk and jazz are rarely discussed.”

Playing Carnegie Hall by age 13 and becoming a studio session musician at age 16; Mwalim has spent 28 years in the music business as a composer, musician, singer and producer. As playwright, director, actor and drama teacher, he has been involved in theater, television and film for 24 years; and as a storyteller and performance poet, he has been in the spoken-word scene for 25 years. His work has been supported by numerous regional, national and international grants, fellowships, residencies, and institutions.

Storytelling was a strong tradition on both sides of his family; retaining history, lore and philosophies of both his West Indian (Bajan/ Barbados) and NDN backgrounds. Mwalim explains, “I grew up going to school in New York and spending the rest of the time in Mashpee, so I was immersed in my Wampanoag culture and community.”

Two of the several remaining tribes of the Wampanoag Nation are federally recognized: the Mashpee, and the Aquinnah. According to scholars, the losses from two epidemics (1616,1619) made it possible for the English colonists to get a foothold in creating the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later, the King Philip’s War (1675-1676) erupted against the English colonists, which resulted in the deaths of 40 percent of the nation. Many of the survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Wampanoag people began granting asylum to self-emancipated Africans, some of whom inter-mingled with Wampanoag people as well as the many Wampanoags who had been enslaved in New England. One of the famous products of this union was Crispus Attucks who escaped slavery from the Framingham/ Natick area and became a sailer under the assumed name “Michael Johnson.” There was also Paul Cuffee, a businessman, sea captain, patriot, and abolitionist. He was of Aquinnah Wampanoag and West African Ashanti descent and assumed the surname ‘Cuffee’ in honor of his father, ‘Kofi’. Mwalim adds, “Our folks in the east are particularly sensitive and evasive of the concept because of the historic beatings we took from the federal and state governments about being mixed heritage.” Peters continues, “But curiously, mainstream America is more excepting of the concept of a ‘mixed native heritage’ then many native people are.” When I asked him, “why?” He said, “It’s mostly the eastern folks who have trouble with mixed heritage... a certain insecurity. A parallel would be my experiences in the Bronx with folks who’s family came from Sicily or the Latin Caribbean and hated Black folks, while they looked like light-skinned Black people... when I learned about Hannibal’s trip from Africa into Italy and Sicily, and the African slave trade in the Spanish Caribbean, it all became clear. The dislike factor was actually a form of self- hatred.”

Peters received his formal training in theater from New African Company in the 1990’s. Mwalim went on to become a three-time recipient of the Ira Alderidge Fellowship for his work in playwriting. He is the co-founder and Director of Oversoul Theatre Collective, a professional NDN arts and education organization, through which he used to lead the Mashpee Youth Theater. In 2000, Mwalim became a member of the Lincoln Center Director’s lab, leading to artist residencies at the Harlem Theatre Company, Live From The Edge Theatre, Nuyorican Poet’s Theatre, and the Longwood Arts Gallery. He is the author of one book, A Mixed Medicine Bag (Talking Drum Press, 2007) and many plays, poems, essays and articles. His plays and performance pieces have been presented throughout the USA and Canada as well as the U.K. and Caribbean. Mwalim won the ‘Outstanding New Playwright’ award in 2003 from the New York Theatre Forum and in 2004 became New African Company’s first Native American playwright-in-residence, and is a former filmmaker-in-residence with WGBH/ PBS.

Mwalim is a founding member of the Education Committee of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. He has served as a consultant for the National Museum of the American Indian, the Advisory Board for Special Education of the Bureau of Indian Education, and the Administration on Native Americans. He is also on the editorial board for the NAIS Journal.

Mwalim earned his BA in Music and MS in Film from Boston University and his MFA in Writing from Goddard College. He is a tenured Associate Professor of English and the Director of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Congratulations Mwalim, for a job well done!

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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