Moksha Sommer and Jemal Wade Hines –
Interviewed by Batina Sheets, member of the Kinship Council.
Batina: Your music, and what I know of your activities, seem to me to be very kinship oriented. What you’ve done with your music, the arts, and your activism in general feels like your way of reaching out to the world and being connected with people. I know you’ve been significantly impacted by Covid – live concerts curtailed, etc. How has Covid impacted your perspective on your work and how you consciously create kinship in your lives?
Moksha: We’ve definitely been kinship oriented from the very beginning in terms of what it means to be bringing people together and fostering connection through music and the arts; and music and the arts as spiritual practice.
Batina: Your music seems very tied to your advocacy work as well. How did that come to be?
Moksha: Our non-profit and advocacy work naturally grew as a result of a connection we made in Washington D.C. with Dan Haseltine, lead singer of Jars of Clay. At the time, we were doing lobbying and advocacy work with the ONE Campaign. We were drawn to Dan because of a talk he gave to a lobbying group. We didn’t know who he was as a musician or that he was based in Nashville which is the nearest big city to us. It ended up becoming a really special friendship that’s been really closely tied between advocacy, community-based work, and music. We’ve ended up collaborating with him and all of the band. We have a new album that all of the guys from Jars of Clay are on.
Jemal: We collaborated with them on our last two albums and a record before that. Meeting and working with them has been sort of a kinship project for me. I grew up Southern Baptist. Pretty heavy-duty Baptist! When Jars of Clay came around in the 90s, I was following the Grateful Dead and I was like, Christian Rock band? Like, (laughs) I just didn’t even pay attention to them. But they’re just Christians – a rock band that just happen to be Christian. They’re very progressive. The more we’ve gotten to know them, the stronger the connection has grown. Dan runs an organization called Blood:Water which helps build water wells to get clean water and they teach about sanitation in Africa with HIV/AIDS. So, right after meeting him, we played at a benefit that he did for World Water Day and we just became friends with them and, it’s interesting, part of meeting them is like Sufi kinship. In my youth, I rebelled quite heavily from my Southern Baptist ways with psychedelics and Eastern mysticism and I went way off. I’ve been kind of coming back around, through a different doorway, to more progressive Christianity. And, wow! There are actually cool Christians that exist in the world! You know, they’re not all trying to convert me and being judgmental trolls. Connecting with Jars of Clay has been very refreshing for me on a personal level.
Moksha: Yes, for me, the power of kinship in its purest form is when we can come together with other people and combine our voices to do positive work on the advocacy front through music. For us, that is our manifestation of kinship. I think other people have different manifestations of kinship depending upon their strengths. So, that kind of ties into how we’ve adapted to Covid, too, in terms of how kinship plays out because we discovered – being rapidly thrust into Covid – what we could and couldn’t do. And how we could do music differently. It was really interesting, the first big jump into the rearranged Covid conditions was when, about a year ago, we were supposed to be writing the musical score and doing live performances in collaboration with the New Dialect Dance Company in Nashville and with a visual artist named Jana Harper. We suddenly, rapidly, revised things when we realized it wasn’t going to happen! Everything was being canceled swiftly. With that project it was like, we can do this, it’s just going to take a different form. So, we did the score for it. The dancers were all filmed in isolation or in combinations of the dancers who were already “podding” together. It was all done through this completely different angle but it was still really effective. It was presented by OZ Arts Nashville and sponsored by Vanderbilt University and an NEA Grant. It’s interesting, one of the Best of Nashville Awards 2020 was given to that project! I think it’s because instead of trying to adjust the piece, we said, “Let’s completely think about this from a different perspective. Let’s create this in a way that will speak to people and communicate the essence of it and let go of the structure that we had originally imagined.” I think that’s sort of a metaphor that applies to a lot of what’s happened this last year. It’s just that – well, we’re not going to stop – we’re going to continue doing what we love, it’s just going take a different form. We’re so excited to be with real people again! To do live performances again, but I think some of what we’ve discovered in the last year will continue to exist in the future in terms of ways of having larger extended community events, online retreats and that kind of thing.
Batina: Yes, kinship, reaching out to others requires that kind of thinking outside the box – being ready to meet people where they are and coming up with a creative approach. So, it seems like Covid has brought another depth of kinship to your work.
Moksha and Jemal: Yes!
Jemal: We had plans to develop an interfaith musical project, including artists from different faiths. Then Covid hit and those plans, obviously, ground to a halt. So, Moksha started writing songs and we started putting all these songs together and now, we have a whole new record that’s done! In addition to the project Moksha mentioned earlier, we have a new album of original songs, a new album of cover songs, AND we managed to home school our son! I’m amazed at how productive we’ve been!
Moksha: Yes, we’re really proud of the new record! The interfaith project won’t cease to exist – it will just have a different timeline than we imagined. It is temporarily in the wings and in the meantime, it made space for this whole other album to come through. We feel really positive about it!
Jemal: When we thought we were done with the songs, Black Lives Matter protests began to happen with more intensity and we were deeply inspired to write another song. The result is “Our Words Will be Louder.” It was just incredible how quickly we wrote that and for the first time we decided to book some studio time in Nashville. It was the first time we’d been around humans or other musicians in a few months (at the time the Covid numbers were decreasing and we had foolishly hoped that it was going away). (Moksha: It wasn’t getting better!) But we did 2 days – a brief lull in the summer where it seemed like maybe it’d be OK. We all wore masks and went in and recorded and basically finished that song in the studio. We had the thought to bring in a video guy to document the whole thing so we had a video of us playing it. And then, I don’t even know how it happened, we had the idea of getting all these other people on the video. So, we just started reaching out to friends and artists and there are all kinds of different famous and non-famous people on the video – it’s just this mosaic of people singing along, pop artists from the 80s and 90s, the guys from the BareNaked Ladies are in there, there’re kirtan artists, Sufi artists . . .
Moksha: There are some sneaky Sufi appearances in there – Allauddin is in there, Nawal is in there.
Batina: Sounds like a kinship project just putting it together!
Jemal: Then we got in touch with Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign because we were starting to help locally with the campaign around voter suppression and the Poor People’s Campaign was working on registering voters. We reached out to him and said, we’re doing this video and we’d love to use some of your footage of you marching at the end of the video. They sent us the footage and gave us his blessing. We were on his podcast show and we met him at one point and realized what a powerhouse he is! He’s the real deal! (We all agree!)
Batina: Aside from your music, you do a lot of advocacy and non-profit work. Can you tell me more about how you connected with the ONE Campaign?
Jemal: ONE was started by Bono and Bill Gates. I was a Bono fan as a teenager but I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music on Sundays. I had convinced my parents that U2 was Christian – they’re sort of like Jars of Clay. U2 was the only rock band I could listen to for years. Bono literally saved my early teenage years. I’ve seen every tour since 1987. Bono’s one of the main people that got me into advocacy – you know with Live Aid when that happened. I signed up with ONE in early 2000. About six years ago, somebody approached us after we volunteered to help sign people up at a U2 concert. Kentucky needed Congressional representatives for ONE – each State has Congressional Reps that meet with their Senators – and we were asked to represent Kentucky. So, we meet annually with Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell and then we also meet with our Congressman. We did it virtually this last year, but every year all the ONE reps from all the fifty States come to Capitol Hill on the same day and we meet with almost every Congressman and Senator about the issues that we want to support for the year. ONE has helped pass some of the only bipartisan bills through the Senate and Congress for the last few years. People are so divided, but around issues like AIDS/HIV and extreme poverty, there’s more agreement. Those who don’t agree, we just ask those people to not show up when the vote for the bill comes up – you don’t have to vote “Yes”, just don’t vote at all. We’ve gotten some amazing things passed!
Moksha: Yes, it’s been quite amazing. I personally came at that work from a different angle. I had always loved Bono but even in high school I was president of the Human and Animal Rights Club. I was taught activist-based art at an early age, too, so I understood how art, music, activism, and non-profit work could be united to be really powerful and effective. With playing music all the years that we have, there was a certain point where I felt like I was becoming a little bit weary and jaded with the world. I realized that, yes, music as a form of kinship and action was nourishing for us and others but it wasn’t all that I needed in my own process. I realized that if I didn’t get involved in some kind of action/advocacy that I really believed in and that I felt like I was doing hands-on work with, that I was going to become increasingly alienated, ungrounded, and distant from my deeper self and deeper calling. And so, we did . . .
Jemal: That is the spiritual path. I used to be ungrounded and cosmic all the time. I thought that me meditating or being in my inner, psychedelic state or whatever – just my shear spiritual presence that I put into my music was good enough to be healing the world. Now, I look back on that and I (he cringes and they both laugh)…It felt empty for me.
Moksha: Spiritual practice/music wasn’t enough for us on its own. For me, advocacy in action through music IS a spiritual practice that benefits other beings, other species, something beyond ourselves! I think that kind of work informs our spiritual practice and our spiritual practice informs and guides that work.
Jemal: That also brings back, like I was saying, re-entering the Christian or the Christ following, the Christ path. Realizing that Christ wasn’t like an insurance agent “You gotta believe this so you can do that!”. The Kingdom is here, the work is to serve, here and now, the present.
Batina: I couldn’t have said it any better! Thank you both for sharing your time and wisdom with us! For those who might not have seen your video or want to link to your website and information about your upcoming album, we’ve included the following links: