A groundbreaking study of Blackness in Morocco through the lens of visual representation
For more than thirteen centuries, caravans transported millions of enslaved people from Africa south of the Sahara into what is now the Kingdom of Morocco. Today there are no museums, plaques, or monuments that recognize this history of enslavement, but enslaved people and their descendants created the Gnawa identity that preserves this largely suppressed heritage. This pioneering book describes how Gnawa emerged as a practice associated with Blackness and enslavement by reviewing visual representation and musical traditions from the late nineteenth century to the present.
Cynthia J. Becker addresses the historical consciousness of subaltern groups and how they give Blackness material form through modes of dress, visual art, religious ceremonies, and musical instruments in performance. She examines what it means to self-identify as Black in Morocco (a country typically associated with the Middle East and the Arab world), especially during this time of increased contemporary African migration, which has made Blackness even more visible. Her case studies draw on archival material and on her extended research in the city of Essaouira, site of the wildly popular Gnawa World Music Festival. Becker shows that Gnawa spirit possession ceremonies express the marginalization associated with enslavement and allow these unique communities to move toward healing, even as the mass-marketing of Gnawa music has resulted in some Gnawa practitioners engaging Blackness to claim legitimacy and spiritual power.
This book challenges the framing of Africa’s cultural history into “sub-Saharan” versus “North African” or Islamic versus non-Islamic categories. Blackness in Morocco complicates how we think about the institution of slavery and its impact on North African religious and social institutions, and readers will better understand and appreciate the role of Africans in shaping global forces, including religious institutions such as Islam.
Cynthia J. Becker is associate professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Boston University. She is author of Amazigh Arts in Morocco: Women Shaping Berber Identity. Her writing has been published in many journals and edited volumes, including Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa.
"Absolutely groundbreaking, Blackness in Morocco is the work of a trailblazing intellect. Showing that 'blackness' is constructed in Africa as elsewhere in the world, Cynthia J. Becker demonstrates a deep commitment to Gnawa lived experience, forever changing how we understand the religions and aesthetics of Africa."—Prita Meier, author of Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere
"Cynthia Becker's anthropological and artistic approaches fill many gaps in the history of Gnawa music and culture in Moroccan society. She explains lucidly how Gnawa music has been appropriated by mainstream culture and how it fits the global logic of race-making and the historical anti-blackness ideology. The most important part of this book is the epistemic agency of the Gnawa people through the narrative of songs, dance, and trance. In this regard it contributes to the epistemology of resistance."—Chouki El Hamel, author of Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam
"A critical reading."— Ethnic and Racial Studies