As promised, here's part two of the interview with Khi Armand, artist, grad student, rootworker, shaman and about a gazillion other really cool things. In this post Khi talks about his art, nature-based practice in New York City, race and paganism, his spiritual services and a bunch of other stuff. If you missed part one you can read it here.
What made a nature-oriented person such as yourself settle down in New York City?
I grew up here and have always adored the relationship between the concrete and the tar and the more "natural" seeming elements. The earliest part of my life began along the beach in Far Rockaway and when my family moved to Long Island, my life became inundated with all kinds of flora.
When I moved back into the city at the age of 17, I'd picked up Ellen Dugan's Elements of Witchcraft: Natural Magick for Teens and was living just a few blocks away from Tompkin's Square Park. Though I befriended two trees there and performed some of my first spells there, I was attracted to the idea that magick was hidden all throughout the landscape of the city. This was further expounded upon in the specialized nooks of nature that are famously leisurely and enchantedly dangerous. Oases for the humanimals to play their games of whatever sort they might be. The city is totally natural and its pulsing energy (I write as reggae pours through my window) is alive and meaningful.
For people who practice earth-centered religions, what are the advantages and disadvantages of living in such an intensely man-made environment like New York City?
I think that would be subjective - every locale has is ups and downs. Being on overcrowded trains everyday makes me put more emphasis on spiritual cleansing and being surrounded by concrete does mean that it takes effort to get to "nature." But I'm all the more appreciative of ivy growing up in a brownstone and all the more in awe of when a neighborhood decides to start growing its own vegetables.
I'm attracted to the goal of creating a sustainable earth-centered life in the midst of all this. I also think that magick might work quicker - in a city of 8 million people, you could virtually do a love spell in the morning and meet your new partner that night!
When did you open for business, and how is that going so far?
I started Conjure in the City in July, 2010. It's been going great - I had no idea I'd be living this life but it makes so much sense to me, y'know? I'm a contemporary urban medicine person and as I practice, I'm really seeing the lack of good medicine - positive holistic perspectives - in the inner city. Lil Wayne, money-cash-hoes. I saw Arrested Development perform in Brooklyn a few years ago and it was life-changing - they are GOOD audio medicine. I'm surrounded by shops that sell bogus synthetic oils and washes and perfumes - no herbs or anything from the earth. People buy the stuff, but it's not natural, and being surrounded primarily by brown people like myself, it's certainly not ours.
I'd ultimately like to connect more with the communities around me and other healers here and be part of a revival of traditional practices. I was also recently accepted into the Association of Independent Readers & Rootworkers and am on the Board of Directors for Crossroads University which is dedicated to the preservation of indigenous healing systems, herbal pharmacopoeia, and folk magic traditions found in the Southern United States.
Let's talk about your art. Would you care to say a few words about what you're working on now, and how your spirituality informs your art and vice versa?
I'm currently the Character Development Specialist on an indie film that explores the impact of abuse on a person's psyche and the ways in which fate brings us people who become "chosen family" and help the healing to begin. I'm also working on a project with Michael Twitty who's been tracing his genealogy in part by visiting the plantations his ancestors toiled upon and making recipes from antebellum cookbooks to trace black lineage through food. You can check out his blog here. He's doing some deeply spiritual work.
As a solo artist and playwright, much of my work reconciles ancestral voices with modern globalized times through spoken word, poetry, prose, music, and video. The Last Stop Between Us, a play I wrote and directed during undergrad, required a trip to Pine Ridge Reservation for my research on the Wounded Knee Massacre, Lakota culture, and indigenous third-gender roles.
I made an altar for the prominent and forgotten dead of that place and engaged in a sort of ethnographic necromancy throughout the play's development. Much of my creative process is ritualized and, as a director, I use ritual processes as a tool in fostering good group dynamics and aiding characterization, which can be a lot like aspecting from within. Right now I'm really focused on art tied to community because, really, who are we without others?
How did you first get into facilitating rituals for people?
I led a few Sabbat rituals with friends in my teenage years. They were rockin'. We all kinda glowed afterwards as we'd head off into some land of suburban debauchery and escapism - but we'd do so with greater awareness. I then started leading rituals in undergrad for the Sabbats. Ritual can be transformative and transporting. Ritual scholar Victor Turner talks about ephemeral transformational communities such as the kinds that are found at weeklong festivals as "communitas" and speaks of that time outside of time that is so characteristic of ritual experience as "the liminal." These particular aspects are what first drew me to the power of ritual.
In some of the more Euro-centered pagan traditions, there is this expression that one should not “pay to pray.” You don’t find the same sentiment among the Afro-Diasporic traditions and it is considered perfectly acceptable to pay for spiritual work. What response do you have to the “don’t pay to pray” people?
Well crikey - spiritual work is hard work! Y'know, it take so many years to cultivate any gift or skill and though I'm eager to share them with others (and do so constantly since these constitute a huge part of my life) I need to eat and be sheltered. I've also been courageous enough to publicly say "I talk to Spirits and do magick professionally" which is still looney bin talk in America today, but I'm telling the truth. I deserve to live well - we all do.
I offer free prayer services and I pray all the time but readings, candles, herbs, the works - these take time, money, and a lot of energy. Not to mention that I've found that people get more out of the work when they at least put a little something in the pot, some form of exchange. But I think this goes back to the physical/spiritual divide. It doesn't exist. It really doesn't.
You describe yourself on the Conjure in the City page as a “shamanic herbalist.” What is that exactly? Also, can you talk a bit about the herbal apprenticeship you did in MA?
Well, I've practiced magick and hoodoo for years but it was when I apprenticed for an herbalist in Western Massachusetts that a whole other dimension of herbalism opened up for me. I began to journey with plants and learn about their perspective and how that perspective can change our own lives when we make allies in the plant world.
Catnip encourages a friendliness between body and spirit and can lessen resistance we have to taking up tasks. It's great for dismantling procrastination and can be imbibed as a tea, tincture, or even smoked. Hawthorn has an effect on the heart that mirrors its medical usage. I've found it to be great in boosting courage to do something even when you don't believe you have the resources to undertake it. "Work with what you have," says Hawthorn. "Start right where you are." In addition to hoodoo rootwork and altar creation, I prescribe work with herbs in this manner to my clients.
What is your view on the use of entheogens in shamanic ritual?
I would not suggest that someone bring entheogens into their shamanic practice at least for a couple of years. It's so important to learn shamanic techniques on one's own before bringing in a heavy dose of outside perspective like that. After three and a half years of performing shamanic journeys, I only recently worked with Flying Ointment and it certainly deepened the experience, but it did so only by building on the work I'd already done to learn how to shift consciousness and travel in the Spirit realm. You really do yourself a disservice by starting with entheogens in ritual practice too early.
I recently attended a shamanic ritual at the yoga studio I go to. The guy was sincere but the whole thing felt kind of weak. I’ve easily felt more energy and had more transformative experiences catching the spirit in the Baptist church, or even just tripping on shrooms in the woods. Do you have any advice on finding a good shaman (or a good rootworker, for that matter)?
Well, Shamanic journeying and ritual are certainly different paths than Rootwork or spirit possession. Building energy with chanting and movement or shifting consciousness with the help of a Plant Spirit Ally are definitely different than the work it takes to journey and retrieve information. I find that achieving this with fully satisfaction takes a bit more of a regular practice. It's definitely not as energized as the other activities you mentioned but it's extremely transformative and rewarding.
Finding a good honest spiritual practitioner doesn't have to be hard, but it really depends on the type you're looking for. I don't know many practitioners who utilize the label "Shaman" and have public practices other than myself and Raven Kaldera, but I know a lot of Spirit-Workers who go by all types of titles. It's all interrelated.
The Association of Independent Readers & Rootworkers is a great place to find a good Rootworker, Psychic, or Spiritual Advisor. Catherine Yronwode of Lucky Mojo Curio Co. has a great page on how to tell genuine spiritual workers in the Hoodoo Conjure tradition from fake ones.
We haven’t talked at all about the issue of racism in the neo-pagan world. One of the reasons I started my own blog was that I was very tired of the non-European experience being left out of the discussion. Black Witch wrote a great post recently on this topic called The Invisibility Cloak: Race and the Pagan. In the pagan blogosphere, one of the exceptions to this invisibility is The Wild Hunt, which regularly includes news about Voudon, Santeria, Hinduism, Native traditions, etc. What are your views/personal experiences regarding this topic? And do you see things changing at all?
There are so many factors that go into the issues of racism, discrimination, and Paganism. I remember inquiring about the Pagan club at community college on Long Island and not even being given the time of day by the organizers until I went into a lengthy diatribe about Starhawk (aka my mom) and The Spiral Dance. Then their ears perked up and I was seen. But I'm also looked at strangely when I walk into many of the botanicas around NYC because I'm neither Latino nor of Afro-Caribbean descent.
I think a lot of it comes down to ignorance - many White magickal practitioners still think that Vodun and Santeria are evil because that's what Hollywood and TV show. Rarely does American media highlight the healing practices in these traditions or that that's what they are - communal healing traditions. I know that Denise Alavarado of Planet Voodoo is actively trying to teach people that anyone can honor the Orisha and the Lwa and form a relationship with them and people are amazed that you don't have to be an initiate to get close to these entities, help though it may. And that speaks to the protectiveness of these traditions in their diaspora context, which is understandable but in need of reconsideration. But that's another conversation - not every practitioner or priest is about radical societal transformation or the role their tradition plays in it.
It even comes down to the basic terminology of white magic vs. black magic. If I hear anyone use either of these terms again, I'mma **** and ****. Not only do these conjure racialized and moralistic images of who is practicing the magic, they create a false binary. Magick is manipulation - period. So is changing your outfit before you go out to the club or wearing a certain cologne to a job interview. No white, black, or grey about it. It's a gift.
Use the force!