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  • A Life in Proverbs:An Interview with Anand Prahlad
  • Michael Kuelker (bio)

Anand Prahlad—who was born Dennis W. Folly and today goes simply by Prahlad—is a master teacher of the proverb and of the fields of study with which proverbs are associated, including folklore, poetry, and narrative. The University of Missouri-Columbia English professor is also a poet and musician who integrates these multiple expressions into his teaching. In 2009 he received the Mizzou Alumni Association Faculty Award.

My interview with Prahlad took place the morning after he had given two public presentations at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. His topics were "Black Folklore and Survival in the Modern Age" and "Zen, Mojos, Degrees, and Mbiras: Living a Whole Life in a Fragmented World," both of which displayed his scholarly temperament and private self. The dreadlocked professor was on his way home to Columbia, Missouri and we proceeded from Reggae Wisdom, the work of his with which I was most familiar, and then to other topics about his personal and professional life.

Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2001, is a study of music and culture from the nexus point of the proverb. No study of Jamaican music has situated the pearl of thought known as the proverb in the context of reggae's ethos and history. Prahlad is also the editor of the three-volume essay anthology The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore (Greenwood, 2006) and the author of a scholarly monograph on proverbs, African American Proverbs in Context (UP of Mississippi, 1996). Since completing the Greenwood encyclopedia, Prahlad has turned to more personal pursuits, writing poetry and a memoir (Getting Happy). In his Dennis Folly days, when he was a member of the Berkeley Poets Co-op collective, he had published Hear My Story and Other Poems (Berkeley Poets Workshop and Press, 1982). In 2008 Prahlad self-produced a CD titled Hover Near, an album of acoustic blues with elements of American folk and Caribbean musical traditions, and he has lately become a skilled practitioner of the mbira, the thumb piano of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. His home site is


How would you explain to the layman the importance of proverbs?


Proverbs are important in a lot of ways. One way is because they are very concise, short ways of capturing a lot of philosophical, wise and ideological perspectives that a particular culture has. If you set the proverb "You reap what you sow" in the U. S. South anytime up to the middle of the twentieth century, you would be encapsulating the idea that a single person is going to reap the karma of their individual actions, but you would also be capturing the deeply held sentiment of African Americans in the South that, at some point in time, they would reap the positive benefits of the labor that they had put into the building of the United States and that those people who had enslaved and oppressed them would reap the negative consequences of what they had done. In that single proverb, it says a lot of things. It captures a lot of perspectives that African Americans might have had without saying it in any overt or elaborate way. [End Page 655]

Another way that proverbs are important is because they are cultural markers. So if you go to another place, and you use a proverb that is taken from the culture where you come from, it is a way of establishing or asserting a sort of cultural identity in that new context—again in a very short and concise way, without going into elaborate explanations.


Your first book in that arena was African American Proverbs in Context, which was followed by Reggae Wisdom. What brought you into the Jamaican landscape?


My love for reggae and for Rastafari culture. From the very beginning when I heard reggae, I fell in love with it. And one of the things that captivated me about reggae—and this was the era that is termed "roots reggae"—the way in which the music and the lyrics were designed to...


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pp. 655-660
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