Thurston Moore, Sudan Archives, Meredith Graves and more find truth in King Khan’s ‘Black Power Tarot’ deck
“Tarot,” says King Khan, shuffling a deck of cards rhythmically back and forth, “was designed to give power back to the people.” For centuries, outcast, disenfranchised, and oppressed communities have looked to tools like the tarot to find meaning in a world that runs on chaos: in Louisiana, Khan says, African diaspora traditions mixed with Catholic mysticism to create what we now understand as ‘voodoo’, while growing up in South Africa, I once met with a sangoma, a traditional healer who would throw bones to access the advice of ancestors to answer questions and solve afflictions. “What’s more scary to a rich, white person than a little brown kid with a tarot card?” Khan smiles.
Arish Ahmad Khan grew up in Montreal in the early 1980s. The son of Indian immigrants, he was raised in part by a maternal grandmother, who was fond of telling stories of witches capturing people’s souls. His strained relationship with his father led him to run away and join a punk community at age 17, but not before the elder Khan taught him about the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the importance of protest. He brought this mentality to his punk outfit The Spaceshits, and eventually his current group, King Khan and the Shrines.
His fascination with tarot, he explains, stems from giving and receiving readings on tour with other musicians. It’s an interest shared with an increasing number of people, too. Pop culture has seen a resurgence in mysticism and occult imagery in recent years, be it the success of films like The Love Witch, reboots of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Charmed, the iconography in recent Dior and Gucci campaigns, or music videos from Lana Del Rey to Princess Nokia. Meanwhile, a recent report from the BBC discussed the growing popularity of tarot in relation to the spectres of Brexit, Trump, and xenophobia. Khan tapped directly into both the bubbling anger over racial inequality and his own spiritual practice to create the Black Power Tarot, a deck that depicts 26 legendary black musicians and other cultural figures as spiritual gurus with lessons to share for those on their own outsider’s path. In the deck’s Major Arcana, legendary spiritual jazz musician Sun Ra acts as the Sun card, Nina Simone as the shield and sceptre-bearing regal Empress, and Richard Pryor the Fool.
I first sat down with Khan at Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands, last year to embrace my witchy side, have my cards read, and discuss the mythic story behind the creation of the 26-card deck (26 being the number of God in the Kabbalah). A big part of that story comes from iconic Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom Khan counts as a “guru”. The director’s son had been a fan of The Shrines and connected the two; learning of Khan’s interest in tarot, Jodorowsky explained the history of the Tarot de Marseille, the organization of the deck, and the sacred geometry of the illustrations. “He taught me that it’s a language, not a strict magical equation,” Khan says. He returned to Jodorowsky with the concept of the Black Power Tarot, a deck that would feature Marseille-style illustrations by Belfast artist Michael Eaton, who had previously painted flags and maps for Game of Thrones among other film and TV projects.
Over the following months, I spoke with a handful of musicians about their experiences with tarot and its relation to power for the oppressed and outcast, and observed Khan reading their cards. “This is basically just a language, and if you read the language, then it shows you the truth,” Khan says. “It’s the illuminated path.”
“The Fool!” Khan beams, flipping over the card chosen by experimental singer-songwriter Sudan Archives. “That means you’re starting on your path.” She glows with excitement. “That’s true, I am at the start of my art,” she smiles. “You have to learn how to have a sense of humour at the beginning of your career because you have to be humble, grateful.” The next card, however, reveals what she thinks of herself. “The devil!” she laughs. In the Black Power deck, cult R&B hero Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, a theatrical outsider and hero of Khan’s, represents the devil. “This card represents creating without any fear,” he says. “Just doing what your gut is telling you to do.”
That description resonates with Sudan as well. “I do think I’m kind of crazy sometimes,” she says. You wouldn’t tell it from her blissfully calm energy, as entrancing and magnetic as her North and West African-inspired compositions. The final card of the standard reading, which represents Sudan’s true self, is revealed to be Alice Coltrane, this deck’s Star. As it turns out, Sudan connects here deeply as well. The jazz legend’s ashram has been a source of conversation in the violinist’s life for the last few months. Where Coltrane incorporates classical Indian music and culture into her own, Parks has studied Sudanese music and found power in its roots.
From there, the reading gets more personal, with Khan illustrating how the deck can help users answer questions they might have, to look deeper into their own feelings. Sudan asks for advice on how to stay true to one’s natural art. “You don’t want to lose that organic process when you have people talking in your ear,” she says. Khan flips the Tina Turner card, or Strength, the perfect answer. The card depicts the icon sticking her head in a lion’s mouth, representing not only the ability to take major risks, but to let the beast speak from within one’s self. “I’ll never forget that. I’m a beast! Tina Turner!” Sudan exclaims.
Tarot has been a frequent presence in Meredith Graves’ life. In fact, she occasionally reads cards herself. “I’ve had my tarot read by everyone from my dearest witch-sistren to elderly Catholic mystic clairvoyants,” she says. Like Khan, Graves’ interest in the mystic and occult has been lifelong, an escape from an often strict surrounding. “I came out of the broom closet in eighth grade when a Pentecostal girl in my class tried to get me in trouble with the school principal for allegedly casting spells on people,” she laughs. She’s also quick to focus on the fact that tarot, in her experience, acts as a guide to people seeking to clarify things they already feel within themselves. Khan’s near-ritualistic beginning of each reading echoes that sentiment: “It’s not fortune telling. I’m just going to tell you what’s happening right now.”
Graves has followed her own illuminated outsider’s path; once primarily known for fronting noise punk outfit Perfect Pussy, she’s now made her name as a journalist, essayist, indie record label and publishing house head, and more. She too has studied Jodorowsky’s works, and found empowerment in his “psychomagic” esoterica. “People who are serious about divination understand that the only sure way to predict the future is to create it,” she says. “Now that's empowering.” The Black Power Tarot deck, Graves adds, holds that empowerment in the face of oppression. In fact, she ties together art-making and activism in a tidy similarity. “The trance-state required to paint, or draw, or read cards with focus and intensity has always been a liberation praxis,” she says. “The meaning is found in the action and not the final result.”
Weyes Blood and King Khan huddle together over a high table, sifting through the deck. The first card turned, meant to represent what the world thinks of her, is Tupac, or the Hanged Man. “People get really scared when they get the Hanged Man,” Khan explains, “but he has chosen to hang himself upside down so that he views the world completely differently.” The deep meditation and unique perspective matches the understanding of Natalie Mering’s powerful records.
When it comes to what she thinks of herself, Mering flips over the Devil. “So the devil is a good thing, because it’s fearless?” she asks, delighted by the prospect. Khan notes the two minions connected by soft leather leashes, that the card is focused less on what one “should” do, and more on the importance of following one’s gut in art. “I can’t stay within the constructs of societal expectations,” Mering agrees. Next, she shuffles the deck again and asks a more personal question. The first card this time is Marie Laveau, the High Priestess. The so-called ‘Witch Queen of New Orleans’, Laveau legendarily used her magic to set a falsely imprisoned black man free. The Priestess acts as the spiritual mother, the deepest compassion – an important step for the artist, Khan stresses. On the next card is Philip Kelan Cohran, the Hermit, representing a need to find meaning on one’s own. Again, the deck emphasizes balance, of knowing one’s self even when you stand on the outside.
Meeting backstage after a performance by the Thurston Moore Group, former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore needs little prompting to connect the value of the tarot to escapism from the traditionally structured understandings of art today. “Today, many celebrities work with publicists, ghost writers, and managers and can tell their own fortunes to the world,” he says. “They make up what they want the world to know about them whether it’s truth or not. Games of chance (like tarot) are interesting because they offer more intimate, ancient concepts to consider with no particular timeline.”
Multiple members of Moore’s tour crew have taken to bringing a tarot deck along for the ride. In the late hours on tour bus rides or backstage, they’d share readings. Moore also grew up in the South, influenced deeply by African American music, matching Khan’s own connections to art, politics, and mysticism. “North American history and it’s connectedness to music is indeed very powerful, and the Black Power Tarot deck is an interesting look at these important figures,” Moore says. He even has an ideal draw from the deck, a set of cards he notates for ultra-specificity: “I might hope for the earth-bound Queen of Pentacles to keep it real, the King of Cups who is deeply caring, and the Queen of Cups because she reminds me of my love, Eva, and her emotional intelligence and aspirations to be a healing force in the universe whether or not she is recognized for it. I would hope to turn over the Nine of Pentacles as I understand that card represents the rewards that come from doing work and making the right decisions, which I feel I have done by following my heart and not listening to those those cruel intruders in my life who have betrayed and threatened my life’s work with harmful gossip to the whirlwind of society.”
King Khan’s Black Power Tarot deck is available here