Last April one of the highlights of the 28th annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland was the appearance of poet-writer-conceptualist Sekou Sundiata as our special guest at our now-annual Jazz Meets Hip Hop evening. What began eight years ago as our effort at bridging the gap between our festival’s core music, jazz, and the late-20th century music phenomenon known as hip hop and a means of showing the commonalities and root source relationships between the two genres has now blossomed into an essential annual component of the festival. Throughout these eight years the one constant has been our music director for that evening, drummer-percussionist Bill Ransom. Working closely with Bill we’ve engaged rappers, turntablists, and a variety of instrumentalists steeped in both genres as guest collaborators with Bill’s core ensemble to present evenings that were decidedly more jazz in their leanings but that boasted a vibrant hip hop component as well. A few years ago, inspired by his two amazing CDs Long Story Short and The Blue Oneness of Dreams, and having met the man through my occasional working relationship with the Brooklyn-based arts presenting organization 651 Arts, Sekou Sundiata was invited to participate in Jazz Meets Hip Hop. On the occasion of the Langston Hughes Centennial Sekou and I co-produced an amazing evening of poetry and music for 651 Arts at the St. Ann’s space in the lower Brooklyn area near the river known as DUMBO. I was eager to get Sekou into the Jazz Meets Hip Hop mix because although he was neither a rapper nor a product of hip hop culture, the relationship of his brilliant performance poetry style (many remember his kinetic performances and out-of-their-league maturity alongside the other fairly green performance poets on Russell Simons Def Poetry Jam on HBO) to hip hop — a relationship not unlike that of jazz master and emerging artist — compelled his participation in our series. So powerful was his first appearance, which also included his music director at the time pianist-keyboardist Marc Cary (another true seeker), that we brought him back for a joyous return — this time working alongside a rapper — for the 2007 edition of Jazz Meets Hip Hop.
I also felt a closeness to Sekou from his very unique relationship with good friend and fellow WPFW programmer Katea Stitt. Katea was one of the real beacons of my 18 years on the WPFW airways. In 2002 Katea, her then significant other Sven Abow, their lovely daughter Johanna, Suzan and I traveled to Fes, Morocco to produce some special programming for WPFW from the annual World Sacred Music Festival. We returned the following year to do likewise at the Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco. Backing up a bit to Sekou, about a decade prior when the poet was in desparate need of a kidney transplant it was Katea Stitt who gave him that wonderful gift of life. Katea had provided Sekou with management services for years; so I felt an even greater sense of closeness to this incredible poet. Thus the shock was doubly deep when Sekou passed on to ancestry last summer after suffering a major heart trauma. In September, 2003 I interviewed Sekou for the former webzine Africana.com. You may have missed that piece so as The Independent Ear’s way of remembering Sekou Sundiata, here’s a re-print of that piece.
The Africana Q&A: Sekou Sundiata
by Willard Jenkins
Poet Sekou Sundiata is in the vanguard of American poets. He writes, records, and performs on a broad range of topics, including: growing up in Harlem, Amadou Diallo, slavery & reparations, Mary J. Blige, making bombs from bullshit, and Jimi Hendrix – in short, he has referred to his style as "Rhythm & News." He delivers his brand of R&N in a subtle, baritone voice that won’t blast you out of your seat, but will leave you with an impression of great substance.
Sundiata, a tall, medium built man of chocolate complexion prone to wearing hip hats (dig the great red straw on the cover of his album Long Story Short), is a man of easy manner, good humor and deceptively languid eyes that somewhat mask the intensity and keen socio-cultural awareness within. Blessing The Boats, Sundiata’s current one-man production, deals with his past as a kidney disease survivor and kidney transplant recipient, an understandably essential element of his life.
We spoke with Sekou from his Brooklyn home about the state of performance poetry, his current show, his inspirations, his recording career, and the planning process for his forthcoming major production.
Willard Jenkins: In light of the seemingly increasing currency of poetry slams, culminating in HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, on which you made a notable appearance, do you consider yourself a performance poet?
Sekou Sundiata: No, not at all; this thing about spoken word artists and performance poets, I think of it mainly as marketing categories. I’m satisfied with just calling myself a poet. The way I came through, in terms of studying poetry and the people I came up with in poetry, we all identified ourselves with the whole tradition of poetry, going back to ancient times. Performance poetry, spoken word and all that, I think that goes back to… I don’t even know if you can go back 25 years with that.
WJ: I guess it’s kinda like musicians who have little use for categories and would prefer to be just known as a "musician" rather than an X-category musician.
Sekou: Exactly, and also under the banner of performance poet and spoken word artists, some people are poets and some are not; some are actors, comedians… and that’s okay, but its very different from thinking of what tradition you ground yourself in as an artist.
WJ: What is the current state of performance poetry? Has it been taken to new heights through venues like Def Poetry Jam?
Sekou: That’s a big question [chuckles], I don’t even know if I can assess that, if we talk about performance poetry or even more especially spoken word, there seems to be a lot happening, a lot of different types of venues and opportunities: slams, open readings, open mic, etc. But in the larger world of poetry, including poets who are not performers but who do read, it’s always been one of America’s best kept secrets. There have always been thousands of readings each year, many poetry festivals and series at universities across the country. But it looks pale when you compare it to a mass market-driven, commercial art kind of thing.
WJ: Certain elements of the so-called mainstream might have you think that there is increasing energy for poetry being performed onstage, in light of things like Def Poetry Jam. Where would you say Def Poetry Jam fits in all this?
Sekou: I think there is a level of activity — some of which I think relates to poetry and some of which doesn’t, but that falls under the category of performance or spoken word. I think that has a great deal of visibility. So what many people mean when they say poetry, they mean that and only that. There is a much broader world of poetry and poets that has a long-standing tradition in this country. It’s very highly organized. That hasn’t enjoyed as much attention as the spoken word realm, but it is durable; you would think it was a secret.
WJ: You’ve worked with bands in the past. What kind of ensemble are you working with these days?
Sekou: I’m in a transition period. I’ve been working with one band for the past five or six years and I’m getting ready to begin another project that is more related to improvisationally-based music, which I guess some people would call jazz, but I shy away from that term as a descriptor because I think at this point in time when you say that, unless you can really explain what you’re talking about to people [jazz] means so many different things to different people, and so many things fall under that heading now. Things that I never would have thought of as jazz before you see programmed in a jazz festival for example. But the key thing I’m working with now — I’ve been working with it all these years but I’m really trying to highlight it now — is this marriage of composition of black music, especially music we call jazz. One of the cornerstones is this meeting of composition and improvisation; what is scripted, what is given, and then what happens in the moment.
WJ: When you say improvisation, are you suggesting that there could conceivably be situations where you would be working with a band and you might go onto the stage without any kind of blueprint and basically freely improvise?
Sekou: No, there’s always a blueprint, and I improvise now, meaning that things are not laid out; meaning that — in terms of the texts that I’ve written, I add lines, I take away lines, I repeat lines, I change structures around in the course of one performance, I change the way one piece flows and segueways into another, in terms of what’s written and how I perform it, all those techniques, I do all of that now, I’m just looking to do it in a more heightened way — always with some sort of blueprint in mind. It’s not just starting out completely from scratch.
WJ: Is there any relationship between your work and rap?
Sekou: I don’t know, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is the most obvious — spoken text over music. On my last recording I used some "hip hop beats" but — first of all I don’t really rhyme, sometimes I rhyme but it’s not a goal, to rhyme. My approach to the beat is really displaced, off-centered, as opposed to kind of loked-inside the beat; so only in a very general sense [is there a relationship to hip hop]. In terms of theme or thematic approach, I like to think to some extent what I might have in common with an MC is that I’m trying to bring the news of the day.
WJ: I ask that in light of Def Poetry Jam being a program that is centered around poetry and poets but is hosted by Mos Def, who is identified as a hip hop artist, though it is clear that he has a lot more to say than most of the pop-level hip hop artists. Are there any correlations between what you do and what he does, for example?
Sekou: Mos Def does sort of stand apart from the crowd in his knd of rootedness in black culture and black tradition, you certainly hear that in his work and that’s always been at the center of my work as well. I think that’s something you find in the most conscious hip hop artists, this idea that we didn’t just grow whole, we come out of something, and that there’s a rootedness there and at the center of that root is black culture and tradition. By that I mean particularly black music traditions, black language, black linguistic strategies, humor, what we think is hip and beautiful. If you listen to some of Mos Def’s rhymes or some of the ways he uses language we could have a conversation about those linguistic strategies.
WJ: In your pieces you write and speak on the human condition. What has to happen before an inspiration kicks in to energize you to write?
Sekou: Not much [laughs]; it doesn’t take much man, I mean at this point poetry is an art but it’s also a craft, which is to say it’s also a practice. Part of that practice is that in some way I feel like I’m always writing. I’m always collecting lines, images, and titles… in many ways it’s a way of life; you’ve got to be open to what the moment to moment possibilities of any day are. I was laughing, but it’s really true. it doesn’t really take much. I just got through teaching a class this summer and ended up talking about Parliament Funkadelic. There’s a tune that P-Funk has where they sing that the funk not only moves, but it removes. And I just off-handedly said, ‘boy that would make a nice epigram for the beginning of a poem!’ In my mind it’s always like that, its always kinda churning.
WJ: One influence and reference in your work is an Afro-Latin sensibility. I guess that stems from your coming up in Harlem. Living in New York you can’t help but come under that influence in your art.
Sekou: Yeah, and even inside of that even more particular; I was born in Harlem Hospital, lived in Harlem and I grew up in East Harlem, so my closest friends were black and Puerto Rican kids. I grew up at a time when there was a very close relationship between blacks and Puerto Ricans and Cubans. We wore the same clothes, we dated each other, we ate at each other’s houses, we all danced to the same music… All the black kids I knew… if you couldn’t dance to Latin music you couldn’t dance. It wasn’t enough that you could do the boogaloo, you had to be able to Latin too. So we went to the Latin dances and our heroes, as well as the Motown heroes, were also Eddie Palmieri, [Johnny] Pacheco, Tito Puente, Johnny Colon, the Lebron Brothers, all that stuff… We bought those records, went to the Palladium and Hunt’s Point Palace… We couldn’t understand a word of the lyrics they were singing [laughs] but we’d sing ’em all in our beat up Spanish and we’d sing them from our hearts.
So I think about it, in some way, Spanish — as it was spoken by Puerto Ricans and Cubans in New York — is somehow a part of my linguistic vocabulary. Some of my first thoughts come in Spanish, and I’m not fluent in Spanish! I don’t know if that’s true in generations after mine. This kind of split happened between Latinos and black people, much of it in a very false split for political reasons having to do with the War on Poverty and the way money went down, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think you have that kind of cultural unity [now], although hip hop does bring people together. One thing I love about Latino culture, to this day, they really are into live music. And they get dressed up, any day of the week, especially at the Copa where top bands play, people get dressed up and they go dancing.
In October, 2003 Sekou was in residence at the Kennedy Center for a project related to his kidney disease and subsequent transplant titled Blessing The Boats.
WJ: What do you generally do in the course of such a residency?
Sekou: In this case, with this particular piece, which is my show Blessing the Boats, a contemplation of my years of dealing with kidney disease, dialysis, transplantation… This work falls into this category – art and public dialogue; so that as the piece travels, I usually do a residency which involves hooking up with either the state or regional organ procurement network, National Kidney Foundation, medical schools, and they bring nurses, surgeons and other health care professionals. We do panel discussions and forums, generally educating and promoting the idea of organ and tissue donation. There’s an organization called MOTTEP, which was founded by a Dr. Calendar in DC, which really focuses on organ and tissue transplantation. It’s a national organization, especially around African Americans and kidney disease, given the fact that African Americans have the highest rate of kidney disease in the United States, and also the highest rate of kidney disease in the world, which I just found out in the last few months and which is really astounding. Even more so than black people from elsewhere in the Diaspora! So those are the kinds of things we’ll be doing; it’s a one-man show, I use recorded music and really beautiful video projections,
Fortunately Sekou next realized a dizzingly brilliant major performance piece called Dream State, a potent commentary on the human condition that employed a band, vocalists, and extraordinary video projects before he passed on to ancestry. You owe it to yourself to seek out his recordings The Blue Oneness of Dreams and Long Story Short.