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Sundiata, Sekou 1948–2007

Sekou Sundiata 1948–2007

Poet, performance artist, playwright, musician

Sekou Sundiata first came to nationwide attention when he was featured on the opening program of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, hosted by Bill Moyers. A professor of literature and creative writing at New York's New School, Sundiata created and performed critically acclaimed theater pieces incorporating poetry, dance, drama, and music. Deeply rooted in the black American experience, over the years his voice evolved from anger and outrage to hope and grace. His work has been compared to that of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Last Poets, and he provided a link between the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and spoken-word artists of the early twenty-first century.

Found Poetry in the Projects

Sekou Sundiata was born Robert Franklin Feaster on August 22, 1948, and raised in the housing projects of East Harlem and the Bronx. As a boy he loved to read but, as he told Moyers, “poetry didn't grab me, speak to me in any way.” Then in the late 1960s poets began writing about the projects with “some reflection, some introspection.” They “started naming the world in particular kinds of ways, foregrounding things that were in the background in school.” And they used words “I didn't know you could say in a poem. It enabled me, opened up a door. Wait a minute, there's poetry in the language I speak.” Sundiata was quoted in Black Issues Book Review: “When I was a teenager in El Barrio, I would read [Chilean poet Pablo] Neruda out loud, in Spanish. The beauty of the language communicated something to me even before I understood what the words meant.” He adopted his African name in homage to Sekou Toure, Guinea's most famous president, and the legendary Sundiata Keita, king of Mali-Baraka.

From the start Sundiata combined his poetry with music. He told Moyers in the book The Language of Life, “the culture of the black Baptist church both in the North and in the South greatly influenced my fascination with language, with drama, with theater, with music.…” His poetry was infused with the call-and-response rhythms of the preacher, the organ, the gospel choir, and the congregation, influenced by the music of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Smokey Robinson, and Jimi Hendrix, and grounded in the African “oralizing” tradition.

Sundiata told the Christian Science Monitor: “By the time I got to college, I was very angry about America.” With fellow City College of New York (CCNY) student Louis Reyes Rivera, he founded the school's first black student newspaper and agitated for an open admissions policy. Sundiata's mentors at CCNY included Toni Cade Bambara and June Jordan, and he began performing his poetry in public.

After overcoming heroin addiction in his early twenties, Sundiata became a fixture in New York City's poetry, theater, and music scenes. In 1976 he directed a two-day collaborative commemoration of the black struggle for freedom and human rights, called “The Sounds of the Memory of Many Living People (1863- 1876/1963-1976).” He helped establish the Calabash Poets Workshop, which between 1977 and 1983 produced regular programs encompassing a variety of arts and culminated in a three-year attempt to form an independent Black Writers Union.

Joined the New School Faculty

Sundiata was the New School's first writer-in-residence, and he stayed on as an instructor and professor. In 1989 he ignited a major controversy by drawing a large X across a caricature of a black man in an art show and signing his name to the deed.

Over the years Sundiata produced collaborations with musicians, dancers, and actors at CCNY's Aaron Davis Performing Arts Center. During the early 1980s he played there with his band Sekou and the Crew. His commission, The Mystery of Love, a “new music opera” featuring poetry, puppets, video, and a seventeen-member cast, was produced at the Aaron Davis Hall and revived by the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1994.

Sundiata told Moyers: “My poems are completely written out, then I add the oralizing aspect, using different rhythmic patterns or musical ideas grounded in the culture.…” Sundiata frequently toured the United States and abroad with his longtime collaborator, jazz trombonist Craig Harris, and the Black Coalition Orchestra, who performed with him on The Language of Life. He was an “oralizer” with the jazz group Cold Sweat and a member of the Black Rock Coalition. Over the years Sundiata performed with numerous artists including David Murray, Nona Hendryx, and Vernon Reid. He was featured on Russell Simmons's Def Poetry Jam on HBO, and excerpts from his production with John Leguizamo, Words in Your Face, were broadcast on PBS's Alive from Off Center.

Formed Record Labels

Sundiata collaborated with Harris on The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop. The play centered on three political activists—Music, Dancer, and Poet—and their friend Space, who betrayed them and then went mad. Circle opened to critical acclaim at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1993 and toured nationally.

In 1994 Sundiata and Bob Holman, director of the Nuyorican, formed a spoken-word label, Nu Yo Records, to record Sundiata's band dahdahdoodahdah. In 1997 he cofounded the spoken-word label Mouth Almighty and recorded The Blue Oneness of Dreams, which was nominated for a Grammy. Longstoryshort was recorded for Ani DeFranco's Righteous Babe label. DeFranco had been Sundiata's poetry student at the New School, and in 2001 Sundiata and his band accompanied her on her Rhythm and News Tour.

Udu, produced in 2001, was a staged oratorio with music by Harris. Named for the Nigerian Ibo drum that was said to carry the voices of the ancestors, Udu was based on the slave narrative “The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa, the African, 1789” and on journalist Samuel Cotton's “The Silent Terror,” an investigation of slavery in present-day Mauritania.

At a Glance …

Born Robert Franklin Feaster on August 22, 1948, in Harlem, NY; died July 18, 2007, in Valhalla, NY; son of Virginia Myrtle Singleton Feaster; adopted the name Sekou Sundiata; married Maurine ("Kazi") Knighton; children: daughter Myisha Gomez and stepdaughters Dina Gomez, Aida Riddle. Education: City College of New York, BA, English, 1972; City University of New York, MA, creative writing, 1979.

Career: Performance poet, playwright, musician, lecturer, New York, NY, and touring, 1970s-2007; Eugene Lang College, New School University, New York, NY, writer-in-residence, instructor, professor of English literature, poetry, and creative writing, 1980s-2007; Nu Yo Records, cofounder, 1994; Mouth Almighty Records, cofounder, 1997; Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, FL, master artist-in-residence; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, visiting professor; University of Texas, Austin, visiting professor of humanities, 2006-07.

Memberships: Calabash Poets Workshop, cofounder.

Awards: New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) for The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop, 1992; AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.) Awards for best ensemble performance, best music direction, and best playwright for The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop; Columbia University, Revson Fellowship; Sundance Institute, Screenwriting Fellowship; Lambent Fellowship in the Arts, 2007.

Suffered Kidney Failure

In 1995 Sundiata was diagnosed with kidney disease resulting from untreated high blood pressure. He was on dialysis for a year and a half. Five friends stepped forward to donate a kidney and, miraculously, four of them were matches. In January of 1999 he received a kidney from his manager, Katea Stitt, daughter of the jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt. Sundiata spent the next year in and out of hospitals until his transplant finally stabilized. Then, less than a month after his last surgery, he was driving to his comeback concert in New England when his car skidded off an icy highway. An unknown woman found him, called 911, and drove away. Sundiata's neck was broken.

While undergoing months of painful recovery Sundiata wrote the short stories and poems that evolved into his first-ever autobiographical work and his first solo theater piece, blessing the boats. The commissioned work took its title from a poem by Lucille Clifton, who had also undergone a kidney transplant. It premiered in November of 2002 at Aaron Davis Hall and toured nationally to more than thirty cities. Sundiata teamed up with the National Kidney Foundation and organ donor agencies, accompanying his performances with public symposia and community events to raise awareness about kidney disease and organ donation. In March of 2005 he produced the Gift of Life Concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, followed by a three-week run of blessing the boats.

Sundiata was in the hospital on September 11, 2001, but the events of that day were the genesis for his last great work. When he was growing up, Alaska and Hawaii had just become states and everyone wondered whether there would be a 51st state. Commissioned by WaterWorks, an initiative of Aaron Davis Hall, the 51st (dream) state evolved out of dialogues on college campuses into a multimedia exploration of post-9/11 America. In it Sundiata said: “In the age of American empire, the state of war will be the 51st state,” oiled by “heartbreak, manufactured news, disinformation, an unprecedented assault on thought and speech.” Sundiata asked whether America's ambitions of empire would “cost America its soul.” Four vocalists and various instruments performed a range of African, Arabic, Indian, and Asian compositions by jazz composer Graham Haynes. Videotaped testimonies and filmed images of a dancing black man were projected. It premiered at Stanford Lively Arts in April of 2006 and toured nationally and to Australia over the following year. Randy Gener in American Theater called the 51st (dream) state “the gorgeous State of the Union address that America would deserve—if it had the nerve to vote into presidential office a conscience-stricken soul-searchin' sweet-talkin' funk-jazz mack-daddy philosopher born in the projects.”

During 2006 and 2007 Sundiata was a visiting professor at the University of Texas. The Austin American-Statesman wrote: “In the spirit of civic engagement, Sundiata connected with Austin's minority communities, nurtured budding thinkers and artists, and hosted ‘citizenship potluck dinners’ designed to consider the question of American identity.” On Lincoln's birthday he brought impromptu theater to the Texas State Capitol Rotunda, inviting passersby to read from the nation's seminal documents.

Died at Fifty-Eight

In June of 2007 Sundiata performed blessing the boats at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina and delivered a keynote presentation at the 13th Annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed International Conference in Minneapolis. He fell ill while preparing for the European premiere of the 51st (dream) state. Sundiata died of heart failure on July 18, 2007, at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York.

Vernon Reid wrote in the Village Voice that Sundiata was “truly a great man, an artist whose incisive analysis of modern society was equaled by a deep compassion for, and understanding of, the human condition. The sound of Sekou's voice was iconic and electrifying.… It was the sound of unflinching honesty, warmheartedness, wry comedy, righteous anger, and elegiac longing.”

With their dependence on vocalization, few of Sundiata's poems were published. One of his best-known, “Blink Your Eyes,” began: “I was on my way to see my woman / but the Law said I was on my way / thru a red light red light red light / and if you saw my woman / you could understand, / I was just being a man. / It wasn't about no light / it was about my ride / … / I could wake up in the morning / without a warning / and my world could change.” The poem's refrain repeated “All depends, all depends on the skin / all depends on the skin you're living in.”

Selected writings

Books

Free!, Shamal Books, 1977.

“The Politics of Writing,” in Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists, ed., Brian Wallis, MIT Press, 1987.

“Mandela in Harlem. (June, 1991),” “King,” “Philosophy of the Kool: A Blues for Poets,” in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, eds., Miguel Algarin and Bob Holman, Henry Holt, 1994.

Recordings

(With others) The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, BBD Audio, 1995.

Philosophy of the Cool, Nu Yo, 1995.

The Blue Oneness of Dreams (includes “Space: A Monologue”), Mouth Almighty/Mercury, 1997.

Longstoryshort, Righteous Babe, 2000.

Videorecordings

(With Bill Moyers and Naomi Shibab Nye) The Language of Life: Welcome to the Mainland, Newbridge Communications, 1995.

Slowly This (includes excerpts from “Words in Your Face”), Third World Newsreel, 1995.

Performance pieces

The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop, 1993.

Udu, 2001.

blessing the boats, 2002.

the 51st (dream) state, 2006.

Sources

Books

Moyers, Bill, “Sekou Sundiata,” in The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (includes “Blink Your Eyes,” “Dijerrido”), Doubleday, 1995, pp. 391-401.

Periodicals

American Theatre, May-June 1994, pp. 41-42; April 2006, p. 23.

Austin American-Statesman (TX), September 10, 2007, p. E1.

Black Issues Book Review, March 2001, p. 28.

Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 2007, p. 19.

Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2007, p. B9.

New York Amsterdam News, July 26-August 1, 2007, pp. 11, 25.

New York Beacon, July 26-August 1, 2007, p. 27.

New York Times, December 6, 1989, p. B1; November 4, 2006, p. B7; July 20, 2007, p. A21.

Village Voice, July 25-31, 2007, p. 16.

Online

“Performance Poet Sekou Sundiata,” NPR,http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4561097 (accessed January 24, 2008).

“Remembering Sekou Sundiata,” Bill Moyers Journal,http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/blog/2007/07/remembering_sekou_sundiata.html (accessed November 18, 2007).

“Sekou Sundiata,” MultiArts Projects & Productions (MAPP), http://www.multiartsprojects.com/artist_index.php?artistid_11&sectionid_108 (accessed November 17, 2007).

“Sekou Sundiata: Defying Labels,” Poets.org,http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5809 (accessed November 18, 2007).

“Sekou Sundiata: Poet, Historian, Musician, Signifier,” Righteous Babe Records,http://www.righteousbabe.com/artists/sekou/index.asp (accessed November 18, 2007).

—Margaret Alic

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