I met Sekou Sundiata five years after he saved my life. He was taller then I thought, and resonated an aura of cool that seemed indicative of an older generation of artist; jazz cats, old school poets, the people I wanted to be. So when I met him, I couldn’t help but act like a love struck fan. I tried to keep my cool, and for the most part I did, but it was a struggle.
Calling Sekou a poet, is like calling Michael Jordan a basketball player. It’s too mundane, too pedestrian. His craftsmanship of words, the way he cultivated the field of dreams, is something I will struggle to achieve for the rest of my life. I consider it a gift that he passed it down to me and an entire generation of spoken word poets. A lot of us don’t even know he’s our poetical father, or at the very least, a direct relative. That is the legacy of the word. When it’s passed for mouth to ear, sometimes the details get lost. Many poetry lovers will never have heard his name, or know of his work primarily because he didn’t publish. He was a writer, a teacher, a performer, who was much more interested building worlds on stage then on paper. He was a Griot, in every sense of the word. If he was fazed by this lack of appreciation, he never showed it, he just did the work.
Sekou made 2 cd’s. One of his students, Ani Defranco helped out when his 1st label closed. Righteous Babe went on to produced and market his 2nd CD the incredible "Long Story Short". We talked in depth about the experience, and where spoken word, and poetry was going. He graciously listened to all my thoughts, dreams, and concepts of my future work. When I told him about a poem I’d been laboring on for a year. I wanted to be done with it, to let it breath, how could I finish it, what should I do? He looks at me and smiled, and said “A year? Is that it? Brother, I have yet to write a poem that is finished.”
The conversation turned to politics, and he laid out what has become my principal philosophy for the world, and how we need to fix it. “Somehow, time has been broken, we live in the right now, and don’t look back. As long as we are living in the right now, we aren’t seeing the whole picture. So it’s the job of the poet to remind people to make them look at the past with an unflinching eye so we can better navigate the future” (That’s me paraphrasing).
Sekou passed away Wednesday after his long battle with some serious health issues. When I heard the news from a mutual friend, I couldn’t help but have this overwhelming sense of guilt, like I didn’t save him like he saved me. There was a time in my life when I lost, alone in a foreign city, no family, no money, no hope, the depression I was in was so thick I couldn’t think about anything but letting it all go. On a whim, I listened to a PBS special by Bill Moyers on Poetry, and heard Sekou. It was hearing his words, not just the poems but the interview that helped me find my way to the person I wanted to be. He told me there was power in my words, that I had something to say, and I should say it. And that changed my life.
I realize that guilt isn’t the proper emotion; sadness for his family and close friends, dispair and for the rest of the world who never got to see him in action, and the understanding that the sacred gift he gave was something meant to be passed.
Rest well brother. Ashe’