The untimely death last week of the visionary activist, poet, playwright, songwriter, educator, and vocalist Sekou Sundiata is a terrible shock to the many communities that his extraordinary life and art touched. Sekou 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, its deep melody the sound of a griot for the ages. It was the sound of unflinching honesty, warmheartedness, wry comedy, righteous anger, and elegiac longing. It was as distinctive as Coltrane’s horn or Jimi’s guitar. Sekou loved everyday people, their madness and occasional genius, their inexplicable and contradictory natures.
I was introduced to Sekou in the early 1980s by the great drummer J.T. Lewis, who was raving about an amazing poet he was playing with at City College. I went to the gig and was mesmerized by a tall, dashing figure who had the audience in the palms of his large, expressive hands. His band Sekou and the Crew was funky and edgy, like Gil Scott Heron’s Midnight Band, but not at all derivative. After the show, J.T. introduced me. Sekou became a mentor and a close friend.
Sekou was a witness to and part of the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s. Despite the many setbacks that plagued and stymied the black-empowerment movements, he remained a steadfast opponent of racism and fascism in all their hydra-like forms, and was an indefatigable optimist with regard to the future of black people. Unlike many black-power ideologues, Sekou’s love wasn’t solely reserved for people of African descent, because he internalized Dr. King’s message of love for people of all colors. Sekou was also a great romantic, a trenchant observer of the mysteries and misunderstandings that exist between men and women, themes explored in poems like “Forsaken Sea” and “Sweet Tooth”—poems I heard performed many times, but which always seemed new because the truth never grows old.
Sekou was the first person from whom I heard about a drug named crack, the first person who told what it was doing to his beloved Harlem. The nation would soon follow. I also first learned about the emerging AIDS crisis from him. He always had his ear to the street, listening to its shadowy music, shifting rhythms, flows and currents.
Sekou had a magnetic leadership quality that centered the energies of the artists he collaborated with. In Craig Harris, the master trombonist, composer, and didgeridoo-ist, Sekou found a musical soulmate. Their play collaboration, The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop, looked unsparingy at what happened to the children of Martin’s dreams and Malcolm’s grassroots. The lyric prose work “Space, a Monologue” lies at its center. It’s a tour de force in the voice of a madman making mad sense, an incredible stream of black consciousness that brings together a butt-naked Marilyn Monroe in Bird’s hotel room, Afrika Bambaataa, Nat Turner, and Martha and the Vandellas. Astounding.
Nothing slowed Sekou down—not a kidney transplant, nor the terrible car accident that happened right after. Sekou transformed these harrowing experiences into his solo masterwork Blessing of Boats, performed nationally to the acclaim his work always deserved. It’s hard to imagine a world without Sekou Sundiata in it. At the end of “Space, a Monologue,” he says: “Let this be my epitaph: ‘His heart to the very end was in the left place.'” And there he is, in the hearts of those he loved, especially his beloved Maureen. In the hearts of those he taught, and the ones he touched with his beautiful works, all of us who heard him laugh or saw him dance at those great parties uptown or heard him speak truth to power without clichés. Sekou Sundiata lives inside of us now and will never die.
Musician-composer Vernon Reid is guitarist for the band Living Colour and co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition.