Blues, jazz, funk, and Afro-Caribbean percussion surround the soulful voice of Harlem-born poet Sekou Sundiata on his recordings, The Blue Oneness of Dreams and Longstoryshort. His words speak of black culture and tradition, often with a political edge. “People be droppin’ revolution like it was a pick-up line,” he says in Longstoryshort. “You wouldn’t use that word if you knew what it meant.”
Sekou Sundiata, (born Robert Feaster), was born on August 22, 1948, in Harlem, New York. Sekou taught English literature at the New School for Social Research, Sundiata became quite a performer in his own right as well, usually leading a band on frequent club dates reminiscent of June Jordan, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), and Quincy Troupe. Sundiata began writing for the musical theater, and premiered The Mystery of Love in 1994, with songwriting help from Doug Booth. The duo also teamed up on Sundiata’s debut album, The Blue Oneness of Dreams, with Booth contributing both songs and his soulful vocals to the project. The album was released on Polygram in 1997; A Long Story Short followed in early 2000.
Sundiata recorded and performed his poetry with such renowned musicians as Craig Harris, David Murray, Nona Hendryx, and Vernon Reid. However, he did not consider himself a performance poet. “This thing about spoken word artists and performance poets, ” he said in a 2003 interview, “I think of it mainly as marketing categories. I’m satisfied with just calling myself a poet.”
His designation as a poet also satisfied New York City’s New School University, where Sundiata was the first Writer-in-Residence. He taught literature and poetry classes, despite never having published a book of poems. Among his students was folk-rocker Ani DiFranco, whose Righteous Babe label released Longstoryshort. DiFranco has said that Sundiata “taught me everything I know about poetry. ” The two performed together in twenty-three cities during her “Rhythm and News Tour” in 2001.
Despite touring and performing with musicians, Sundiata didn’t consider himself a “crossover” artist. For him, being a poet necessarily implied a deep engagement with several genres. “It’s damn near impossible to understand what contemporary black poets are doing without understanding what’s going on with black music and its relationship to black speech and black literature, ” he said.
In 2003, Sundiata toured the United States again, performing his one-man theatrical piece Blessing the Boats, a chronicle of his five-year battle with kidney failure, and his eventual recovery thanks to a transplant donated by his friend and manager Katea Stitt, daughter of jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt. The piece blends monologues, readings, stand-up comedy, spoken word, and storytelling with recorded music and video projections.
The poet’s most recent theatrical piece, The America Project, contemplating America’s place in the world, featured poems and a cycle of songs, accompanied by images and a ten-member ensemble of musicians and vocalists.
Television journalist Bill Moyers, who featured Sundiata in the PBS series on poetry, The Language of Life, has said of the poet: “His music comes from so many places it is impossible to name them all. But I will wager that if we could trace their common origin, we’d arrive at the headwaters of the soul. Listen carefully and he’ll take you there.”
Sundiata died of heart failure early in the morning on July 18th, 2007.