Soundtracking the Resistance - An Interview with Rev. Sekou

The Declining Empire

May 18, 2018 By Stephen Mayne Web Exclusive
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Don't worry, Trump gets a look in, but this week we're giving our time over to musician (and just about every other job you can think of) Rev. Sekou to discuss his protest songs, musical heritage, and political activism.

The Big Event

The Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is the kind of person the term multi-hyphenate is made for. As his name suggests, he's an ordained minister on top of a career as a writer, theologian, social activist, and artist.

Music is the vocation of choice for now. Sekou put out The Revolution Has Come as part of Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost in 2016 and launched a punishing tour schedule since the release of his solo debut, In Times Like These, a year later. A mix of blues, gospel, country, and soul, it's a protest record drawing on family and musical heritage. He finds inspiration from everything including his upbringing, theological ideas, James Baldwin, and a Bob Marley re-imagining along the way.

It came from a simple premise. "I wanted to capture the sonic landscape of the rich tradition of the mighty people who produced me." Following the 2016 record, his solo follow-up has a more personal origin. "If the first was for the movement, the second was for my grandmother. I recorded the record in Coldwater, Mississippi and I'm from Arkansas so I would go to my grandmother's grave and go get that dirt between my toes."

As personal as the songs feel, it's very much a record aimed at the distressing world around us. Using art to address this is important to Sekou. "I believe the task of the artist is to remind people that monsters are not new and they will not have the last word."

Music is just the latest way in which he's chosen to tackle injustices. Where bad things happen, he usually follows. Work helping to rebuild Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010 sits alongside campaigning to end the Iraq War, aiding New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, training pastors in his brand of non-violent protest, and highlighting the situation facing Palestinian refugees.

When his work as a Pastor across the country is put on top of a spell as a visiting scholar at Stanford, multiple essays on faith, culture and politics, and a commitment to frontline political action, it's a wonder he finds time for music at all. There was a catalyst though. "After the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, I had the blues and I needed to sing."

This shift didn't come from nowhere. "I've been singing in some form all of my life. I went to college on a vocal performing scholarship. I also had a tragic band called Afrika spelled with a k that was this ungodly fusion of punk and hip-hop. I pray to God none of that ever surfaces."

Despite other commitments, Sekou is settling into the life of a musician. "They still let me preach every now and then and I'll continue to write. Probably in a while I'll settle down in a teaching position somewhere but still tour." He seems to be enjoying the change. "At this point I'm kind of a full-time touring musician. And I started at 45 which is hilarious."

The reaction to his musical mix of the personal and political helps keep him on the road. "We play in London and people cry, we play in Sweden and people cry. Wherever I've been, people have responded to the music in a really, really powerful way."

It's in America this has been most evident, particularly where the music of a black, left-wing preacher might not be expected to go down quite so well. "We just played a show in Waverly, Alabama in a little town of about a 100 people. I'm walking through the crowd and three or four good old boys walk up to me and say [he adopts an Alabaman accent], 'Goddamnit, I just had a spiritual experience you son of a bitch. You touched my soul.'"

Another example Sekou cites is a show in Joplin, Missouri when he was given a heads up beforehand. "The presenter is like, 'Hey, the people who come to our shows really love music but most of them are probably Trump supporters, I just thought you should know that.'" The warning turned out to be unnecessary. "We did a song called 'Goodbye Baby.' It's an elegy to mothers who've lost their sons to police violence and there wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Sekou sees these kinds of experiences as proof music can reach places his other work can't. "I don't necessarily feel called to be converting Trump supporters, but these two instances tell me that music does something else." Finding common ground for the shows is a big part of this success. "We begin every show by saying, 'do you want to get free,' and I think all of us want to get free."

In Times Like These is full of songs projecting that message. Album opener "Resist" is a good example, built around the line "we want freedom and we want it now." Facing hardship with defiance is what it's all about. "That's the black musical tradition. That's the blues, that's the spirituals. The spirituals say sometimes I feel like a motherless child, and the next verse will be glory hallelujah."

It all moves towards his ultimate aim. "I'm concerned with telling the truth about the darkness but never letting the darkness have the last word. That's the best of who black people have been in the United States."

The darkness is something he's faced personally. Arrested during the Ferguson protests, essentially for praying, he came very close to something even worse in Charlottesville last year. "Charlottesville broke something in me. I've never seen that kind of hate up front, so close, so raw." This led him to a new understanding of the controversial militant anti-fascist group Antifa and his own commitment to non-violence.

"My opinion of Antifa changed in Charlottesville because they saved my life. If it wasn't for Antifa, Nazis would have beat me to death. They protected that community." There's pragmatism in Sekou as well. He won't throw away allies because they disagree on methods. "I think we are at an historical moment where we need everybody. There has to be room at the table for everyone."

Non-violence is something he's recently examined. "A lot of people talk about how non-violence works and they hold up the U.S. and South Africa as examples, but when you look at the level of poverty and degradation in both of those communities, particularly among the black population, non-violence has worked for who? If the result is a neo-liberal project obsessed with privatization, militarization, and individualism, I'm not sure that's a victory. I'm still committed to non-violence but I do have deep suspicions. My faith exists in that kind of dissonance of grappling and trying to know what perhaps can never be known."

The ways in which even the best of intentions can go wrong shapes his approach to the struggle against President Trump. "Some of my leftist colleagues argue that we need the contradiction of Trump, that we need the level of repression to become so high the revolution happens. As a Pastor who has done so many funerals, who has run soup kitchens and food lines, served homeless people and seen the effects of recalcitrant governments and right-wing politics in the lives of people, I don't have room for that." It's the smaller things that matter for Sekou. "I want to see people live lives of decency, dignity and care. It feels inhumane to talk about the system, to talk about the river when people are drowning in the river."

As for where the U.S. is right now, he's under no illusions. "I think the election of Donald Trump is a reflection of the declining empire. I was not a Hillary supporter, let me make that abundantly clear, but the mere fact that she was more qualified than George Washington to be president and that she had to run against a buffoon says the empire is not even abiding by its own rules. That's the sign of a declining empire."

On "The Devil Finds Work," a track inspired by a James Baldwin essay of the same name, Sekou's lyrics include the line: "A house divided against itself will be torn asunder." These are dark times. He's happy to admit he doesn't know how any of this will play out but he won't fall into the trap of complacency or despair. "I don't know if we're going to win, I just know we're going to fight. I'm going to stay on the battlefield."

Song of the Week: Rev. Sekou - "In Times Like These"

"In times like these we need a miracle/Ain't nobody going to save us/We're the ones we've been waiting for." So goes the title track to Rev. Sekou's debut album. I mean, we had to choose this really. There are jabs at the uselessness of politicians and pain caused by preachers, and in amongst blaring horns, Sekou finds hope from within.

After all, as the song points out, it's "been 400 years and they still can't break us." If anyone needs inspiration to keep going, there's more than enough to be found here.

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