A Fire in Harlem - Tribute to Sekou Sundiata at Up South International Book Festival
On Friday, September 21, 2007, there was a fire in Harlem! A fire was created from the mouths, hearts, and minds of the artists who performed and read in tribute to the late, legendary poet and performer, Sekou Sundiata at the Up South International Book Festival at Harlem Stage at The Gatehouse. The entire festival this year was dedicated to the memory of Sekou Sundiata (1948-2007).
Around 7:40pm the program began with a graceful introduction by the mistress of ceremonies, Malaika Adero, founder of the Up South International Book Festival. Malaika informed the audience that the evening's program featuring Sonia Sanchez, Danny Simmons and Queen Esther, was in tribute to Sekou Sundiata, who had been a longtime friend of hers. She told a funny story of how Sekou called her out of the blue one day and said, "I'm standing right here in front of your church." Malaika told the audience, "I don't hide the fact that I don't go to church so I asked him, 'What church is that?'" Malaika told us Sekou replied, "I'm standing in front of the Up South Baptist Church here in Brooklyn." She mentioned that she hadn't gotten a chance to see the church yet, but would make it a point to get by there and take a picture of it. Malaika pointed out an African inspired altar to the left of the stage, created by master designer and visual artist, Xenobia Bailey, in Sekou's honor. Malaika also revealed that the idea for the Up South International Book Festival was created out of many spirited conversations she had with Sekou Sundiata and other artists about what the community needed culturally.
Immediately following Malaika's introduction to the event, was a reading by Danny Simmons. Danny, a well known poet, painter, novelist, producer of HBO Def Poetry Jam, and philanthropist, read from his new, visually stunning book of poetry, I Dreamed My People Were Calling But Couldn't Find My Way Home. The poems Danny read from his collection included "History 101 The Negro Problem" and "The Jigaboo Waltz." Danny, who told the audience he's been writing poetry "since I was a kid", presented poems which revealed raw imagery, an emotional depth and a love for community and heritage.
Following Danny was the prolific and awe-inspiring poet, author, activist and teacher, Sonia Sanchez. I had not seen Dr. Sanchez in performance since her Full Moon of Sonia concert at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center a few years ago. Gone was the lioness mane of silver locks, Dr. Sanchez was now sporting a beautiful afro. Dr. Sanchez's petite frame wore a multi-colored Asian inspired blouse and dark colored slacks. She gave the audience an energetic greeting, asked how everyone was feeling and thanked Malaika Adero for coordinating the performances. Thereafter, Dr. Sanchez began reciting a long cross generational list of names of great artists, leaders, educators and others in the form of a tribute chant. I had heard her do this before. We the audience felt her intention to pay homage to the many people who have shaped and contributed to our world through their chosen paths. Dr. Sanchez mentioned everyone from Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X to Ursula Rucker, Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela and Mos Def. After her chant, Dr. Sanchez talked about her work with youth and how important it is for adults not to turn their backs on the young. She highlighted a time when she was about to teach a class and a young man blurted out the "F-word" to get attention. As she began to teach the other students, the young man kept cursing, seemingly to try and get a rise out of Dr. Sanchez. But Dr. Sanchez kept her cool. She mentioned to the audience that other teachers may have gotten upset, argued with the young man or kicked him out, but instead of reacting in those ways, she chose to use the young man's actions and turn it into a teaching moment. So she said to the young man, "Did you just say f*ck? Or did you say F*CK!?" Dr. Sanchez recalls that she began repeating the "F-word" over and over and talking with the students about the many ways to say it, using different intonations. This is the GENIUS of Sonia Sanchez! She told the audience, "By then he stopped saying 'f*ck'." She then asked the students, "Okay so what rhymes with 'f*ck?'" Dr. Sanchez said to us while laughing, "I'm still crazy you know!" The audience laughed with her. Dr. Sanchez further explains how she took what could've been a negative situation with a young person and used it to teach the students more about language, creativity and imagination.
Dr. Sanchez went on to perform poems relating to peace and freedom. In between reading, she told the audience about her travels to different schools and colleges and her discussions with young people about the war and what it means for each person in our society and the world to begin to live a peaceful life. She also talked about how passionate she is about getting people to understand all of what is going on in our world and how we can better deal with the challenges, including caring more about our environment and what will happen in the years to come if we ignore nature's signs of imbalance. Dr. Sanchez made many powerful statements during her reading, including "If you beat your wife or you beat your husband, you are not being peaceful, you are not practicing peace. Peace begins at home."
A performance by singer Queen Esther followed Sonia Sanchez. Queen Esther's voice is reminiscent of classic blues, rock and surprisingly, country. The Harlem-based songbird sang songs from her latest CD "Talkin Fishbowl Blues" including "Stand By Your Man" (which she said was "Sekou's favorite" and "every black girl's anthem"), "Promise Me", and "Taster's Choice." Queen Esther was nominated for an Audelco Award for her role in the theater production of Harlem Song. Malaika Adero closed out the program with a Q & A session between the audience, Sonia Sanchez and Danny Simmons, and final words on the life and artistic contributions of Sekou Sundiata.
The Up South International Book Festival continued on through the weekend with dialogues on lyrical content (Danyel Smith, Akim Bryant, Gordon Chambers, and Anthony David), performances by more notable poets and musicians (Askia Toure, Abiodun Oyewole, Gordon Chambers, and Anthony David), author signings (Tina McElroy Ansa, Martha Southgate, and Saidya Hartman) and a culminating program featuring Amiri Baraka & Blue Ark and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Although I wasn't able to attend the remainder of the festival's events after Friday's tribute to Sekou Sundiata, I am sure that the rest of the stellar line-up at the Up South International Book Festival continued to fan the flames, bringing magnificent fury to Harlem.