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From the Archives: Performance Poet Sekou Sundiata.

Performance poet Sekou Sundiata (SAY-coo SOON-dee-ah-tah) In 1997, he released his first CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams" on Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records. He is one of New York's notable spoken word artists, He blends lyrics of urban dwelling with music. Born in Harlem, He is a professor of English Literature at The New School for Social Research. His second CD, tentatively titled "Urban Music" should be released sometime this year. No exact date has been set. Originally broadcast 4/16/97.

21:39

Other segments from the episode on February 5, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 5, 1999: Interview with Billy Collins; Interview with Sekou Sundiata; Review of the film "Rushmore."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 05, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Sekou Sundiata
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's easy to listen to Sekou Sundiata's poems like good songs, over and over again, because you like the music. Sundiata is one of the performance poets who has attracted a following among many young people who like the rhymes and rhythms of rap.

Sundiata often reads with a band behind him and has created several music theater works. He co-founded a record label devoted to spoken word. That label, Mouth Almighty, released his first CD called "The Blue Oneness of Dreams." His second CD is recorded but not yet released. It was dropped by its distributor as a result of a corporate merger and subsequent reorganization.

However, we have a copy of the recording and want to play an excerpt for you. The CD is called "Urban Music." This is called "Redemption Poem."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- PERFORMANCE POET SEKOU SUNDIATA PERFORMING "REDEMPTION POEM")

This ain't some summer night
Sitting on the bench in el barrio
In the fog we call Becker
While devotion to what one goal

Panamanian lady
Acapulco gold washed down
With Scuponol (ph)
Rounded out the head so nice

Blah shock knicks (ph)
English leather
Peter Prick Bogaloo blues
(Unintelligible)

The zen of rolling joints with one hand
And Junior home from Otisville
Tipping off to the pier
On the East River

With Cecil who played piano
In the church
A love supreme
(Unintelligible) to be with you

Coming through
A love supreme
(Unintelligible) to be with you
Coming through the thin speakers

Through to the membranes of our hearts
(Unintelligible)
Something sweet dancing so tight
Up on Joyce from cross town

I was stuck to myself in my sleep
Two days later
When I dunked for the first time
And Walter said oh yeah

Do it again
The ball was our prayer
And wild ass T came back
Screaming eagles

Santo Domingo
Fifty-five millimeter rounds
Trujillo the dictator
Vietnam body bags on the tarmac

GROSS: Sekou Sundiata, from a not yet released CD. I spoke with Sekou Sundiata in 1997 after the release of his first CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams."

You're a poet who uses your voice in, I think, a particularly musical way, and I wonder if you were always reading that way or if you had to find your voice.

SEKOU SUNDIATA, PERFORMANCE POET: Well, I mean, I think the way I present my work has evolved over time. You know, I've thought about it -- you know, in the beginning it wasn't very conscious really -- a very conscious development. But as I thought about it over time I really set about trying to develop a sound, an approach that I thought was uniquely mine.

I should also say that in the way that I started writing and got into poetry I really felt that I was trying to ground myself, first and foremost, in African-American culture. And so my first love in African-American culture was black speech and black music.

And really, I think to understand something about black speech and black music, you know, helps anyone understand what's going on in black literature, whether it's fiction, poetry, play writing whatever. So for me it has always been a question of the musicality of language -- the musicality of black speech.

GROSS: Now when you realized the musicality of speech you could have gone into acting or even singing, but you wrote. What led you to writing?

SUNDIATA: Well, you know, I guess once I was in school I really just -- I love to write. You know, I love to read and I love to write. And I like books. And of course, I love music. You know, I tried singing as well.

GROSS: Did you?

SUNDIATA: Nothing called me. Nothing appealed to my imagination as much as writing. I mean, even before I started writing poetry those times when I was reading or writing, you know, I discovered that this was a pathway to a source of great joy for me -- a source of great pleasure. Which was to be in my imagination, you know, where, you know, there are no boundaries where I can imagine anything. That seemed more possible to me as a writer than, let's say, as a musician or as a singer or even an actor.

GROSS: What were you writing about when you first started to write?

SUNDIATA: I was making stuff up.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: They call it fiction.

LAUGHTER

SUNDIATA: Yeah, right. You know, when I was in school I would sometimes have to write a book report. Sometimes I would do the book report and do this alternative book report, let's call it that, as well. Sometimes I would just do my alternative book report, which is I would make up a book. And I'd make up a title. And I'd report on it. And I'd look in the phone book and try to find a name for an author just a name that sounded right.

GROSS: Now your teacher may have called that cheating.

LAUGHTER

SUNDIATA: Exactly.

GROSS: So what kind of books would you make up?

SUNDIATA: I liked adventure stuff. I'd make up books about war or about the frontier or things like that. You know, stuff that I made up was very close to the stuff I was reading -- resembled very much the stuff I was reading at school. So I didn't write about my neighborhood and my community yet, because I didn't realize that my neighborhood and my community and my life was something you could write about.

GROSS: How did you realize that it was?

SUNDIATA: I think towards -- I don't know -- going into the 1970s towards the end of the '60s, I started hearing poetry by poets who were already developing at that point, who were writing these poems using, first of all, the kind of vernacular culture and speech that I heard in the community, you know.

And wrote about subjects and themes that I felt very close to -- that I felt connected to. I think of a poet, Victor Hernandez Cruz, for example -- a Puerto Rican poet, you know who wrote about Puerto Ricans in New York. Who wrote about the projects. Who wrote about the Lower Eastside which was so familiar to me.

Or Murray Baraca (ph), you know, who wrote about black music. You know, when I started hearing music figures showing up in his poetry like James Brown or John Coltrane, you know, it gave me a whole other look at what was going on around me and what was going on in the culture. And it elevated, in my own eyes, my own culture. So I really feel, in a lot of ways, that that poetry and that literature saved my life.

GROSS: Saved it from what?

SUNDIATA: Well, you know, I mean, I could have gone in any number of different directions. I tried to be -- I tried to be in the streets for a while. I tried to be the tough guy. I tried to do a lot of that stuff. And, really, you know, it wasn't me. It just wasn't my life. But I had nothing else going on instead of that.

You know, I went to school and I did fairly well in school, and I was sort of interested. I played sports, particularly basketball, and I was interested in that. And I played OK. But there was nothing really at that point really pulling me and engaging me in such a way that made me want to say, hey, I really want to do this. You know, until I started hearing that poetry and started experimenting with it and it became a real possibility.

And the other part of it is that it gave me a way to connect up to my culture and to black life in a way that I thought was vital. In a way that I thought was really socially engaged, particularly at that time. And that was very important to me, you know, to have some involvement in the struggles and the life and the myth -- the mythology of my community and my people.

GROSS: Since you had tried to be the tough guy but didn't think you were very convincing at that -- when you get more interested in writing and particularly in poetry did you feel you had to masculinize it in anyway? Did it feel like it wasn't either hip enough or masculine enough for you?

SUNDIATA: See, you know, I mean, the fortunate thing for me is that at that time something close to what's going on now was happening. You know, right now where in this sort of revival of poetry and spoken word. And at that time it was very popular.

GROSS: It was like the Last Poets (ph) and Baraca.

SUNDIATA: Right. So you could say you were a poet and be hip.

GROSS: Revolutionary.

LAUGHTER

SUNDIATA: Right. And I was very much involved in a movement at that time. You know, I was an activist. I was a radical. So, you know, all of these things fit. And it made me -- it was a way to be cultured and civilized, which is to say a way to be hip.

GROSS: Were you writing revolutionary poems?

SUNDIATA: Yeah, I wrote revolutionary poems. I wrote militant poems. I wrote -- most of my poems in those days were about social issues in the main. And I always had a couple of love poems going. I guess I was -- really I guess part of that is the inspiration of popular music, you know.

I always thought that one of the great songwriters whose work was just so poetic was Smokey Robinson. And Smokey Robinson, I think, wrote great lyrics -- great love lyrics.

GROSS: I think this would be a good time to hear another one of your poems. I'm going to ask you to do another poem that you also do on your new CD. And the poem is "Shout Out." So before you do the poem for us, maybe tell us a little about writing it and about -- again, this is just, I think, a particularly musical kind of poem.

SUNDIATA: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, if I had to describe a qualifying thing for me as a poet, you know, people say, well, you're a performance poet or whatever. That's not really how I identify myself. I think of myself, if anything, as a ritual poet.

Meaning that I think of poetry as ritual. I think that that is the roots of it. Roots of it in chant -- in chanting, in dance, etcetera, etcetera. So I was really thinking about trying to create a poem that would have a ritual feel to it, in the sense of being an opening and introduction to what is to follow. Whether it's more poems or to sit with the band.

This is typically how I open a set when I perform with my band, The Body of the Poem. I'll just also say that "shout out" is a tradition on radio, particularly on black radio. Where basically people call up the radio station and give "shout out's," you know. They give a "shout out" to my cousin, a "shout out" to my girlfriend, a "shout out" to whoever. And it really is just a dedication.

I always loved that because it was just a chance for everyday folk to get access to this mass media, to the airways and make a dedication. So, here it is, "Shout Out."

Here's to the best words
And the right place
At the perfect time
Here's to three hour dinners

And long conversations
To the philosophical ramifications
Of a beautiful day
To the 12 steppers at the 13th step

May they never forget
The first step
To the increase
To the decrease

To the do
To the day
To the do
To the day

To the do
To the day
To the done done
To the lonely

To the broken hearted
To the new blue haiku
Here's to all or
Nothing at all

Here's to the sick
And the shut in
To the where's you been
To the is you in

Towards deep and deep
Towards down and down
To the lost and the blind
And the almost found

Here's to the crazy the lazy
The bored the ignored
The beginners the sinners
The losers the winners

To the smooth and the cool
And even to the fool
Here's to your ex-best friend
To the rule benders

And the repeat offenders
To the lovers
And the troublers
The engaging

The enraging
To the healers
And the feelers
And the fixers

And the tricksters
To a star
Falling through a dream
To a dream

When you know what it means
To the bottom
To the root
To the bass

Pa-boom
To the drum
To the where's you been
To the is you in

Towards deep and deep
Towards down and down
To the lost
And the blind

And the almost found
Here's to somebody
Within the sound of your voice this morning
Here's to somebody

Who can't be within the sound of your voice tonight
To a low cholesterol pig sandwich
Smothered inside without the pork
To a light buzz in your head

And a soundtrack in your mind
Going on and on and on and on
Like a good time
Here's to promises that break by themselves

Here's to the breaks with great promise
Here's to people who don't wait in the car
When you tell them to wait in the car
Here's to what you forgot

And who you forgot
Here's to the unforgettable
To the where's you been
To the is you in

Towards deep and deep
Towards down and down
To the lost and the blind
And the almost found

Here's to the hip hoppers
The don't stoppers
Heads nodding in the digital glow
Of their beloved studios

To the incredible indelible impressions
Made by the gazes you gaze
In the faces of strangers
To yourself you ask

Could this be God straight up
Or is it a mask
Here's to the tribe of the hyper cyber
Tripping at the virtual most outpost

At the edge on the tip
Believing that they hear
Is the mother ship drawing near
To where's you been

To the is you in
Towards deep and deep
Towards down and down
To the lost and the blind

And the almost found

GROSS: That's Sekou Sundiata from his 1997 CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Back with poet Sekou Sundiata. I spoke with him in 1997 after the release of his first CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams." That CD included a recording of perhaps his best known poem, "Blink Your Eyes." Before we played it, I asked him about writing the poem.

SUNDIATA: Well, there are a couple of things on this particular version of it. One is that I wrote the poem really sort of responding to this well-documented and well-known antagonistic relationship between black and Latino males, in particular, and the police.

So that was one part of it in terms of subject matter. The other part of it was, you know, I teach. And I started getting a number of students a few years back who were coming in to write poetry who were really influenced by hip-hop, and really wanted to write in a way that was very different from what I knew and from the way I sort of came up or developed as a writer.

And so they really -- I guess my reference point for a lot of people I came through with was jazz. People who wrote to try to use jazz as a reference point. For them, it was hip-hop. So I tried to write this poem as sort of a dedication to them.

Then the other part is a dedication to Sterling Brown who was, many people call, the dean of black poetry. And who wrote, I guess, in particularly in a so-called folk idiom and in a blues idiom very much.

Musically, I don't know. We were sort of finding our way in the studio. We had done this poem in a number of different ways, and we really tried to find something fresh to make it sort of new and interesting to us.

One of the things that happened is I sampled -- I made a sample and used a sample in this cut. And it's a sample of Sweet Honey and a Rock -- singing group singing the blues, "Your Worries Ain't Like Mine." Which I thought was fitting given the subject matter of the piece.

And then of course, I thought it should be -- it should have some sort of drive to it. Some sort of driving pulse. Some sort of driving beat. You know, so all of those ideas sort of came together to form what we have here.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. This is the poem "Blink Your Eyes" from Sekou Sundiata's new CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- PERFORMANCE POET SEKOU SUNDIATA PERFORMING "BLINK YOUR EYES")

I was on the way
To see my woman
But the law said
I was on my way through a red light

If you saw my woman
You would understand
I was just being a man
It wasn't about no light

It was about my ride
And if you saw my ride
You could dig that too
You dig huh

Do you really dig
Sunroof stereo radio
Radio sunroof stereo
Radio black leather bucket seats

Sitting low
You know the body's cool
But the tires are worn
Drive when my hard times come

Ride when they gone
In other words Jack
The light was green
Michael wake up

In the morning
Without a warning
And my world could change
Blink your eyes blink your eyes

It all depends on your skin
All depends on the skin you're living in
All depends on the skin
All depends on the skin you're living in

Up to the window come the law
With his hand on his gun
What's up
What's happening

I said I guess that's when I really broke the law
He said it routine
Step out the car
He said it routine

Assume the position
Hands up in the air
You know the routine
Like you just don't care

License and registration
Deep was the night
And the light to the deep to the deep
To the deep was the night

From the light
From the North Star
On the car door
I could see deja vu

We'd been through this before
Why did you stop me
Somebody body body body
Somebody had to stop you

I watched you lose
You always lose
You're unreliable
That's undeniable

This is serious
You could be dangerous
Michael wake up
In the morning

Without a warning
And my world
Could change
Blink your eyes
Blink your eyes

All depends on the skin
All depends on the skin you're living in
All depends on the skin
All depends on the skin you're living in

Michael wake up
In the morning
Without a warning
And my world could change

GROSS: People who are into rap really like rhyme. Do you think that that's made it safe to like poetry?

SUNDIATA: I think so. I think hip-hop, rap has really -- if there's any single thing I could point to that has led the way and opened the door for this current revival and this interest in poetry I think that's been it.

If for no other reason than it has prepared people who listen to spoken word, and then again to spoken word with music as well.

GROSS: Now, what's your relationship to rhymes?

SUNDIATA: My relationship to rhyme.

GROSS: I mean, do you like working with rhymes? You sometimes do.

SUNDIATA: Oh, yeah. No question. I do. Although I don't set out to rhyme. I don't -- I write pretty much what's called open verse, not free verse but open verse. Where, you know, the poem really sort of dictates what the form is going to be.

But, yeah, no, I do like to rhyme. I think of it as a musical device. It's one of the ways I've learned to get to musicality in my writing. I mean, you know, there are certain techniques: rhyming, repetition, use of song forms. I borrow a great deal from music and particularly from popular music.

GROSS: You know, there's a line in "Harlem, A Letter Home" that I think so clearly shows the influence of song lyrics on your poems when you're talking about being at the Apollo Theater and everybody wanting to be kissed the way they say. Why don't you do the line because I'm just paraphrasing.

SUNDIATA: "We used to be backstage at the Apollo waiting for the stars begging them to kiss us like they say." You know, it's a funny thing about that is, you know, I guess, you know, people project their own fantasies and dreams onto the lead singer in particular.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

SUNDIATA: Right. So, you know, I always thought that this must be the way they kiss. You know, the way they sing. It must be that beautiful, that compelling.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: And now you think?

SUNDIATA: You know, it may be true.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Would you ever think when you were reading that people must project that on to you?

SUNDIATA: Yeah, I mean, you know, that's a power spot. To be in front of the band.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: That's right.

SUNDIATA: Yeah. To be the front man in a band and you got the microphone and the spotlight. You know, that is a mythic place, especially in American culture, you know. So I think it has probably less to do with me than the power of the position itself.

GROSS: Sekou Sundiata. Recorded in 1997 after the release of his first CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams." His company, Mouth Almighty, is looking for a new distributor for his already recorded CD, "Urban Music."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Sekou Sundiata
High: Performance poet Sekou Sundiata. In 1997 he released his first CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams." He is of New York's notable spoken word artists. he blends lyrics of urban dwelling with music. Born in Harlem, he is a professor of English Literature at The New School for Social Research. His second CD, tentatively titled "Urban Music," should be released sometime this year. No exact date has been set.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Sekou Sundiata

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sekou Sundiata

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 05, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Rushmore" is a new comedy starring Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, who has already gotten awards for his performance from film critics in New York and L.A. Our film critic John Powers has this review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: When you see as many movies as I do, the one thing you're never really prepared for is genuine originality. It's thrilling to be at a movie and suddenly realize that you don't have the slightest idea where it's heading.

I've had that thrill only once in the last year. That was when I first saw "Rushmore," which pulls off the miraculous feat of being a completely fresh teen comedy. It's not about mean parents, sexual snickering or being carved up by a psycho. It's about the redemptive power of love and art.

Newcomer Jason Schwartzman stars as Max Fischer, a brainy oddball scholarship kid at the prestigious Rushmore Academy. A school he inhabits like a second womb since his actual mother is dead. Max is interested in everything; from beekeeping to student theatricals. But he befriends a man who is no longer interested in anything.

That's Herman Blume, played by Bill Murray. An unhappily married millionaire who bears the psychic scars of Vietnam. The two become spiritual comrades until they both fall for Rosemary Cross, a gorgeous first grade teacher whose mourning the death of her husband.

Suddenly, these three confused souls are caught in a bizarre romantic triangle that spins hilariously, even dangerously, out of control. When Rosemary unexpectedly invites a young male doctor to a dinner celebrating Max's latest play, Max pitches a sulk fit that even includes the waiter.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM THE FILM "RUSHMORE")

JASON SCHWARTZMAN, ACTOR: I just want to thank you for accommodating us. You see, we only thought we were going to be three, but someone invited himself along. So, I apologize.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It's quite all right, sir.

SCHWARTZMAN: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: You're being rude, Max.

SCHWARTZMAN: No, I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Yes, you are.

SCHWARTZMAN: No, I'm not. I'm just trying to figure out why you brought this gentleman to my play, and my dinner which was invitation only. Would you like me to pass the creamer, doc?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Yes, please.

SOUND OF PLATES CRASHING

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: What is wrong with you?

SCHWARTZMAN: What is wrong with you! You hurt my feelings! This night was important to me!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: How did I hurt your feelings?

SCHWARTZMAN: Oh, my God! I wrote a hit play! And I'm in love with you.

POWERS: This is the second movie by Wes Anderson. The 29-year-old Texan whose debut, the slouchy charmer "Bottle Rocket," marked him as a filmmaker to watch. "Rushmore" shows him to be a major comic talent, in the great tradition of Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch. He makes light movies about heavy things.

Although all the characters are dealing with emotional wounds, the movie is filled with superb comic bits. Be it the middle-aged Herman tip toeing furtively from tree to tree like Wiley Coyote, or high school kids putting on Max's play about gang bangers. An oblique send up of hip '90s movies about teen violence.

In fact, there's nothing remotely hip about Anderson and his co-writer Owen Wilson. Their vision of life is playful and innocent rather than fashionably cynical and dark. They create a magical world in which children act like adults; adults act like kids; and everyone meets on exactly the same level.

While there's not a predictable moment in its entire 89 minutes, the movie's freewheeling brio is deceptive. Anderson has engineered everything: the striking wide screen compositions and kindergarten block colors, the anachronistic music by the likes of Chad and Jeremy. The metaphoric use of everything from school blazers and Merlin hats to model airplanes and aquariums.

But for all his miniaturist attention to detail, Anderson's style never overwhelms the characters. He gets a dazzling debut from Jason Schwartzman, whose brazenly bespectacled Max isn't merely a triumph of deadpan timing, but an enduring American archetype: the wide-eyed dreamer who's always reinventing himself and the world around him. Even if it drives everybody crazy.

And more impressively, Anderson wins a beautifully restrained performance from Bill Murray, an incomparable scene stealer whose rueful pock marked visage touches us as never before. In a just world he'd win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but I suspect he won't because the Academy tends to reward ham not creme brue le (ph).

Max's story begins with a stage curtain parting and builds to the production of his most ambitious play, "Heaven and Hell," a mock Oliver Stone epic that unites all the characters; male and female, young and old, grumpy and amiable in a reconciliation scene that's Shakespearian in its euphoria.

At a time when comedies are either deliberately moronic like "The Waterboy" or achingly black like "Happiness," "Rushmore" is a sweet natured anomaly: smart, funny and suffused with optimism. This is the best Hollywood comedy since "Groundhog Day." I know it's always risky to say such a thing, it's destined to become an American classic.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Bill Murray
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "Rushmore." The new film starring Bill Murray
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Bill Murray; John Powers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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