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Remembering Sekou Sundiata, Poet of Sound

Poet Sekou Sundiata died this week at age 58; the cause was heart failure. Sundiata, who taught literature at New York City's New School University for many years, was considered one of the fathers of the spoken-word movement. He wrote the plays Blessing the Boats, The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop, The Mystery of Love, Udu, and the 51st (dream) state. His albums include Longstoryshort and The Blue Oneness of Dreams. We remember him with excerpts from interviews that originally aired in May 1994, April 1997, and November 2002.


Other segments from the episode on July 20, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 20, 2007: Obituary for Sekou Sundiata; Review of the film "Hairspray."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Sekou Sundiata, a proponent of the spoken word movement

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

On Wednesday, America lost a unique artist whose work defies easy description.
Sekou Sundiata's work often blended poetry, dance, music and even video,
exploring themes of slavery, exploitation and national identity in the black
experience in America. Sundiata died of heart failure in Valhalla, New York.
He was 58.

His work which premiered last year, called "The 51st Dream State," deals with
American life in a post-9/11 world. Among his other works are "Udu," about
slavery in Mauritania; "Blessing the Boats," a one-man show about his
experiences with heroin addiction, a debilitating car crash and a kidney
transplant; and "The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop," about black Americans
coming of age in the 1960s.

Sundiata taught writing at New York's New School University. He released
several CDs of music and poetry, including "The Blue Oneness of Dreams," which
earned a Grammy nomination. Today we'll listen to parts of Sekou Sundiata's
three appearances on FRESH AIR. First, from his 1997 conversation with Terry,
here's Sundiata introducing his poem "Shout Out."

Mr. SEKOU SUNDIATA: I mean, if I had to describe, you know, the 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, you know, the roots of it in
chanting and dance, etc., etc. 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, you know. more
poems or the set with a 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, you know, that shout out is a tradition on radio,
particularly on black radio, where basically people call up the radio station
and give shout outs. You know, they give a shout out, you know, `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,
you know, everyday folk to get access to this mass media to the airwaves and
make a dedication. So here it is:

(Reading) Shout Out

Here's to the best words in the right place at the perfect time. Here's to
three-hour dinners and long conversations through 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 brokenhearted, to the new, blue haiku. Here's to all or
nothing at all. Here's to the sick and the shut-in, to the words you've been,
to the is you in, to what's deep and deep to what's 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 roof to the base--unh! unh!--to the drum.
To the words you've been, to the is you in, to what's deep and deep, to what's
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 in swine without the pork, to a light
buzz in your head and the 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 words you've been, to the is you
in, to what's deep and deep to what's 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 what they hear is the mothership drawing near, to the words
you've been, to the is you in, to what's deep and deep to what's down and
down, to the lost and the blind and the almost found


I love hearing you read that. 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?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, I mean, you know, I think the way I present my work has
evolved over time. You know, and I've thought about it. You know, in the
beginning it wasn't very conscious, really a very conscious development, but
as I've thought about it over time, I really set about trying to develop a
sound and an approach that I thought was uniquely mine. I should also say
that, you know, and the way that I started writing poetry 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, it helps anyone understand
what's going on in black literature, whether it's fiction, poetry,
playwriting, whatever.

So for me, it has always been a question of the musicality of language, the
musicality of black speech. So by the time I started writing and reading my
poetry, I was really started being interested in developing a sound that was
mine, much in the way that, you know, jazz musicians. Music to me has always
been a reference point and a resource, you know? In jazz, you know, certain
things are given. By the time a musician gets on the bandstand, technique is
a given, harmony is a given. That you've mastered your instrument is all
given, you know. The thing that has to be revealed yet is how you sound,
which is to say, what do you have to say? What is your particular take on
your instrument and your take on the world? So that you may have two tenor
saxophone players, both playing "Body and Soul," for example, but each of
them, having something fresh and different to say. And you know, I kind of
use that as a model as I, over time, have developed my way of reading and
presenting my poetry.

DAVIES: We're listening to interviews from our archives with the poet Sekou
Sundiata, who died Wednesday at the age of 58. He was first on FRESH AIR in
1994 in connection with his theater piece "The Mystery of Love." Here's an

(Soundbite of "The Mystery of Love")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SUNDIATA: (Speaking) Somebody, somebody much wiser--somebody much wiser
than you or I--once said that the truth will not be told by the battles you
win or lose, but by the stories we believe.

Whoever said there was a light at the end of the tunnel was a liar. The
darkness begins, the blackness takes us back. In between are the stories, the
light and the precious lies.

I got a story. You got a story. My man Max, my man Shine, my girl Cecily got
a hell of a story.

This is the house, this is the house and home of hearsay--the poetic truth of
all the available facts, otherwise known as the crossroads, from see to can't
see, from talk to song, from drum to talk.

The events here described take place in the wilderness of North America. And
the names have not been changed to protect nobody.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: In "Mystery of Love," you say that the truth cannot be told by the
battles you win or lose but by the stories we believe in.


GROSS: You believe that?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I think the battles tell one
aspect of the truth, you know, maybe in a more factual kind of way. But I
think once we understand what kind of believe systems and values people carry
around, you know, we get to a more central kind of truth.

GROSS: So were there certain stories you grew up on, like either family
stories or stories about the neighborhood or...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, I mean, stories I grew up on, but, as you say that right
now, there's another story that I'm much more interested in now that I'd
really like to tell you.

GROSS: Yeah, please.

Mr. SUNDIATA: My family just started having family reunions in the last
four, five years, and both sides of my family is based in South Carolina, and
so I, you know, and I went to a family reunion in Charleston, South Carolina.
My mother, who lives there, lives about 70 miles inland from Charleston, so
this was the day of the family banquet, so we were all gathered, you know, and
the food was there, etc., and I was asked to speak and to do a poem at the
family reunion, you know? And I was supposed to talk about the importance of
family. That was my assignment, you know.

And so, I, you know, I went to pick my mother up, and we're all in the car--my
mother, her sister, a couple of kids--and we're driving back to Charleston for
the banquet and we just happened to be riding on a two-lane highway and my
mother and her sister, joking, talking about the family, said, `Well, you
know, you never know who's related to who because from here right out to the
coast, out to Charleston, were all these plantations, and they often sold, you
know, slaves from one plantation to the other, so,' and kind of laughing
saying we might have cousins stretching from here straight out to, you know,
Charleston, you know?

And then they mentioned somebody named John, Papa John, who I'd never heard of
before, you know? This turns out to be my great-great-grandfather. And they
were really talking about him, saying that he may have had children wherever
he went, and I said, `Well, why did he, you know, go so many places?' They
said, `They kept selling him because he was a rebellious slave. And so they
would sell him from one, you know, one plantation to another.' And I asked
what happened to him, and they said that he was lynched, you know? And then
they said, my mother and her sister are telling me this story, my mother says
he was lynched, and then her sister says, `Yeah, and when they lynched him,
they asked him if he wanted to say anything before they lynched him.' And my
mother started laughing and she said, `Yeah, he said, "Hand me my mirror so I
can see my hair."' Right? To make sure he looked good, you know.

This was an amazing story, you know? And that they had this story all these
years, you know? And apparently what happened is they lynched him. They knew
the area. They grew up right down the road from where he was lynched, and
they said that as children, little girls, they would be afraid to be down the
road when sundown came because they thought the ghost of Papa John would come
up to get them.

Well, what happened is they lynched him and did a poor job. I didn't know you
could do a poor job in a lynching. Did a poor job. Apparently they left him
for dead. He wasn't dead. He made his way back to the black community, and
some people turned him in and they came back and finished the job, you know?
And the choice there was, that was really a sacrifice because the choice was,
well, you know, either that or they come, you know, the Klan, they come back,
and no telling what happens then. You know, everybody begins to pay the price
for that. So that was really a sacrifice, just to give an idea what the raw
terror was, you know, at that time.

And so I had this story, you know, that they knew since they were little
girls, and these women are now in their 70s, you know, and what happened is
the occasion of the family reunion allowed this story to surface. So when we
got the family reunion, it was my turn to talk, you know, and I told you I'd
been interested in this rites of passage stuff and there were all these young
people in the family I'd never seen before, you know? I said, `Well, you
know, I have a new hero. I discovered a hero on my way to the banquet,' and I
told this story about Papa John, you know. And several of the younger kids
came up later and ask me all sorts of questions about it, etc. etc.

So, you know, I don't know where that's going, but somehow I know that not
only is it a personal family story but it has all these mythic possibilities
for me.

GROSS: Did you say to your mother, `How come you never told me this before?'

Mr. SUNDIATA: I did, yeah, yeah. I did. And they--it just somehow or
another, it just never occurred to them, you know, that this story would be so
valuable, you know. And even then they weren't really telling it because they
figured I needed to know. It just happened to surface.

The other thing I recognized about aging and maturity and getting older is,
you know, they say that every story has its time to be told, and what I
realize now is dealing with my mother and her peers, you know, is you don't
have to ask them, almost, for these stories. You're just around them, they
start to surface. It's almost as if they want to give these stories up. They
want to pass them on. I get kind of mystical about it, you know? There's
something inside that's saying that now it's time to tell this story, so it
wasn't only that story since then. It's been many, many other stories that,
as a young boy, I just never heard, you know, but are very valuable.

DAVIES: Poet Sekou Sundiata speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. Sundiata died
on Wednesday. He was 58. We'll continue our remembrance of Sekou Sundiata
after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: (Network audio difficulties)...poet Sekou Sundiata, who died earlier
this week at the age of 58. Let's continue with more from Terry's 1997

GROSS: Let me play something from the new CD that has music behind you, and I
consider this poem to be one of like your greatest hits. You've also done a
video of this poem that our listeners might have seen on MTV. And this is
called "Blink Your Eyes," and I'd like you to talk a little bit about how
you're using the music behind you, how you worked this out.

Mr. SUNDIATA: OK. Well, there are a couple of things on this particular
version of it. One is that I wrote the poem really sort of, you know,
responding to this well-documented, 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--you know, I guess my reference point for a lot
of people I came through with was jazz, people who wrote and tried to use jazz
as a reference point. For them it was hip-hop. So, you know, 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 called, `the dean of black
poetry,' and who wrote, I guess, in a, you know, particularly in a so-called
folk idiom and in a blues idiom, very much.

Musically, I don't know. You know, we were sort of finding our way in the
studio. We'd done this poem in a number of different ways, and we were really
trying to find something fresh to make it sort of new and interesting to us.
One of the things that happened is I made a sample and used a sample in this
cut, and it's a sample of Sweet Honey in the Rock 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, this--let's hear it. This is the poem "Blink Your Eyes,"
from Sekou Sundiata's new CD, "The Blue Oneness of Dreams."

(Soundbite of "Blink Your Eyes")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Ohhhhh

Mr. SUNDIATA: (Rapping) I was on the way to see my woman
But the Law said I was on my way
Through a red light red light 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?

(Soundbite of drums and music)

Mr. SUNDIATA: (Rapping) Sunroof, stereo, radio, radio
Sunroof, stereo, radio, black leather,
Bucket seats sit low, you know?
The body's cool, but the tires are worn
Ride when the hard times come, ride
When they're gone, in other words,
Jack, the light was green

I could wake up in the morning
Without a warning
And my world could change:
Blink your eyes
Blink your eyes
All depends on your skin
All depends on the skin you're living in
All depends on your 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 a routine, `Step out the car'
He said a 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
and the deep was the night
from the light from the north star
on the car door
I could see deja vu
We've been through this before
`Why did you stop me?'
`Somebody body body body body body body
`Somebody had to stop you
`I watch the news
`You always lose
`You're unreliable
`That's undeniable
`This is serious!
`You could be dangerous'

I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change
Blink your eyes
Blink your eyes
All depends the skin
All depends on the skin you're living in
All depends on your skin
All depends on the skin you're living in
I could wake in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change...

(End of soundbite)

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

Mr. 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 doors 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 to listen to the spoken word,
and then again to the spoken word with music as well.

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...


GROSS: Why don't you do the line because I don't--because I'm just

Mr. SUNDIATA: "We should be backstage at the Apollo waiting for the stars,
begging them to kiss us like they sing." 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, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Right, so you know, I always thought that, you know, that this
must be the way they kiss, you know, the way they sing, it must be that
beautiful, that compelling, you know?

GROSS: And now you think?

Mr. SUNDIATA: I, you know, it may be true.

GROSS: Well, do you ever think that when you're reading, that people must
project that onto you?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. I mean, you know, that's a power spot, you know? To

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. SUNDIATA: front of the band. Yeah. To be the front man in a band
and you got the microphone and the spotlight and...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: You know, that is a mythic place, especially in American
culture, you know? So I think, you know, it has probably less to do with me
than with the power of the position itself, you know?

DAVIES: Sekou Sundiata speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. He died on
Wednesday. We'll hear more of him in the second half of the show. I'm Dave
Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Today we're remembering Sekou Sundiata, a poet, performer and one of the
fathers of the spoken word movement. He died Wednesday of heart failure at
the age of 58. When Terry spoke to Sundiata in 2002, he was performing a one
man show about the period when he had kidney failure, dialysis, and eventually
a kidney transplant. In late 1999, after finally recovering from his
transplant, Sundiata was traveling to what would have been his comeback
performance. Driving through the snow in New England, his car slid off the
road and he broke his neck. He spent the following year recovering from
surgery. The show he wrote based on his illness took its title from a poem by
Lucille Clifton, who also had a kidney transplant. The show was called
"Blessing the Boats."

GROSS: Sekou Sundiata, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Can you perform a short
excerpt from your new piece?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Sure. This is from a part called--a section called "A Part
That Hurts."

"Here I am, a middle-aged brother with the shakes who can't stay awake, who
has to hold on to the wall because his head is spinning like a gyroscope, a
poet who can't make poems because there's too much distance between his mind
and his body. And anyway, his mind is so slow and confused that ideas just
bounce around and reverberate like a sound effect. Where's my witty? Where's
my sovereignty? And most of all, where the hell is my cool? I was no longer
the self I thought myself to be.

"How do you just wake up one day and not be who you think you are? I'll tell
you how. The body is a low-down, dirty sneak. It remembers every physical or
psychological insult it ever suffered, and each insult leaves a scar, and that
scar is a map to the insult that just lays in the cut like a memorial. And
should you delete it from your memory, your body will retrieve the data and
bring it back up just when you're trying to go to sleep, or just when somebody
tells you that you're cute, or just when you tell yourself how cool you are,
here comes the big payback. Your body will break you down. It will make you
beg. It will make you change your priorities.

"For example, I was surprised to find out the size of the kidney. The
kidney's job is to regulate a delicate balance of chemicals and minerals and
water in the body. They clean the blood and regulate blood pressure. Big
job, big organs--simple as that. But most kidneys are the size of a small
fist, and they're located in the back, off to the side. I had taken it for
granted that the most important part of the body was located front and center.

"This is what I mean about the body being a sneak. It'll let you believe
things like that until it's ready to tell you the truth. It ain't the heart
or the lungs or the brain. The biggest, most important part of the body, is
the part that hurts."

GROSS: That's Sekou Sundiata performing an excerpt of his new theater piece,
"Blessing the Boats."

Sekou Sundiata, I really like this piece a lot. Why did you want to do a
performance about your period of medical crisis?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, you know, first of all, in writing this piece, it is
written in a way that is very different from the way I write. I don't write
in a really personal way or an obviously autobiographical way. The first
thing that drove me to write about this was in my experience of needing, of
going on dialysis and needing a transplant, I was on the transplant waiting
list, which, you know, can be anywhere from two years to five years or more
for some people. And during that period of time, five of my friends came
forward and volunteered to be donors, to donate a kidney. And, you know, we
went through the whole process of tissue typing and blood testing and all of
that, and four out of the five people were found to be a match. It's very
unusual, very rare, especially for people who are not related.

And, you know, I was moved by that personally, and, you know, to me it was a
story that--it just had so many implications to it in terms of what I call
grace, the idea that for me, you know, I couldn't have done anything to really
earn anybody's kidney. Yet here were these people coming forward volunteering
to put their lives in jeopardy to save mine, essentially. So I was really
driven by that, that this, to me, was just some unearned grace that is always
a compelling story.

GROSS: This is a very different kind of story for you in several ways. As
you say, your things aren't often personal in that sense and, also, a lot of
your stories are about somebody who's very mythic and very cool, very


GROSS: ...or very much about romantic love or risk-taking, or, you know,
you're writing sometimes about being African-American in America and what that
means. And this is about being vulnerable.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, no question. The experiences of having
what's called end-stage renal disease and not knowing for quite some time--I'm
talking about three years or more, three, four years--really what was wrong,
you know, thinking that the symptoms sometimes can be some of anything, you
know. There are a cluster of symptoms that can relate to a number of
different things, and they're easy to excuse, especially if you're living a
very busy and active life, which is what I was doing at the time.

So, you know, I felt--by the time I was diagnosed with having renal failure,
it was a new way of thinking about myself and a new way of thinking about my
body, you know. I grew up being very active, being a amateur athlete,
running, playing sports and all those things, and all of a sudden, my body
would not do what I wanted it to do, you know, when I wanted it to do it. So
it was a whole new way of being vulnerable.

GROSS: There are two ways of getting a new kidney if you have kidney disease.
One is to get a kidney from somebody who has just died who was an organ donor,
and the other is to get the kidney from somebody who you know who is willing
to undergo surgery and donate one of their kidneys to you. You took that
second route. Did you think you were initially going to go the other route of
getting it from an anonymous organ donor?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. I was on the transplant list, and I was on the list for
about a year and a half. And I had no intention of asking anyone for a
kidney. That was another part of it. I had no--I just couldn't imagine
asking someone to give me a kidney. In fact, the nurses who looked after me
when I was on peritoneal dialysis told me that I was the first patient they
had who never asked them for a kidney. And, you know, I couldn't believe it.
I couldn't believe that somebody would just ask, especially essentially a
stranger, for a kidney. So in my mind, it was settled that I would be on the
list until I got that call saying that, you know, `We have a kidney for you.
Come to the hospital.'

But a couple of my friends said just at first casually that, `Yeah, I would
give you a kidney.' And, you know, I kind of just said `thank you' at first,
but, yeah, it was just--they mentioned it more than one time and wanted to
talk about it seriously and wanted to know what it would take. And then
finally, it sank in and, you know, I realized that, you know, these people
were serious and they would really go through with the testing and, if they
were a match, would donate, you know, donate their kidney. And, you know,
again, these are unrelated--these are friends. These are not blood relatives.

GROSS: So who were the people who made the offer?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, one is the woman that I love, I call Kazi, and she
appears in the piece. And the others are friends, you know, just--two people
were friends of hers who became friends of mine, you know, the longer we knew
each other. One person is a long-term friend that I've known. Her name is
Sydney. I've known her for about 20, 25 years. The other two people were two
men named Bill and Claude. And then my close friend and manager, Katea Stitt,
turned out to be the one who was the match and turned out to be the--actually,
they were all matches, but she turned out to be the donor.

GROSS: Why her? Why not the other people?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, since four out of five people matched, we had
discussions about it, basically over dinner. We would go out and have these

GROSS: For all of you, the whole group?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, we would call them transplant dinners. We'd have these
great dinners with great food and, you know, wine and laughter and everything,
and we would talk about the transplant. And finally, we all went to get
tested together, and when the results came in, we had another meeting to talk
about what to do since, you know, all these people matched. And basically,
they ranked themselves. They decided that Kazi, who was the only one with a
child, would be fourth because she had a child and there was some concern
about that. Claude, who had some medical issues of his own going on, was
ranked third. And then Bill, who was in good health and older than the rest
came in second. And Katea, who was in good health, the youngest, volunteered
to be first. And then all four--everyone else volunteered to be backup donors
in case anything went wrong for any of us, you know.

And to me, that was just remarkable. And whenever I would tell people this
story--even before the transplant and after the transplant, whoever I'd tell
that story to was really just moved by it. And so I thought that, you know,
there's something in this story that is just beyond me. It's great, it's
much, much greater than me, and it does speak to ideas about love and
friendship, but also just about unearned grace.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that your friends ranked themselves and took
you out of the equation.


GROSS: You know, that way the onus wasn't on you to decide who gave up the


GROSS: That must have been a great relief to have that decision taken out of
your hands.

Mr. SUNDIATA: Absolutely. I mean, even at one point, before we got to that
point, when we were having a dinner with, I think there were three or
four--three of us together. We were talking about the transplant and
people--someone being a donor. And I said, `Well, you know, I don't know if I
really want to do that,' etc., etc. And I remember Claude saying, `Well, you
know, it's really not up to you,' you know. `If it's meant for you to have
this kidney and you have people here who are willing to give it to you, you're
going to have this kidney,' you know. So the whole time, you know, I felt I
was, you know, of course operating under my own steam and under my own will,
but I also feel that there was something else at work.

GROSS: Katea, your manager who donated your kidney...

Mr. SUNDIATA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I'm just wondering if she was white or African-American.

Mr. SUNDIATA: African-American. African-American. And I mean, it's
interesting that you would ask that, because I thought...

GROSS: I felt uncomfortable asking. Is that a bad question to ask?

Mr. SUNDIATA: No, no. I think it's a good question, and for a number of
reasons. One is that--first of all, it gives me an opportunity to say what
I'm about to say.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead.

Mr. SUNDIATA: And that is that, you know, I really did think, as I suspect
many people who don't know anything about the world of transplantation, that
transplants needed to be race--that they was better if they was race-specific
and gender-specific. You know? In other words, I thought that, you know,
that it would be a real difficulty for a black person to be a donor to a white
person or for a man to a woman or--all of those things. And I guess those are
ideas that I import from the social realm, you know. That's not the case.

I mean, and I met adults my age, or in and around my age, who had what they
call pediatric kidneys. You know, kidneys from really very young children,
you know.


Mr. SUNDIATA: So, you know, apparently, that's--you know, that's not an
issue preventing transplantation, although race does play a part in certain
ways. When I was in--those three weeks when I was in the hospital for the
transplant, one of the difficulties I had is my body--my immune system was
resisting being suppressed by the medication they gave me, and I was on the
highest dosage of one of the immunosuppressant drugs, but my body was not
absorbing it. And the doctor told me that African-Americans have the hardest
immune system to suppress, which I found interesting. In fact, I had
something about that in one of the earlier versions of the script, you know.
And to me, that was an interesting thing just personally, but also, in a
historical--and as a writer I took a great interest in that, thinking about
why that would be and how maybe why did that evolve in that way, why did
African-Americans evolve in that way, and what connections that may have had
to the stress of slavery and Middle Passage and all of those things.

So I think that that is--the question you asked is a valid and very worthwhile
question. I think people thinking about donation have those questions.

DAVIES: Sekou Sundiata speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Today we're remembering spoken word artist Sekou Sundiata who died
Wednesday. Here's more of his conversation with Terry in 2002.

GROSS: You were preparing for a comeback concert in New England, and you were
driving to this concert...


GROSS: know, after you had gotten healthy enough following your kidney
transplant to start performing again, you're driving in a snowstorm through
New England to get to this comeback concert and you were in a car accident and
broke your neck in the car accident. And from my understanding, you nearly
died in that accident.


GROSS: You were trapped in the car for a couple of hours. What was going
through your mind when you were in that car with a broken neck after having
just gotten through this horrible period of kidney failure, kidney transplant,
post-kidney transplant surgeries, you finally recover and then you're in this
horrible accident?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, my first thought--I mean, even as the car was sliding,
you know, in the snow, was how absurd this was. You know, it just seemed
stupid to me. First of all, this happened in January of 2000. I had my last
surgery related to the transplant in December. Just--I don't even know if it
was a full month before the accident. So I was still, in a sense,
recuperating from that. So I thought that that was, you know, getting--I was
putting that behind me when this whole thing happened. And I remember
thinking as the car was sliding off the highway that I just couldn't believe
it could all come down to this. You know, it just seemed like such an absurd
and silly thing, you know, to happen.

And then, also--I have to tell you this. You know, I think that--there's no
question that my life was in danger. I didn't know that my neck was broken
while I was there, you know, upside down in the snow, and I didn't think
anybody could see that I'd gone off the road. But I never felt that I was
going to die. You know, I never felt that that was it. And I don't
know--there's no physical evidence to support that idea, because it was a
blinding snowstorm, I had dropped down a slope, you could not see me from the
highway, and I couldn't even hear the car--the traffic on the highway passing
by. So I had no real evidence to support that. It was just a blind faith
that I had that somehow this was not it.

At the same time, I'd never been so alone and isolated in my life. And I
don't think I'd ever--I never knew things could be that quiet, either. And
then this woman shows up, kneeling beside the car in the storm and she has a
cell phone. And she starts talking to me and she calls 911 and, you know, she
gets all of that going. And by the time the fire department arrived, this
woman is gone. I never see her again. I don't know her name or any of that,
but she's just gone. And from that point on, you know, the fire department
has it, and they cut me out and all of that.

GROSS: Did you have any idea before all this happened to you that people
could be so good, so decent?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, I did. I did. You know--and really, it's a case of
knowing something for quite some time, and then something happens and you get
to know it at an even deeper and more profound level. I've been fortunate,
you know, in my life to have just been helped and assisted by so many people,
both people I've seen and then people I haven't seen, but I know that, you
know, people have helped me in various ways. And, you know, I've had, just an
example of, many, many examples of this kind of goodness.

Having said that, it didn't diminish in any way the fact that this was
seemingly out of the blue, you know, and very mysterious. I mean, she showed
up and then she was gone, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SUNDIATA: But you know, I think that that's fundamental in the human
heart, you know. And I think it's probably more common than we may perceive
on a day-to-day basis.

GROSS: Sekou, would you be willing to perform another short excerpt from your
show, "Blessing the Boats"?

Mr. SUNDIATA: Sure. This is a poem that comes early in the piece, and it
is--every time I went into the operating room and I started going--when I was
under anesthesia, I'd always hear this music. I mean, really beautiful music.
It wasn't the same music all the time, but it would just be beautiful,
rapturous music. And it was so beautiful and so present that whenever I came
out of anesthesia, I was sure everybody else could hear it. So I'd ask, you
know, the doctors and the nurses, and nobody ever heard this music. And in
most cases, they would say they never even, they weren't--they didn't even
play music in the operating room at the time. So this comes out of that.
This poem comes out of that experience.

"Somewhere deep and under anesthesia, the valves of a human heart open and
close, and the black scat syllables of sacred science come pouring onto a
clean page, turning over in my mind. The blues bat their eyes and rustle
their wings. A double reed vibrates in a pure light that means all things are
possible. A bow draws out a round tone across the waist of a bass. It could
be the devil's note, the way it cuts through the wood and wind, the wood and
wind, bending the sound right side up, harmonizing the underworld.

"Whoever said the music goes into the air and then it's gone was wrong. It
goes below the flesh and above the grave, where I am flat as a mesa, open as
the great gorge beneath the Tahoe sky. I try to remember the notes by
humming, but humming burns the music out of memory."

DAVIES: Sekou Sundiata in 2002. He died Wednesday of heart failure. He was

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film version of "Hairspray." This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein reviews the new film version of

The musical "Hairspray" is set in the '60s and centers on Tracy Turnblad, a
chubby Baltimore high school girl obsessed with a local teen dance program.
When she lands a spot as a regular, she is amazed to find that blacks can
appear only once a month and never with whites. The film, inspired by John
Waters' comedy, stars John Travolta in drag as Tracy's mom, who's drawn into
the cause to, quote, "make every day Negro day." David Edelstein has this


There's something about the journey of John Waters' "Hairspray" to its current
incarnation as a candy colored, big budget family movie musical that I still
can't quite believe. The 1988 comedy was inspired by "The Buddy Dean Show," a
Baltimore teen dance showcase of the early and mid-'60s. And what turned
Waters on was a fusion of rock 'n' roll and outlandish middle class tackiness,
especially the high-lacquered hairstyles that doubtless contributed to the
erosion of the ozone layer. Waters was gleeful at having made a teen message
movie with a PG rating. He was, after all, the prince of puke. The man who'd
ended "Pink Flamingos" with his homicidal heroine eating a fresh doggy turd.
Of course, it was a satire of teen message movies with a 400-pound
transvestite in the lead.

But by the time of "Hairspray," the ironic appreciation of kitsch had moved
from gay subculture to the mainstream. And by the time "Hairspray" was turned
into a Broadway musical 15 years later, busloads of '60ish suburbanites were
in on the joke. Now, Adam Shankman's movie of the Broadway "Hairspray" is
getting rave reviews in newspapers that would once have applauded Waters'
imprisonment. But I found it tacky in a different way than the original.
It's fatuously energized. Every number is meant as a show-stopper, with
pumping arms, hyper active editing, and climax on top of climax. The songs,
by Marc Shaiman, all have the same manic pitch and blur together.

The movie opens with hefty Tracy Turnblad, played by Nikki Blonsky, popping
out of bed and bursting into a cheerfully, oblivious celebration of her seedy
Baltimore neighborhood. It's a crowd pleaser. And Blonsky's voice is sweet
and not too piercing. But our heroine's delusional optimism has already
peaked. How much higher can she soar? When the obese teenager lands a spot
on "The Corny Collins Show" and becomes a sensation, we seem to be in a world
of village idiots.

It was Divine, as Tracy's overprotective mother Edna, who lifted "Hairspray"
into camp heaven, and Divine and her splendid, trashy baggage who's painfully
missed. For most of the film John Travolta is a glaring mistake. His face is
ballooned with latex that hides that goofy cleft chin, his most endearing
feature. With his studied Baltimore accent, he's soft and shapeless. His
casting, a stunt with no reason for being except as a stunt. His scenes with
Blonsky and Christopher Walken, as Edna's dim, doting husband, are full of
dead air.

(Soundbite of "Hairspray")

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) No one is auditioning for anything in
this household.

Ms. NIKKI BLONSKY: (as Tracy Turnblad) But why not? Why not?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) Because dancing is not your future. One
day you're going to own Edna's Occidental Laundry.

Ms. BLONSKY: (as Tracy Turnblad) I don't want to be a laundress. I want to
be famous.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) Look, if you want to be famous, learn how
to take blood out of car upholstery. That's a skill you can take right to the

Mr. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (as Wilbur Turnblad) Hey, hey, what's all this
ruckus in here?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Edna Turnblad) Not a word.

Ms. BLONSKY: (as Tracy Turnblad) Daddy, tomorrow I'm auditioning to dance on
a TV show.

Mr. WALKEN: (as Wilbur Turnblad) You are?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) No, she is not. First the hair, now this.

Mr. WALKEN: (as Wilbur Turnblad) But the--all this kids are batting up their
hair now, honey.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) You're no help.

Ms. BLONSKY: (as Tracy Turnblad) It's ratting, Daddy, and our first lady,
Jackie Kennedy does it.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) I don't believe that.

Ms. BLONSKY: (as Tracy Turnblad) What do you mean, you don't believe that?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) Uh-unh. I don't.

Ms. BLONSKY: (as Tracy Turnblad) How else would it look that way?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (as Edna Turnblad) I believe that it is naturally stiff.

(End of soundbite)

EDELSTEIN: What saves Travolta is his dancing. He has a song with Walken
called "Timeless To Me." It's in a lilting, big band style. And it's the only
number that isn't edited by a Benny Hanna chef. Walken is a musical pro, and
when Travolta joins him in a dance--tentatively, but with blooming grace--the
performance comes together.

As "Hairspray" becomes more melodramatic, it also becomes more infectious.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Velma, the station manager and mother of the blonde
diva. She's sublime. It's as if her bitch goddess Catwoman had joined the
cast of "Dynasty." Velma is repulsed by Tracy and wants her off the air.
She's also repulsed by the prospect of whites and Negroes doing increasingly
dirty dancing together. That's the cue for all the outcasts, the fatties and
the coloreds, to march for civil rights. And for Tracy's blithe best friend,
played by the lovely Amanda Bynes, to swoon over Elijah Kelly as a fresh faced
black dancer. Now that she has tasted chocolate, she proclaims, she'll never
go back.

The desegregated finale "Can't Stop The Beat" is a blow-the-roof-off ensemble
dance fest that not even I could resist. But it would have been even more fun
if the music weren't so homogenized, if it didn't sound the same as all the
other numbers, black and white. "Hairspray" doesn't just preach color
blindness, the world it celebrates with such mindless irony is also, alas,
color deaf.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. We'll close
with music that was featured in the original 1988 John Waters version of
"Hairspray." This is the Ray Bryant Combo.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: It's Madison time, hit it. You're looking good, a big
strong line

(End of soundbite)


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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