People Get Ready

By Bakari Kitwana Feb 15, 2016

Last week, organizer Rev. Osagyefo Sekou was finally found not guilty of failure to comply with police during a September 2014 Michael Brown protest in front of the Ferguson police station. During this demonstration, the Pentecostal pastor, writer, filmmaker and scholar famously placed his body between oncoming riot police and protestors, dropping to his knees to pray.

Sekou displays the same intensity on "The Revolution Has Come," the new album he made with his band, Revered Sekou and the Holy Ghost. Equal parts old-time gospel, gutbucket blues, soul and funk, the album is made up of the songs, chants and slogans that dominate today’s movement for Black lives. Co-created by Bay Area musician Jay-Marie Hill, “The Revolution Has Come" is one of the first full soundtracks of the contemporary youth-led movement. We caught up with Sekou two days after his exoneration to talk about his case, the state of the movement and why he decided to put his message to music.

How did you come to be arrested on September 29, 2014?

There had been a call put out to clergy and a number of White, Black and Jewish clergy showed up. The police were lined up in a formation holding those batons. We had an impromptu prayer meeting. Clergy kneeled and prayed. The young folks said to us, “Hey, we are about to do civil disobedience action. Can you all step back and just let us do it?” So all the clergy stepped back. When I turned around, I saw the police marching. I dashed out in front of the police coming at the young folks and I kneeled and I prayed. I didn’t know what else to do because there was this kind of bloodlust in the police officers’ eyes and in their rhythm. I was promptly swept up [by the police].

But they didn’t take you to jail. Why not?

I was in a holding van for about an hour and a half. Ron Johnson [captain with Missouri Highway Patrol] came out and tried to negotiate with the young people to get out of the street. They responded, “We aren’t going anywhere until you give us our preacher back.” So I was released. The city initially offered us a $700 fine and two years probation. Later, they came back with another offer: a $125 fine and five years probation or 30 hours at an organization of their choosing. My attorney and I rejected that and certified the case out of Ferguson city to St. Louis County so that we could have a jury trial. The prosecutor attempted to put the movement on trial and lost.

Were you surprised by The U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit this week against city of Ferguson for backing out of the consent decree agreement?

Not at all. Over 30 state houses in the Union have passed 99 pieces of legislation to retrain police behavior. Missouri has yet to pass one. What we are dealing with is a recalcitrant municipality that is buttressed by state apparatus and defended by a private corporation. The prosecutor who prosecuted me is a contractor of a private firm. A private firm is running 27 prosecutorial systems for municipalities in greater St. Louis. We estimate that they spent over $50,000 over two days on my case alone.

Black Princeton professor Imani Perry recently had a degrading encounter with the police. Why is it important to lift these stories up?

What Imani proves to us is that our respectability can’t save us. You can go to the fanciest schools and have the fanciest jobs, but if you are Black in America, the American empire wants to discipline and punish your body writ large. Now if you’re poor and Black, the way that discipline is exercised on your body tends to be more draconian.

In addition to your courtroom victory, you also have a new album out, which in many ways documents the movement. How did it come about?

I have an amazing writing partner, Jay-Marie Hill, who I met at the Movement for Black Lives convening in Cleveland last summer. Later on, we met back out in the Bay and she played the song “Past Time” for me, which I think is the best song on the album. We then wrote 11 songs in six days, mostly in Jay-Marie’s living room. It was just me, her and her bass. This album would not exist without her, so Jay-Marie, at one level, is The Holy Ghost in our band, Reverend Sekou and the Holy Ghost. Who knew the Holy Ghost was a gender queer Black woman?

Why is queer, trans and gender fluidity so important to this movement?

In this historical moment, young people have been more expansive in articulating their own sexual orientation and the way in which they wrestle with gender identity in a non-binary form. Queer folk are at the center of this movement. They tend to be among the most politicized and have some of the most radical analysis. By the time you make the decision to identify openly as queer, it articulates a level of political maturation. Everywhere I go in this country, queer women are running it. Charlene Carruthers. Ashley Yates. Brittney Farrell. Alexis Templeton. Alicia Garza.

Some of the movement organizations like Ohio Student Association and BYP100 are returning to songs of the Civil Rights Movement. How does this tradition factor into "The Revolution Has Come"?

The musical tradition has been a part of the existential weaponry that Black people have deployed in the face of White supremacy. People sang certain spirituals in the field to signal that the underground railroad was coming. Even though the songs were spiritual, they were also articulating the possibility of getting free physically, not in the hereafter, not in the by and by. They sang, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to let you know that Harriet [Tubman] is on her way. Our song, “Good Bye Baby” opens as a field holler: “Baby I hope this letter finds you better than I am. / I know it’s been a while since you heard from me/ but I’ve been busy trying to get free. I’m writing you from some Godforsaken place/ where they will kill a man, woman, boy or girl because of their race.” 

We’ve recently seen the announcement of Jay-Z’s Tidal donating money to movement organizations, as well as Beyoncé’s nod to the movement in her Superbowl halftime performance. What does this mean?

The quality of the movement has permeated the public discourse. This movement gave Beyoncé permission to do that. Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” comes out of after he has been in public conversation with Black Lives Matter founder Opal Tometi. These are movement victories.

Bakari Kitwana is the executive director of Rap Sessions, which is currently touring the nation leading town hall discussions on the theme “Election 2016: Reform or Revolution?” He is the author of the forthcoming "Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era."

*Post has updated since publication to reflect that Bryan Trench took the photograph rather than Sara Swaty​.