The Power of the Minor Key
Twenty miles west of where the Missouri river diverges from the rib of the Mississippi sits the town of Ferguson. This northern suburb of St. Louis, once a blip on the map, now remains lodged like Jerusalem in the viscera of American consciousness, the city whose son Mike Brown, an unarmed black teen, was killed by Officer Darren Wilson at 12:03 p.m. on August 9, 2014.
News of the 12 bullets riddled in Brown’s body spread throughout the country like wildfire. Peeled away were the commercial untruths and veneers of reconciliation. Instead the expanding fault lines of America’s racial divide were revealed in their seemingly infinite manifestations. The anguish of Brown’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, was broadcast on the 5 o’clock news. Her statements echoed those of Mamie Till 60 years earlier: “This could be your child. This could be anybody’s child.”
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou was one of those present at the Ferguson protests. He noted two years later in a speech to Stanford University students: “[Saying] that Black Lives Matter, is a revolutionary act in a context when, every day in America, some mother is writing the obituary of her child — which might be the eulogy of the democracy.”
After he spoke at Stanford, Rev. Sekou flew home in order to face arrest charges garnered while leading a peaceful prayer for Michael Brown during the Ferguson protests in September of 2014. In a short YouTube video, Sekou is pictured outside of the Ferguson Police Department, kneeling in collar and vestments alongside some 40 faith leaders. Community members stand and kneel behind them, with right hands placed on the shoulders of the clergy in front.
With head bowed, Sekou delivers the message: “We say now to the police — we have already won and you are on the wrong side of history.” Sekou is then dragged from prayer by two officers, handcuffed and shoved into a police vehicle — an incident that has come to be known as “Praying while Black.”
It reportedly took less than 20 minutes for the St. Louis County jury to hand down a determination of innocence at Sekou’s trial in February of 2016 — a prosecution that Sekou’s lawyer, Jeryll Christmas, determined to be “a serious waste of resources” by the City of Ferguson, which according to Mariah Stewart at The Huffington Post, has a long history of generating revenue due to its ticketing practices on black and poor residents.
After the marches in Ferguson, Sekou, a man who had come to be known kaleidoscopically as a pastor, theologian, writer, public intellectual and political organizer, felt a new pull toward music. “I went to college on a vocal performing scholarship,” he says. “I actually thought in my late teens and 20s that I’d be doing opera and Broadway. I sang in five foreign languages, performed in concert choirs and state competitions, played in a couple bands in college, and sang in a band in Boston while I was pastoring their call. And of course I would sing in protests.
“Part of being trained as a Southern organizer at the Highlander Center [in East Tennessee, is learning how] music is an essential part of the Black Freedom Movement and everyone from Pete Seeger to the SNCC Freedom Singers [was] a part of that,” he adds. “But at one level I had the blues, and I had to sing at a real basic level. So at 46, it’s a return to my first love,” he concluded.
Sekou’s newest release In Times Like These helps us feel this return. The album has a raw urgency about it; every song contains an eschatological imperative — a message within a message.
The first track, “Resist,” features an excerpt of a fiery sermon: “You can lie on us, you can scandalize our name. We will not bow down!” The song explores ideas of resistance in all their forms, urging the listener to not only confront racism, but to extend the fight to capitalism and homophobia.
Many of the melodies in the album feel triumphant, even joyful. The record’s title track, “In Times Like These,” contains upbeat, early dancehall-influenced rhythms and vocals. The reverend negotiated the sonic emotions of the record with great intent. “That joy that you hear, it’s the joy of Johnny Cash,” says Sekou. “It’s the joy of Othar Turner. It’s the joy of Rosetta Tharpe. It’s the joy of Pete Seeger. It’s the way in which people have took their suffering and bent it into a minor key.”
Sekou’s friend and producer Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars recorded In Times Like These in the woods of Coldwater, Mississippi. He says the location had a tremendous influence on the songs. “We were off in the back woods in Coldwater,” says Sekou, “and as we’re recording the record, we could hear dogs barking.” Impacted by the sounds around them, the pair interspersed small excerpts of sermons, chain gangs, and crackling thunderstorms throughout the album.
In the old congregational song, “Lord I Am Running,” the listener hears these barking dogs come alive. Sekou explains that song features “a kind of John the Baptist character in Mississippi trying to make some sense of the world, who has hell’s hounds on his tracks. It’s an attempt to capture the spirit of the recording process.”
Coldwater is only an hour’s drive from Zent, Arkansas where the reverend was raised. In our recent interview, he discussed being able to visit Zent throughout the recording process and stand at his grandmother’s grave, rooting him deeper in the understanding of the purpose of the album as a way to touch home, a town with 11 houses and 35 people. Sekou describes his grandparents as good people who lifted him up and encouraged him; he says he had a happy childhood despite the visceral presence of Jim Crow laws and sundown towns in Arkansas.
When asked about how he structures his live performance, Sekou notes that he considers his shows as “church without the bullshit.” His ultimate goal is to present concerts as safe spaces where all people can feel welcome. The power in the music is palpable; armed only with his voice, Sekou commands seven-piece bands and belts out the truth. His banter onstage is a litany for those who so often find themselves erased, appropriated, and demeaned in today’s culture.
Ultimately, Sekou is singing about himself and the struggles of American people: “There is no understanding of American Roots music without understanding the legacy of poor people who have struggled in opposition to elites,” he says. People have used music as a way to stay alive and keep track of their own humanity while others were attempting to deny it. The music of the Black Lives Matter Movement comes from the same foundation as that of the Civil Rights Movement, he explains. The pain of Mike Brown is that of Emmett Till.
Sekou thus succeeds in affirming dignity for all in every song. “You can’t understand American roots music without a fundamental understanding that these people are singing and their bellies are hungry,” he says. “They are struggling to feed their families. And when they can do nothing else, they can sing a song. And that cuts across race.”