This week, St. Louis activist and theologian Reverend Osagyefo Sekou was acquitted of charges stemming from his involvement in a 2014 protest for slain teenager Michael Brown. The reverend had been arrested for kneeling down to pray in front of a line of riot police in Ferguson, Missouri.
A prominent leader in the movement for Black lives, Rev. Sekou has traveled the diaspora protesting police brutality and injustice, connecting protestors and supporting local initiatives from Ferguson to Palestine. He and his musical partner, Jay-Marie “Holy Ghost” Hill, have now channeled the hurt, frustration, anger and joy of the movement and the streets into an album, The Revolution Has Come.
“We just had the blues and had to sing,” says Rev. Sekou, sharing why he needed to release this gospel-soul-funk album with Hill (whom he met after police pepper-sprayed Hill during a protest in Cleveland). With lyrics laced with the chants of Black Lives Matter protestors across the country and full of an audible love for the people, The Revolution Has Come adds to a growing soundtrack of collective Black struggle.
Featuring a ballad for murdered trans woman Lamia Beard (“Past Time”), an ode to the women pillars of the Black Lives Matter movement (“Sanctified”) and a fiery first single expressing the movement’s rallying cry (“We Comin’ ”), The Revolution Has Come offers soul-level medicine for a weary people.
Now that Rev. Sekou has been found not guilty, he and Holy Ghost plan to tour the country promoting the album. EBONY.com caught up with the reverend to talk about everything from the message in his music to Campaign Zero founder DeRay Mckesson’s Baltimore mayoral run, and what’s next for the movement.
EBONY: This album sounds like a declaration that All Black Lives Matter. You’ve teamed up with Hill, an Afro-Latinx genderqueer singer-songwriter, and you’re highlighting Black trans lives and deaths in your songs. As a reverend, why was this inclusive message important to your music?
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou: That’s just the reality of the movement itself. These songs were written about the radical, revolutionary women I know in my life. It’s the three founders of Black Lives Matter: Alicia [Garza], Opal [Tometti] and Pattrisse [Cullors]—I call them the Holy Trinity.
The song “Sanctified,” was actually written about my first wife, Tammy, who has endured a lot based on my life choices. It’s my grandmother. It’s Mrs. Roberta, whom I used to read to growing up. It’s written against the backdrop of the amazing Palestinian women I’ve organized with, the young women in the streets: [activists] Ashley Yates, Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrel and Kayla Reed. These are names that will ring in history.
Over 30 musicians, producers and engineers in Ferguson and Oakland produced this record and invested in this for little to no money. It’s not a movement record because we’re singing about the movement. It’s the movement that produced this record.
EBONY: On the song, “Heaven,” in addition to seeing God, you sing, “I just want to hear Sandra Bland say, ‘well done.’ ” As a reverend and a Christian, explain how you’re bringing faith to the streets in a few different ways.
OS: On one level, we’re attempting to do some theological work. It’s not just about getting rest in Heaven, as in “the sweet by-and-by.” When we’re in the streets protesting, that’s a little taste of Heaven. And we struggle in the names of the people we’ve lost. Sandra [Bland], Michael [Brown], Laquan [McDonald], Rekiya [Boyd], Aiyana [Stanley-Jones], Kimberly King. We struggle in their names, and I believe their spirits guide us.
EBONY: The past few years seem to have been especially hard and dangerous for Black people. Why do you choose to do this work in the streets?
OS: The prison industrial complex impacts one in three Black men in America. So being arrested, facing jail time… in that sense, I’m not that unique. But I’ve experienced a lot of love in the process. From my uncles to the drug dealers in St. Louis who gave me book money for college—it’s the folks who made me this way. Who am I to complain?
It did present some challenges for my family, but I also pray that my family chooses this life. Because I get up every day and I do what I was born to do, and that’s part of what freedom looks like: when we can get up every day and do what we were born to do.
EBONY: How can protestors continue to effect tangible change on a macro level? DeRay Mckesson, for example, is now running for Baltimore mayor. Is attaining political office the way to enact radical change?
OS: The reason that Bernie Sanders is polling at the level he’s polling at is because poor Black kids took the streets in Ferguson and created the political context where someone who is an open socialist could run and be a viable candidate. You don’t get Bernie Sanders without Ferguson. You don’t get Hillary Clinton responding to the public discourse about Black lives mattering without Ferguson. Because she’s had to respond to political pressure, particularly from Black Lives Matter activists who have been in her face. That is a victory for the social movement.
The question before us is whether or not someone in proximity of the broader movement for Black lives can maintain the radical policies that are of the streets. If the social movement produces leaders who have neoliberal policies and believe in the privatization of public good, i.e., charter schools, that’s an indictment of our movement. Because we have not done our work to ensure that we are talking about quality across the board public education for everyone. We have not been forceful in our rendering of that as a demand.
It’s the same with brother DeRay’s run. The question is: will his politics reflect the doings and sufferings of the social movement that is afoot that produced him, that propelled him to visibility?
EBONY: You say that neither Sanders nor Clinton are adequate to respond to the needs of the movement. So is voting for the lesser of two evils our only option?
OS: I think we continue to lay out a broader program that looks at the possibilities of a reimagined democracy. Right-wing populism is ultimately dangerous, but they’re not the most dangerous. It’s the anemic liberalism that refuses to take hard positions, including a spineless democratic party.
EBONY: If the democratic party is the most dangerous, how can allies work within the party to root out what you call the spinelessness?
OS: I’m not much for the discourse around allies. Ruby Sales, the SNCC activist, said, “we don’t need allies, we need freedom fighters.” Until White folks realize that racism, sexism, transphobia, classism—the way in which capitalism limits not only the life chances of Black people and brown people and Native American folks, but that they’re spiritually in danger of ceasing to be human because of White supremacy—we won’t get any real traction in this country.
EBONY: Yet your album ends with the title track, “The Revolution Has Come,” and it’s so hopeful. You declare “We’ve already won.” How do you maintain hope in the face of a history, a present and a future that seems very unhopeful?
OS: That’s part of what it means to be Black in America: to be hopeful in the face of hopelessness. My grandmama sang a song: “I’m too busy working for my Jesus/I ain’t got time to die.” That’s just who we are.
Black people have always been the arbitrators, the adjudicators of democracy. Perhaps it is our lot, our fate in America, to call it into question and hold it accountable to its greatest ideals. We speak those things that are not as though they were and we hold on a little while longer because we believe everything’s going to be all right. We make a way out of no way.
Brooke Obie is a spiritual life writer and editor in New York. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.