living colour founder vernon reid talks to us about the upcoming sekou sundiata career retrospective. #soundcheck

April 22, 2013

Vernon Reid is the legendary guitarist of the band Living Colour and the founder of the Black Rock Coalition. He’ll be performing as part of a retrospective of the career of the late great poet, performer, and teacher Sekou Sundiata at the Apollo on April 27th in New York. I spoke to him about Sekou’s work and legacy while under lockdown with the entire city of Boston. It is truly surreal to discuss existentialist art with one of your favorite musicians while your hometown is effectively under martial law. Somehow I think Sekou would have laughed.

Interview by Nathan Leigh

What was your relationship with Sekou Sundiata?


Sekou Sundiata was like a mentor to me. I met Sekou Sundiata back in the 80s. One of the early drummers with Living Color was JT Lewis. He was doing a gig with Sekou’s band. And he said “oh man, you gotta see this poet I’m playing with.” And I went to the gig and I was instantly transfixed by his presence, by the sound of his voice, by his wordcraft. I was immediately like “this cat is as great as Gil Scott-Heron.” And he was just at City College. And this dude was as good as Gil Scott-Heron, easily. And JT introduced me to him, and he’s a very friendly, avuncular dude. But what bonded me to Sekou was, we just started kicking it, and the subject of our birthdays came up, and Sekou and I were born on the exact same day ten years apart. So Sekou’s exactly ten years older than me. And that’s really what began our friendship.


Was he involved with the Black Rock Coalition?


Yeah he was. Very early on. At one of our first performances we did at the Collective, at the Kitchen Center for Art downtown, Sekou did a spoken word performance with the band. It was amazing.


Did you collaborate with him at all?


I was an off-again on-again member of the band dadahdoodahda. He had a band Sekou and the Kou, that was the band I saw when I met him, but he had another band dadahdoodahda. He was a big fan of James Brown. I was off-again on-again in that band. And that’s how I met Michael Hill, because Michael Hill was also in that band. I actually wrote some grooves for him. We did a bunch of stuff together.


How did the retrospective come about?


I think a bunch of artists that were associated with Sekou Sundiata got together and did the kind of larger pieces like blessing the boats and worked collecting his body of work and reinterpreting it.


Were you involved at all in planning it?


No, but I’m going to be performing at the Apollo.


What are you going to do?


You know, they haven’t told me yet. It might be one of the old dadahdoodahda songs, but I guess I’ll find out when they let me know!


Isn’t that like in a week?


Uh-huh! There are rehearsals. But right now I’m out with Living Colour. We’re doing these 25th anniversary of Vivid shows. Once we’re through that, I’ll be at rehearsals.


It seems like there are a lot of successful musicians who started as students of Sekou’s. Yourself, Ani DiFranco, Mike Daughtry of Soul Coughing. What do you think inspired about him inspired so many people to create so much great art?


Because Sekou was a person that inspired people to read between the lines. To really find themselves. He was an interesting guy, because he would function inside of these institutions as a teacher, but he was not an institutional dude. He was very much an outsider. And he loved the outside perspective. And he encouraged people to develop their own perspective on things. He was not a guy who just had a narrow focus. I mean, he had his focus that was somewhat Afro-centric, but he also had a global focus. He would respond to other evidence. He would respond to new technology. He would respond to new information. He was very inspiring in that way. He was very much a people person. He was the kind of dude who would inspire people to do their best and to find the best in themselves.


What do you hope young people who may have never heard of Sekou will take away from the retrospective?


I think that what younger students, younger artists would get is a perspective that puts them in line with the continuum of art. Like the struggles they’re having are not new struggles. The issues that they’re dealing with are not new issues. Of course, the technology is different, and your individual issues are your own. But what is truth? What is beauty? What does it mean to be in the world? What does it mean to be an individual? How do you deal with the unexpected? What do you do when things take a left turn? And these are all things that Sekou grapples with. And grapples with very well; very powerfully. The random nature, the existential nature of existence. When you see an old guy playing the blues, you think of it maybe from the perspective “oh that’s old.” But Sekou would be the guy who would let you know “no, no no, this is current. It’s actually very current.” He’d hear things from a different way and relate it to things you are right now.


That’s why Nina Simone is still a powerful voice in a contemporary way. Sekou Sundiata is an artist like that. Because the things that Nina Simone is talking about are still true. They will always be true. And Sekou would invite a young person to understand that you are a part of something that is ongoing, and will be ongoing. And that’s the power of what he did. That something authentic, and I don’t mean in that sort of ghetto authentic like “yo, that dude is from that block” and blah blah blah, but in a universal way. The universal nature of existence. The young become old in the blink of an eye. The planet is billions of years old, and that’s just a moment in the universe. And that’s the facts! You know what I mean? The sooner a young person gets that, the more powerful and effective they can be in developing their voice. The sooner you get off of being whatever other people are telling you to be—whether that’s your peer group, or your professors, or whatever—the sooner you get into the things you don’t like about, that’s really you’re shit, the sooner you’re going to advance. That’s what I got from him!


So what’s going on with Living Colour right now?


We’re on tour right now. We’ve been playing Vivid as a concert, and it’s been a very cool thing. Because playing the record in it’s sequence—I mean we often play Cult of Personality and all that stuff—but playing the record in it’s actual sequence as it was on the record has given us a kind of new perspective.


Are there any deep cuts you’re rediscovering?


A song like “I Want to Know,” we kind of stopped playing it because it was kind of too pop. But it’s the second song on the record, right after “Cult of Personality.” It’s definitely had me re-think how I think about it. I used to like when we played it in clubs, but when we did it, I really disagreed with the direction the producer took it in. But now I realize I have a great deal of affection for it. Things like that or “Broken Hearts,” we hardly ever play “Broken Hearts” and now we play it all the time. It’s kind of fun. One of the best moments was “Which Way To America” and we have this chant “where’s my VCR, where’s my stereo blah blah blah” And I go VCR? That’s obsolete.


Yeah, I mean you’re playing to kids who were born with DVD players!


Right! A VCR wasn’t even in their grandma’s house.


So what else are you guys working on? Any plans for a new record?


Yeah definitely! We’re working on stuff. I’ll be writing throughout the year. I’m really excited about what we’re gonna do. And I just wanted to say, I’m very very proud of what the Afropunk movement is doing. The conversation about rock and roll and other things. It’s important for the next generation to take it on. So it’s great. It really is.

* About the project: ‘Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited‘ is a “New York City-wide retrospective that runs through October 2013″ “featuring theater, poetry, music concerts and humanities events“.