Sekou Sundiata Dies at 58
Sekou Sundiata, a poet and performance artist whose work explored slavery, subjugation and the tension between personal and national identity, especially as they inform the black experience in America, died on Wednesday in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 58 and lived in Brooklyn.
The cause was heart failure, said his producer, Ann Rosenthal. At his death, Mr. Sundiata was a professor in the writing program of Eugene Lang College of New School University.
Mr. Sundiata’s art, which defied easy classification, ranged from poems performed in the style of an oral epic to musical, dance and dramatic works infused with jazz, blues, funk and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In general, as he once said in a television interview, it entailed “the whole idea of text and noise, cadences and pauses.”
His work was performed widely throughout the United States and abroad, staged by distinguished organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. Among Mr. Sundiata’s most recent works was “the 51st (dream) state,” an interlaced tapestry of poetry, music, dance and videotaped interviews that explores what it means to be an American in the wake of 9/11.
His other works include “Udu,” a staged oratorio about slavery in present-day Mauritania, with music by Craig Harris; “blessing the boats,” a one-man show, autobiographically inspired, about Mr. Sundiata’s experiences of heroin addiction, a debilitating car crash and a kidney transplant; and “The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop,” a collaboration with Mr. Harris about black Americans coming of age in the 1960s.
Writing in The New York Times in 1993, D .J. R. Bruckner reviewed a production of “The Circle Unbroken” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe:
“This is a remarkably smooth work, its complex stories and ideas bound together by the vivid, memorable poetry of Mr. Sundiata. And in one tornadic scene, the poet lets the audience hear all at once the range of his vocabulary and voice: Mr. Sundiata becomes a young, crazed homeless man on the street, and in eight minutes pours out a torrent of grief, humor and shrewd insight that leaves one simply astonished.”
Mr. Sundiata was born Robert Franklin Feaster in Harlem on Aug. 22, 1948; he adopted the African name Sekou Sundiata in the late 1960s. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from City College of New York in 1972 and a master’s degree in creative writing from the City University of New York in 1979.
He is survived by his wife, Maurine Knighton, known as Kazi; a daughter, Myisha Gomez of Manhattan; a stepdaughter, Aida Riddle of Brooklyn; his mother, Virginia Myrtle Singleton Feaster of Kingstree, S.C.; two brothers, William Feaster of Belleville, N.J., and Ronald Feaster of Manhattan; and one grandchild.
Mr. Sundiata, who performed with the folk rock artist Ani DiFranco as part of her Rhythm and News tour in 2001, released several CDs of music and poetry, including “The Blue Oneness of Dreams” (Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records) and “longstoryshort” (Righteous Babe Records). His work was also featured on television, on the HBO series “Def Poetry” and the PBS series “The Language of Life.