There was a great deal of hand-wringing about the dearth of protest art being made over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, and after the election of Donald Trump. These hand-wringers, however, appear not to have looked very hard at all.
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou and Jay-Marie Hill met on the frontlines of a 2015 Movement for Black Lives protest. After being pepper sprayed arbitrarily by police at the demonstration, where activists were demanding the release of an illegally detained 14 year old, Reverend Sekou helped wash the toxins out of Hill’s eyes. Several weeks later, they would title themselves Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost, and release their anthemic record, The Revolution Has Come.
Sekou and Hill both come from long, rich traditions and backgrounds of art and activism. Hill (she/they) is a Black and Boricua genderqueer artist, musician, teacher and youth organizer from the Bay area. Reverend Sekou, described by Cornel West as “one of the most courageous and prophetic voices of our time,” is a 3rd generation Pentecostal preacher, public intellectual, author and Black Lives Matter activist, whose philosophies emerge from liberation theology and Arkansas Delta blues culture. Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost is the love child of the pair’s histories, cultural legacies, experiences and knowledge.
Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost’s sound is expansive in its influences and musical infrastructure — drawing on blues, gospel, soul, funk and freedom songs — but singular in its “deep, bone-marrow-level conviction” in the truths they sing about: that black lives matter; that people have power when they come together; that a revolution is here and strengthening. The radiant dissent, joy, hope and conviction in their music offers a kind of catharsis, rejuvenation and exhilaration that is necessary for all of us who are engaging with political life in America today.
The Cornell American Studies Department will host Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost this Tuesday, as a part of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Freedom Interrupted series, which explores the intersections of race, gender, nation and policing through artistic and scholarly events.
Prof. Noliwe Rooks, Africana Studies, said of the upcoming concert, “Those of us involved in the Freedom Interrupted collaboration understand that there can be no true struggle for an illuminated freedom that does not include art and artists. As James Baldwin once wrote, ‘The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.’ Reverend Sekou is from just such a tradition.”
Art has a unique and vital role to play in times of struggle and rupture, like those which we are experiencing in America today. Prof. Sabine Haenni, American Studies, commented “Historically, art has often been most innovative when connected to social and political movements. Protest art can simultaneously generate reflection and energy, and really carry a movement.”
It can open our eyes to injustice — and it can also remind us that we are neither powerless, nor alone. Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost’s sounds and words of protest do both.
The Cornell American Studies Department will host a concert by Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost on Tuesday, at 7 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca.
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou will also speak Monday evening on “The Task of the Artist in the Time of Monsters.” at 4:45 p.m. in Goldwin Smith Hall 142. Both the concert and the lecture are free and open to the public.