Thursday, August 23, 2007

sekou's big night

i wore southern funeral clothes, a circa 1950-something elegant black crepe dress with a draped bustle and matching jacket that i found in a vintage clothing store in montreal. it was soggy and miserable so i sloshed through the streets in black cowboy boots and toted my black high-heeled sunday-go-to-meeting pumps in my oversized bag. i was dizzy with grief and longing and joy, and a wierd nostalgia for the future that would never be. i was happy that they asked to sing and i was sorry that they asked me to sing. i was terrified that i would lose it onstage and burst into tears like a three year old. i could do better than that. sekou deserved much more, in tribute.

earlier that day, i called john f. and asked him to do me the huge favor of being my lovely date for the evening, because my friend had to work late. and like the true friend that he is, he said yes without hesistation. of course he knew who sekou was. he had one of his records on cassette. (wow.) i also asked him to bring me some black cloth. i wanted to look elegant and ladylike. i wanted a headwrap.

on the way there, i found myself drifting back and forth inbetween strange and loving memories of sekou. ever mindful that these things exist as i choose to remember them, i tried to be objective, anyway. still and all, there was always his calm demeanor and the smooth, unruffled sound of his voice. there was his southern countenance, the look and expression that reminded me so much of home and everything that i knew to be decent and real and good. and always, there was always the hint of a smile on his face whenever he spoke to me, a look of contented bemusement that took hold of him whenever he was near me. it was ever so slight and it was sincere and it was as bright as the sun. he liked me, he respected me but more importantly, he got me, as an artist -- in all of my urban heartland glory. no wonder it made me feel so good to be near him. no wonder i was always so happy to see him. no wonder.

i had known sekou for practically my entire time in new york city, almost as long as i'd known kelvyn bell. and although it really wasn't all that long ago, it felt like forever. was he really gone? it didn't feel like it.

so there i was, running down the street in the rain in a vintage dress and cowboy boots and that big bag of mine, my hair all over the place, headed toward the memorial at tishman hall, knowing that singing that song would be hard for me, and wondering how hard that would be.

i went backstage and i found marvin sewell, who had already transcribed the song because i cleaned my apartment and i couldn't find the sheet music. and after we went through it, i went out into the back end of the lobby from the "back stage" door where there was coffee and tea and soft drinks. i walked into kelvyn, looking shorn and vulnerable. and i cried. and he threw his arms around me and chided me, smiling. and i couldn't stop crying and crying and crying. i don't know why. it hurt so much to see him. it hurt, and it felt so good. i remember saying to him, when i finally regained the ability to speak, i said, i'm not wearing this dress to your funeral. he tried to laugh. and i tried to laugh. it felt like i was dying, or something. later, i think i told him, if anything happens to you, i'll kill you. and he said, i know. and he laughed his head off, for real on that one, probably because he knew that it was true.

there was a blur of people that i hadn't seen in a long time. lots of guitar players and musicians and actors and poets and on and on and on. ronny drayton and freddy cash and malik yoba and amiri baraka and danny glover. as i stood waiting for john f. in front of my alma mater, nona hendrix and vicki wickham rolled up in a taxi and breezed past me with a friendly hello in stereo. sure enough, john zipped up in his snap-on roller skates like a black superhero. of course his immediate remark was, what were you talking about? your hair looks great! we popped backstage where he pulled out three kinds of black fabric from his backpack -- a slippery satin, a cotton lycra and something much stiffer. i took the latter and, with much resistance from me, he cut the other piece to fit our creation with an exacto knife out of his leather bag. ("are you kidding me?" he quipped. "i can get you a bolt of this stuff for nothing.") this is the guy that made my dress when i sang at the white house, so i could look spectacular for the president and first lady. 'nuff said.

as he cut the strands of string from my headwrap with the exacto knife, i listened to the performers onstage and i started to get choked up again. it was all so overwhelming. so i told john what i was afraid of, what i felt. this is his true gift, i think -- he said the perfect thing to me, the thing that completely chilled me out and gave me all the objectivity that i needed to do my best. he said, now is not that time, to weep and moan and flip out and throw yourself onto the casket. now is the time to remember and celebrate and reflect. and pow! it was like a switch went off inside of me. just like that, the waterworks shut down completely, and i was as serene as the queen mother herself.

the rest of the night went by rather quickly, in quicktime, but slowly. there were so many beautiful moments. it was lovely to see everyone standing in the wings, clumped together because there was absolutely no room, just to watch and hear what everyone else was doing. the theater was packed and there were three or four large rooms on the fourth floor that had video simulcasting. people spilled out into the hallway to see what was going on. just standing there, peering in, looking over someone else's shoulder, laughing and clapping and carrying on as though they were in the main room.

at the end, his brother put together a video montage of his baby photos and childhood years and such. there was a video from the 70's of him onstage, going for it at some outdoor festival with a live band and these afroed back up singers. they looked like a bunch of black hippies. and of course they included clips of him from hbo's def poetry jam. i was genuinely surprised to not see ani di franco on the bill. it was so beautiful. everyone loved him so much.

oh. and about my little number...

i sang a song that sekou always wanted to hear from me -- the most popular country song ever, actually -- tammy wynette's stand by your man. (i had to find someone when i got there and tell them that it wasn't patsy cline's song because that's what they had in their speaker's notes. oh, boy.) i could tell that the audience was pretty wary of me because they had no idea who i was or what i would say and it's a country song, which isn't supposed to mix with black people, and certainly not black people who live in cities. but because sekou loved my rendition so much, they were genuinely curious as to why. before i ripped into it, i explained that i always thought the song was a black girl's anthem and i also told them that it went over massively well in the ghetto, for some strange reason -- which got a roar of applause and approval from the audience. thank God i know what to do on stage in front of an audience. i got through it with laughter instead of tears. later at the end of the song, they seemed to be just as surprised as anyone else that they themselves were singing along -- and loving it. i can't even tell you h0w many black people came up to me, smiling and shaking their heads in wonder and saying, i will never ever hear that song the same way again because of you. sekou just loved it, someone said excitedly, clapping her hands, you know he did!

mission accomplished.

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