Where many artists take a political or ideological stand in song alone, their words little more than sloganeering, Rev. Sekou practices that which he preaches. Literally. Ordained at the Friendly Temple Baptist Church of St. Louis in the mid-1990s, he served not only as the church’s youth pastor, but also taught alternatives to gang violence at Steven’s Middle School and directed the Fellowship Center at the Cochran Housing Project throughout the decade. In other words, Rev. Sekou is deeply rooted in the movement for social change within his community. And that was just the beginning. In the intervening years he’s written thoughtfully on working with at-risk youth in St. Louis as well as religion and hip-hop’s place in modern culture. He has also continued his work as a pastor, serving at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church in Queens, Judson Memorial Church and Middle Collegiate Church, both in New York.
In the more secular realm, he has served on the National Political Hip Hop Convention Platform Committee, founded the local Interfaith Worker Justice Center in New Orleans after moving to the city to help it rebuild following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In 2010 he traveled to Bolivia and served as a delegate to the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, while in 2012 he traveled to the West Bank as a member of the Dorothy Cotton Institute Palestinian/Israeli Non Violence Project’s delegation of US Civil Rights Leaders. He was appointed Associate Fellow in Religion and Justice at the Institute for Policy Studies, and was a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute.
It was around this time he traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, on behalf of the country’s oldest interfaith peace organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, to teach non-violent civil disobedience in the wake of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown. There he was arrested multiple times during the so-called Ferguson Uprising (he was subsequently found not guilty) while working to organize the community and participating in a sit-in at the Department of Justice.
With an ever-increasing list of social, cultural, political and ecological programs he either participated in or spearheaded on his CV, it’s little surprise that it wasn’t until 2015 that he began venturing into the realm of music as Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost. Together they released a single EP entitled The Revolution Has Come. Now, two years later, Rev. Sekou returns, with Luther and Cody Dickinson in tow, with his first solo release, the appropriately titled In Times Like These.
Given the Dickinson’s pedigree both individually and as members of the North Mississippi All Stars, it’s little surprise that the vast majority of In Times Like These is steeped in dirty, sweaty blues and gospel over top of which Rev. Sekou seeks to vocally embody the sentiments conveyed on songs like “Muddy and Rough”, the title track and the blistering opener, “Resist”. It is here that he quickly sets the stage for what is to come, opening with a fiery spoken-word passage not unlike that which opened D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. “No matter what you do, no matter what you say, you can lie on us, you can scandalize our names, we will not bow down!” Settling into a march-like gospel groove, the track conjures images of interlocked arms moving in unison in the face of social injustice and oppression chanting, “We want freedom / And we want it now!” over slashing slide guitar and New Orleans-style piano.
Taking to the musical pulpit, Rev. Sekou creates a mesmerizing fusion of modern blues and gospel to address the ills of society he has seen and experienced first-hand. As if reporting from the front lines of racial intolerance, his is a voice fraught with an intense urgency to push towards change. On the title track he issues the rallying cry of, “In times like these / We need a miracle / Ain’t nobody gonna save us / We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It’s a powerful statement of self-empowerment, taking the oft-quoted axiom “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and making it real, viscerally literal and a powerful call to action in what are truly uncertain times.
“Burnin’ and Lootin’” takes the social injustices executed in Ferguson and St. Louis to church, calling to task the cops “dressed in uniforms of brutality” while also addressing the physical destruction wrought by those perhaps unsure how best to vent their escalating frustrations. It’s a complex series of ideas delivered as a surging minor-key gospel blues featuring some fierce slide work from Dickinson going hand-in-hand with Rev. Sekou’s fiery preaching. “Just like fire…in your bones / But nobody’s listening / You keep cryin’ / But nobody’s listening,” he concludes, showing his sympathies while also serving as a listening ear and a voice for positive change.
“If my blood’s gonna spill, let it be on the battlefield / We who believe in freedom cannot rest now,” he moans on “We Who Believe” over a martial snare, the sentiments a call to arms for those striving for change and those who desire change but perhaps spend their time shouting from the sidelines of social media and other virtual platforms that ultimately do little in the face of true physical action. “I’m gonna fly away / To a land where joy shall never end,” he practically shouts with the fervency of the preacher he has long been, the words increasing in volume and urgency as they are repeated time and again on “Old Time Religion”.
Only on the Southern soul of “Loving You Is Killing Me” does he remain firmly rooted in the secular and apolitical. While a phenomenal track in and of itself, it feels more than a little out of place within this spiritually and politically-charged context (the spoken aside of, “Shit, I think we got a record” at track’s end doesn’t exactly help matters). It’s an extremely minor complaint given the overall strength and depth of Rev. Sekou’s work as a force for change both in the real world and here on record, especially given the triumphant closing track “Problems,” which fills the listener with a sense of euphoric hope for a better future if we only try. It’s a seriously uplifting closing statement that reaches the listener like the best of sermons.
In Times Like These is prescient in its contemporary urgency and cultural analysis, yet it could just as well have been written more than half a century or more ago given how little has changed as we as a country and society continue to claim great strides in forward progress. Now more than ever we need more artists and advocates for real change like Rev. Sekou. Let’s hope that his underlying messages throughout In Times Like These reach and resonate with the generation poised to do the most good in terms of affecting change.
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