is a multi-part series that will share conversations with influential artists, leaders, and unsung heroes within our neighborhoods. In an era that teeters between social revolution and stagnation,
we need to tap into our own communities’ insight and wisdom. ~ Tyra
2020 has been on one.
Global pandemic. Racial reckoning. Political corruption and chaos. Never in my lifetime has the sense of loss and suffering been so apparent in this country. We are divided as a nation, yet the collective yearning for connection and unity is more crucial than ever. Particularly important for Black folks is the need to come together to process the trauma inflicted upon us each time one of our brothers or sisters is murdered at the hands of the police. Phillando Castille. Armaud Arbery. Breanna Taylor. George Floyd ... yes, we all know we must say their names! Yet saying these names (and the hundreds of others) straddles the complex space between empowerment and retraumatization.
Last month, in an attempt to satisfy my need for this kind of empowerment- this cultural connection - I met up with Frank Sentwali Gardner. Gardner, known as Sentwali, is the co-founder of Edupoetic Enterbrainment: a rhythmic jazz/hip hop/reggae infused/spoken word band hailing from the Twin Cities. Edupoetic claimed notoriety in the Twin Cities from the late 1990’s through 2005. Hands down, Sentwali is one of the most profound poets I’ve ever known personally, so hearing how he had been managing life through a global pandemic and his city’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd was highly personal to me.
On Sentwali’s insistence, our conversation occurred amid a backdrop not often enjoyed by Blacks in Minnesota: A quaint resort on Bay Lake in Deerwood, Minnesota (about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities). Standing at 6’3”, with smooth, dark skin and a booming voice that registers at a Barry White octave, Sentwali is hard to miss -- especially in Deerwood, Minnesota. Full disclosure: I was skeptical about the venue he chose for our conversation. We would be spending two days in an area where bumper stickers on pick-up trucks revealed unwavering support for our current president.
Despite the location and my fears about riding in “Putt-Putt”, the name he affectionately calls his small fishing boat, I knew I could count on good conversation and prophetic insight. Logging nearly 250 highway miles and another 50 miles on the water, I delved into the deeply personal thoughts of one of the most profound spoken word artists of our time.
I call him Sentwali: an astute scholar, poet, and modern griot. He calls himself Frank: a father, son, poet, artist, educator, pioneer, and work in progress.
JCMT: Where were you when the civil unrest started after George Floyd’s murder, and what was your initial reaction?
Sentwali: I was in Superior, Wisconsin visiting my childhood friend trying to get my mind away from life. I spent time visiting the spot where we spread my dad’s ashes in Lake Superior at his favorite spot in Gooseberry Falls. My first thought was my family and whether I needed to go home to get them out of the city. Or if my children (and their mothers) were okay. At the same time, I was thinking, Well, this isn’t new. And this probably won’t be the last time we’re here.
When they dispatched the reserve, it made me think of the poem “After the War.” But then, I got concerned about my family and started making plans to get to a meeting point if we needed to get out of the state or out of the country.
At this point, Sentwali gets distracted when he notices a car on the shoulder of the highway. He laughs, and I ask why.
Sentwali: I don’t know if that car just broke down or if that parent’s just fed up, but the kids are on the side of the road doing burpees. That sounds like something I would do.
He goes into what seems to be an impromptu comedic skit that reveals his parenting style: part comedian and part disciplinarian. We laugh while diving into a topic that may need a bit of levity.
JCMT: So, did you ever get your family out of the city?
Sentwali: No. When I came back that following Monday, my family and I went to 38th and Chicago. I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute. For better or worse, I sat this one out.
JCMT: Tell me more about that because I remember talking to you after the protests began and saying, ‘Sentwali! What are you gonna do?’ Cause in my mind, they needed you on the front lines!
Sentwali: I felt exactly like Dave Chapelle. I am 46 going on 47. I am not in the streets. I no longer reside in Minneapolis or St. Paul. I can do nothing that will have any more significant, more purposeful impact than the younger generation. I don’t just mean the younger generation on the streets working the protests. I mean even the young artists. I almost felt like it would have been arrogant or narcissistic for me to roll in to even engage in what they were doing. My source of pride and sense of accomplishment comes from knowing that I know so many of those young people. I knew them when they were teenagers and aspiring artists coming to venues that I created so that they could polish their steel. Now a number of them have their organizations, and the organizations are doing big work. So I got in where I fit in, which was [in the role of] the adult professional artist. Austene Van asked me to contribute to her “A Breath for George” documentary that her New Dawn theater company was doing, so I gladly did that. I utilized this energy for the virtual residencies and the online spoken word teaching that I was doing at the time. I didn’t feel like it was my place to jump on to the front lines or even jump into an advising or consulting platform. Some people are living the work right now: artists, lawyers, community activists, social activism planners, and organization heads. People are taking on these battles with city hall, with the mayor, and with the politicians. That’s what they do.
JCMT: So, are you saying you didn’t necessarily feel like it was your duty to lead?
Sentwali: I didn’t feel like it was my duty to lead. And I also didn’t feel like it was my duty to get involved where I wasn’t asked.
JCMT: So, did you get involved?
Sentwali: I did take my kids down to the youth march. But I didn’t feel like I needed to be “out there.” I do take great pride in my children being out there. My oldest son and my oldest daughter, who are in their 20’s and my 15-year-old, actively participated in several rallies, protests, and marches. My legacy was being carried on through my children and the young people I’ve influenced over the years.
JCMT: So, you mentioned after the war. Can you spit a little bit of that for me?
After the War
Like a prophet, I knew it was coming
The stagnation and procrastination had served to slow burn my preparation
Wasting time, gettin’ blunted, talkin’ about a revolution
Or chasing money justifyin’ that as our restitution
There we was, me and the homies
12 year and 12 beers, smokin’ up the atmosphere
Claimin’ conscious. Our way of dealing with the stress
Sheddin’ tears. Reminiscing about the fallen soldiers laid to rest
But it’s too late for that when troops start marchin’ down 94
And they backed by tanks sportin’ camouflage reserve corps gear
With rifles by their ear
Marshall law is in effect
It’s a 7pm curfew to keep in check the rebel soldiers blazin’ up the set
And nobody gets rest no more.
I’ll be damned if you’re Black and your back face a window
Minnesota: what would you do if it was here and for real
I’m talking Samuel Jackson time: Time to kill
Demons: Physical, lyrical, psychological, spiritual
God against the devil: The winner rules earth.
Are we going in reverse or fighting for the rebirth?
Check yo stamina!
I’m handin’ ya what you need to get in shape
But you got to go the distance-no matter how many rounds it takes
for after the war!
Sentwali: Whether we’re in shape will be proven in the longevity of this movement and what it accomplishes in the long run versus the energy created in that vacuum. But when I wrote that in ‘98/’99, I was marching with Rose Brewer and Chris Nissan when the police killed brother Abuka Sanders. I was the one upfront with the megaphone leading the march through the streets. Many of my friends who still live in the city were the brothers out patrolling their blocks with their glocks or their gats to make sure their 4-6 block radius stayed safe ... that houses didn’t get burned down. Had I still lived in St. Paul and been a part of those communities, I would have been right there. This stage of life I’m in now, my number one responsibility is to protect my wife and my children and the mothers of my children.
JCMT: So, you talked about not necessarily feeling like it was your place or time to lead. Yet, you still showed up. So, where does Frank Sentwali’s sense of duty to the community come from?
Sentwali: It comes from how I was raised, being the son of educators. My mother was a youth advocate and then high school counselor at St. Paul Central High. She taught the young Black girls about prominent [women] in African American history. She was the cheerleading coach at Central High, which was a big deal ’cause Central High was all of that in the ’80’s. There are several adults now in the St. Paul community that will flat out tell you: “Mrs. Ransom saved my life.” My father was at the University of Minnesota and taught Multicultural Relations. He was bound and determined to make sure that young students of color who came through the University system walked out with a degree. He was also the academic advisor for the football team. Many Black men would say, “I got a college degree because of your dad. I would have never made it at the U if it wasn’t for your father.”
When you have parents that have impacted people’s lives, that’s where I got my sense of duty. But the last thing I wanted to be was an educator. I didn’t want to teach nobody’s nothin’! I saw the wear and tear it put on my parents. Plus, I always wanted to be a sports commentator - the person on camera with the microphone reporting on sports. But even in high school, my summer job for the last couple of years before college was working with young people at a specialized summer school program at CET (Center for Employment Training) in St. Paul. The goal was to give kids the tutorship to help them pass the tests they needed to graduate, and I tutored the writing portion. At 17, my first year there, Gary Alas was the lead classroom teacher, and after the first week, he took about six freshmen and me to a room ... and asked me to come into the hall. He shut the door and said, “Ok. This is your class.” I was like, “Huh?” He was like, “You know how to teach this. I can tell. This is your class. You’re gonna make a great teacher one day.” So for two straight summers, I had my own [class].
JCMT: Ahh ... so did you teach them a little spoken word?
Sentwali: Well, I hadn’t even met spoken word at this point. I was just writing rhymes.
Sentwali: Yeah, raps!. I came back from college in ’94, and the winter of ’95 one of my best friends was murdered. The police -- still to this day -- call it a suicide. Between that happening and having family turmoil and being put out of the house by my dad, I got introduced to spoken word by my high school sweetheart. I was no longer with her in a romantic way, but she just happened to drive by me walking down the street one day. She pulled over, and we talked. She was a writer for the Star Tribune at the time and told me she was doing a story on a spoken word spot. I didn’t know what the hell spoken word was. She told me there was a place called “The Bombshelter” and they performed spoken word on Friday nights. She was like, “I think you’d enjoy coming.” So I went. And when I walked in the door, I saw many people that I knew from my high school days as an emcee in the St. Paul community. That was where I needed to be. I remember the first young lady came up to the microphone: She had her headwrap on. Her stage name was Sista Amina. The DJ was spinning, and I’m thinking she’s going to spit flows cause they ain’t playin’ nothing but hip hop music and neo-soul. She gets up to the mic, and the music stops. Everything goes silent.
She starts spittin’ this poem. I couldn’t tell you two lines from that poem, but I can tell you I was in tears by the time she finished it. And that was just the FIRST poet for the night! And I remember I said to myself I’m going to live for seven more days cause I’m coming back next Friday and I’m doing something on that microphone on that stage!
And when I got back to where I was staying that night, I started digging through the computer box where all my raps and rhymes and verses were in. [I was] digging through a box full of poetry looking for a poem saying, “Man, I don’t have no poetry in here. All I got is raps!” Cause nobody had come into my class and explained to me that all rap was poetry. Finally, I found one that I wrote about my best friend called “The Killin’ Season.”
The Killin’ Season
Sometimes I sit alone in the dark immersed in silence
So tired of all this sufferin’ and violence
They call it senseless and it seems to be
Yet it’s senseless to be defenseless so it seems to me
It makes more sense to take a sentence
Than to pray for repentance and to keep dancing with these devils asking
God for admittance
With this, I ask myself
Can we escape this danger in this world so full of anger where my brother is a stranger.
And they wanna blame bangers but it gets deeper than that
When everybody from your preacher to your teacher stay strapped
If you own any luxuries, you’re subject for jacks cause now our kids are keeping gats
With their books in their backpacks
Wild, wild west was mild when compared to this wild, wild U.S.
Where survival is a true test of these days
Bullet proof vests are mandatory if you classified in the thriving category
It ain’t easy at all when trying to ball
Shit I could be taking a fall
If they hear the wrong phone call
And these jealous cowards, they done made it so bad
My God, it’s sad when playa hatin’s been created the new fad
We got 5.0, jive hoes and elbows
All reasons for the grievin’
Lord what’s it gonna take to bring an end to this killin’ season.
JCMT: So, that’s what you did on stage that next Friday?
Sentwali: Yep. I did the whole poem, and I turned it into theater. And at the time, I didn’t know that I was creating what I was ultimately going to teach as a metric for what spoken word is as a style of poetry instead of just it being poetry. I was determined not just to go back and read a poem, so I rehearsed it like a performance. I put everything into it that I was feeling: Me mourning the loss of my best friend, the anger of my father and I having this big falling out, and me bouncing from home to home.
JCMT: So, that’s how you met spoken word?
Sentwali: Yep. That’s how I met spoken word. And I met spoken word at a weird time because my friend died in ’95, and I was introduced to The Bombshelter that spring or summer. Then my son was conceived. So that whole year from February of ’95 to
February of ’96 was a whirlwind!
I was depressed, but we didn’t look at things like that [back then] ... nobody knew, and nobody cared ’cause nobody could tell. I didn’t realize I was dealing with depression, but why wouldn’t I have been with everything I was going through? But that’s not how we viewed things in society back then. You just figured your way out: you just pushed through that shit. And [spoken word] helped me push through it.
So in the last line of that poem, I say, Lord, what’s it gonna take to bring an end to this killin’ season? I’m on my knees in the prayer position. I had a mixture of drippin’ sweat coming down my face and tears. There was so much sweat! And I wasn’t sweating because it was hot. I was sweating because everything I was going through came out of me at that moment in that performance. I opened my eyes, and they had given me a standing ovation. And I knew right then and there: I was a poet. And not just a poet, a performance poet. I knew that something in me had some ability to connect magnetically to people.
JCMT: Wow! How does that make you feel to talk about that journey now?
Sentwali: In hindsight, that’s a difficult way for me to have discovered that ability because I’m still grasping the impact and responsibility that I had between ’95 and 2005. That entire decade, I was defined by the babies I made and the stages I slayed. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I had created because of the life education I received from my [parents]. The civic duty instilled in me, the social awareness, the critical conscious thought process, and the confidence to be unfiltered in expressing is how I saw society. I was in a position to speak for a community without ever understanding the impact and responsibility. Had I understood, I probably wouldn’t have [made some of the choices I did] and likely would have furthered my education sooner. But I got caught up in trying to make a living as a performing artist, not understanding the steps and layers.
JCMT: What do you mean by that?
Sentwali: Well, you have to work on being an artist [because] it’s a discipline that’s more than just having a raw talent. But I [connected]with other artists that were at a similar stage in life. So artistically, it was a lot of steel sharpening steel and a lot of fearlessness in our messaging that attracted people. Anytime you take some authentic spoken word with creative musicians, images, and culture trying to create awareness, people wake up. Talk about being “woke”: Shit, we were trying to wake people up in 19 ninety-whatever!
JCMT: Yeah, ’cause when was Edupoetic born?
JCMT: So two years after you were introduced to spoken word?
Sentwali: Yep. And then by ’99, we were hosting two open mics and a variety show weekly. We had The Blue Nile, Jazzville, and Chang Ohara’s, bringing spoken word to the artsy, Yuppie community in the Upper Room. So, without understanding the responsibility that comes with leadership, all of a sudden, I was a leader. It came naturally because my daddy was a leader and his daddy was a leader. My mama was a leader, so people gravitated to that.
JCMT: So, what’s the next era for Sentwali as your role in elevating the arts and creative expression? Does it seem like it might look a little bit different?
Sentwali: I don’t know yet. I haven’t [fully] decided what I’m going to do next. For now, my work as an educator is constant for a couple of reasons. It allows me to have the biggest long-term impact. Just a few weeks ago, I got a phone call from a young man who said, “I got your number from your sister, and I just wanted to tell you that when you came into my school when I was in 8th grade, that was the moment that changed my life.” Right now, he’s [taken on a big leadership role] with the St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter. He was also a former student of mine. He said those same words when I came to his school. It gave him freedom, a format, and a vehicle to write and express how [he felt]. That set him on the path that he’s on today concerning community activism and writing. For many young people, once they start writing critically conscious [words], it starts to provoke and promote critically conscious actions. So that’s what I feel like I bring to the table the most. I get these young people writing fearlessly. It gets them wanting to engage in making the change they’re actively writing [about]. Continuing my work as an arts educator and studying to get more scholarship for myself [is important]. I want to see how to further the impact on young people without necessarily being a classroom teacher. I like the freedom to move around and impact different types of children from different environments. Plus, I don’t want to stay after school for them damned meetings!
JCMT: Well, it sounds like you have your mind set on being an educator, and you don’t have to be a teacher to do that.
Sentwali: Right. So, [as far as being an educator], I want to take the virtual residency package that I’ve created [to the next level]. I want to market it to the education and community [learning] sector locally, regionally, and nationally as a comprehensive tool for how to encourage and teach spoken word poetry.
JCMT: That’s the next era for you?
Sentwali: Yeah, that’s the next era. And my next goal is to [incorporate more technology into my curriculum]. I think video communication is going to be the norm. These kids have grown up in this world of technology. The technological production, which includes the presentation of a bomb spoken-word piece, is as much a part of the project as the written message. These kids may never find their way to the stage, but they can use their technological astuteness to create something they can then share. They could create their own YouTube channel that becomes their portfolio of poems [which creates] the backdrop to their [creative expression].
JCMT: That, in essence, changes spoken word. Because it no longer requires that you are live on the stage anymore. Not that the stage will ever disappear entirely, but technology will offer another way to produce the dynamic when the stage isn’t available.
Sentwali: Mmmhmm. Right.
JCMT: So, along those lines, how as COVID-19 changed Sentwali?
Sentwali: Good question. I don’t know that it has changed me, but it has made me rethink what I conceptualized about a year ago. Once I was forced to get on the ball about some visionary ideas for my residency, I worked hard with my agency (Compas) to put everything together in a virtual package. I feel like I’m ahead of the game since I have a tried, tested, and proven package. Now, I’m using the same techniques and energy that I use in the classroom, teaching the art of spoken word in a virtual [format]. It has forced me to learn technology - Zoom, Flip Grid - so from that standpoint, [it’s a good thing]. It has been a wild summer between COVID, George Floyd’s murder, protest, and the movement that has swelled behind all of that. A lot is going on and a lot of work to do.
JCMT: Will your work be through spoken word?
Sentwali: I think so. But my challenge is not to say what I’ve already said because we’re living things I have already written. So, do I turn my artistic focus to my learned experience as a father/husband? Or the successes and failures of the relationships in my life? Or to my love for the natural world? I think it’s just too damned hard [at this point] in my life to have premonitions about where the world is going without being dark. I’ve lived too long to just be in this desolate space of hopelessness for the future. This future [can give you] a sense of hopelessness. Is there light at the end of this tunnel for America?
JCMT: You tell me, Sentwali. Where is the light?
Sentwali: I think you just have to try to create it.
JCMT: And that’s the truth. Sentwali, thank you so much for sharing your soul with The Soultown.
Sentwali: It was my pleasure.
Chadwick Boseman was one of Sentwali’s favorite actors. When he died, Sentwali reached out to me in disbelief. Considering how we ended our interview, I came across a quote I wanted to share for this special edition.
In talking about King T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman said,
“We have a responsibility to the world to be a beacon of light.”
Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that Sentwali will create that light and make sure it keeps shining on generations to come.
For more on Frank Sentwali Gardner, including video footage of his work in the classroom and performances on stage, (or to purchase his Virtual Residency) visit his website at https://bmfenterbrainment.com/frank-sentwali.
I am Tyra Nelson-Reck, Authentic Advisor for the The Soultown Magazine. I would like to thank Frank Sentwali Gardner for having SOUL!