2015 has been a year where we have internalized an extraordinary amount of oppression, hurt and violence. As a community, we have seen our people brutalized and shamed. We have defended our best and brightest when white tears tried to snuff them out. We have marched, chanted, and resisted. It has been very hard work and many times doing the work has left our spirits in need of a recharge. Enter Rev Sekou and the Holy Ghost.
Rev Sekou and the Holy Ghost is a duo that consists of fiery Pentecostal preacher/longtime community activist Rev Sekou and singer/activist Jay-Marie Hill. I caught up with one half of this amazing duo, artivist Jay-Marie Hill, one evening in Oakland. While she is she has been quite busy doing great community work with groups like Black Lives Matter Bay Area and Girls Rock Camp, she was happy to come and talk to me about this project that has become a labor of love and community for herself and Rev. Sekou. The group is still prepping their full length release but Jay Marie invited me to take a listen to their upcoming single.
This project was literally born right in the middle of resistance. Both Sekou and Jay-Marie were in attendance at the Movement for Black Lives Convening this past July in Cleveland. During M4BL thousands of organizers and activists from around the country came together to reflect, talk strategy and create a collective mission as they went forward in fighting for the lives of black people.
Collective action and healing were both priority at the convening. They are also where we pick up this story. On the last day of the convening word was brought that a 14-year-old young black man was being arrested by the Cleveland police right outside of the event. The community quickly jumped into action by surrounding the cop car where the young man was being held and demanding to know why he was being held. The police ended up pepper spraying the entire crowd of activist that was gathered there. The crowd dispersed after there was notification made to the young man’s family and Jay-Marie’s group returned to the hotel. She later realized that she still had pepper spray on her clothes and face. She returned to the lobby where there was a table of milk set up and volunteers helping folks rid themselves of the lingering pepper spray. It was there that she met Sekou who helped her cleanup and take care of herself in that urgent moment.
The next month, Jay Marie stepped in to help organize the Bay Area leg of Janelle Monae’s Protest tour along with Jidenna who Jay-Marie went to college went. She helped get the support needed to create a powerful collective action. Prior to the demonstration she found herself with a back injury and one of her fellow organizers offered to drive her to the event. They just had to pick up a friend. That friend was Rev. Sekou. Ahh that universe. It’s works. Jay-Marie reminded Sekou how they first met. It took him a little bit to connect. You see he had just come from a year of intense organizing and demonstrating in Ferguson. As Jay-Marie recalls he said “I’m on vacation. I’m not going to an action today. I’m going to the café. I’ll see yall later.” She didn’t understand how you could ever take a break from the revolution. She would later come to understand how important that sentiment was.
The next day Jay-Marie and Sekou took the very rare opportunity to sit and have moment between just them and music. She played a song on her bass for him and he filled in lyrics. That one song turned into ten in total songs. This was the self-care moment that Sekou alluded to earlier. This single calm moment to make art was important. Jay-Marie reflected on how much work had been put in over the last year “A lot of people have been in this game for a long time. There was a peak and a particular way that the world started showing up for each other and against particular enemies and attacks from the state and people who wage the war on black lives. So a lot of us have been turned up for a good year.” Without actually saying it Sekou had taught her an important lesson about self-care while movement building. Self-Care gives you the opportunity to recharge so you can continue the long battle in the war we are fighting for thefreedom of black people.
Is the music of Rev Sekou and the Holy Ghost music for the revolution? Is it healing music? The answer is that it is both. After hearing the single I instantly felt the elements that make it movement music. It brings both the chantable lyrics of solidarity as well as an urgent sound that matches the feel of what it is to be in the moment of direct action demanding change. It’s deep and soulful like the Mississippi Delta blues that Sekou was raised on. It’s raw intense and passionate like Jay –Marie. The song I listened to has the raw intensity of early Funkadelic but when you throw in Sekou’s Baptist call & response style it transforms to the soulful religious experience of Donny Hathaway Live. The intensity builds to a call & response crescendo only matched by James Cleveland’s arrangement of Aretha Franklin’s Mary Don’t You Weep. If I didn’t know that Sekou was a Pentecostal preacher before I sure knew it listening to the track as he went into what church folks call his “hoop.” That’s the moment when the preacher really hits his rhythmic groove and starts to drive home the story he is telling. In Sekou’s story he told of this activist name Jesus and oh man was it powerful. After all of that you stand back and realize that you have taken then whole journey of black people right in there and you remember this is how we heal each other and our community.
As a black queer person, Jay-Marie feels a special calling in creating music that is so deeply rooted in the black church. The assault on black bodies has affected all of us and this project reflects the opportunity to use music to bridge those communities that sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other. “There is this connection that we have around the work.” She says. “There is this comradery that was built because I’m not the person that the church was looking to for the last 200 years. But nowadays we are doing a better job of making sure that our voices our heard. People have been working on the sidelines and in the background before, black women and queer people in particular. So now with all the shit that we have been through we are creating this space to intentionally be heard.” Both artists come with a wealth of experiences from various intersections of the community and this music creates a platform that they can use to talk about the struggle of each of those communities.
My own spiritual background led me to really think about that concept of the Holy-Ghost. I understand it to be the spirit that comes down when we dance, sing, make music, rejoice, and give gratitude. It is the spirit that heals our soul and hearts when times are hard. Many times when they Holy-Ghost hits you dancing, screaming and shouting is inevitable. You have no choice you MUST move. In church we would say that time of praise meant that our mountain, or the obstacles formed against us, had to move. The music of Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost is music to make you move. Move your body, move your heart. Jay-Marie describes the use of the name The Holy Ghost “It’s community. It’s Rev Sekou and the folks that hold us up. The Holy Ghost is channeled through those folks and the Holy Ghost is what has allowed black people to survive. The Holy Ghost is this big container of black resilience and black love.” It’s music to drive the revolution. It’s music to heal through the revolution
We look forward to witnessing the revolutionary music of Rev Sekou and the Holy Ghost. It has been a challenge to get the project completed as both artists are very active on the front lines pushing back against the war on black lives. Several times they have to table sessions as both were called into action in places like Minneapolis and San Francisco. But Jay-Marie would like to see the music hold up the revolution and be that healing agent that the holy ghost is meant to be. The duo wants it to be in the spaces where the work is being done. Word already got back that the activists on the front line during the 4th Precinct shutdown in Minneapolis were rocking Rev Sekou and the Holy Ghost. They said that it was just what they needed in that moment. I do not doubt that to be true. Songs like We Shall Over Come and Eyes on the Prize were songs created on the front lines to keep activists strong during the civil rights era. In 20 years I have no doubt that we will be saying that about this project as well