Sekou Andrews created his own industry – poetic voice – to blend his passions and turn his art into a commodity.
He’s been called the best-paid poet in America and the de-facto poet laureate of corporate America (Forbes). A master of the high art of storytelling. Spectacular, unique and really special (Ken Kragen). And he’s a two-time National Poetry Slam winner.
He’s received so many accolades that his web site doesn’t list them all. Witnesses to his performances allude to the “Sekou effect” – the rapt attention of the listeners, the human connections shown on their faces, the passion relayed from performer to audience, the energy and motivation lingering in the room after he leaves.
What Sekou offers is not simply motivational speaking; it is poetic voice, a blend of inspiration and spoken word poetry with the goal of moving people’s hearts and minds in new ways. He’s in demand across the country, addressing industries from tech to medical to entertainment, then graduation ceremonies and non-profit groups. And at the Geraci Activate conference May 9-11 in Beverly Hills, Calif., attendees can witness his performance and discover their own inspiration.
Finding poetic voice and using it to inspire others was the end result of Sekou’s calculated educational and employment experiences over 20 years. And just as mortgage lenders or other entrepreneurs travel their career paths from experimental to thriving businesses, or entry-level positions to top managers, so too has the master of poetic voice driven the same road, gaining wisdom from each experience and rolling it into his multifaceted artistic performance. However, his ascent as an inspirational speaker and artist meant facing some formidable obstacles and creating a new industry to commoditize his art.
Earning his college degree in sociology and pre-law, Sekou planned on becoming an entertainment attorney and worked in three law firms after college. But this was simply a back-up to his real passion: entertainer. From middle school on, he acted in stage plays and wrote and performed music. “I realized I didn’t want to be an entertainment attorney bitterly negotiating deals I wish I had,” he says. So he pulled back and decided to try entertainment first.
“I was pursuing hip hop and acting at the same time,” he says. “I had more opportunities in music so I pursued those more heavily. In pursuit of that, I started going to open mics to build a fan base for my music, and ended up at poetry open mics. I was doing something other hip hop artists at the time were not doing, which is recite lyrics a cappella but not delivering them the same way as if they were over a beat. What happens is you lose some content by trying to stay on beat even if there is no beat. So I felt that if I’m free from that device, the structure of the music, why don’t I deliver that content in a different way?”
He delivered his words in spoken voice style, and that caught on. His name on the poetry scene blew up quickly. He then tried traditional spoken word poetry, and that took off also. “I started getting popular on the scene,” he says. “And I really appreciated being appreciated for my words without worrying about the politics of hip hop and the production and the hook and is it commercial enough? And people thanked me for the words: ‘Your words saved me; they’re what I needed most in this moment.’ And that got to me, especially because on the hip-hop side, I was getting a message from the industry executives: ‘Love your words, the lyrics are so powerful, but it’s not…what is selling in hip hop right now. But I listen every morning on the way to work!’
“So we’ve got this disconnect and I’m bumping heads with the existing parameters of the hip hop industry. ‘We value you, but we don’t know what to do with you.’ So I decided to figure out what to do with myself. And the poetry industry embraced me. I was more excited about pioneering new trails in poetry than I was being tossed into a sea of demos and head shots out there fighting for the same crumbs in hip hop and acting.”
During that time (1997-2002), he also took a job as a substitute elementary school teacher in south-central Los Angeles. It was his “actor-waiter” job, he says – a way to earn a paycheck and still pursue auditions for acting and music. He vowed not to stick with teaching because it was ultimately not what he wanted to do, but within eight months, he became a full-time teacher.
It was an easy fit, as both his parents were college professors and entrepreneurs: His mother was a dancer and choreographer who started the first black dance studio in Berkeley and is now a kinesiotherapist and yoga trainer, and his father is a kinesiologist and sports educator who also pursued digital art, painting and sculpting. “The apple is leaning right up against the tree,” he says. “All of that was nurtured in me, and I appreciate that, because it allows me to do what I do: to stand in the business world and artistic world. But it also allows me to play in any room with any type of person.”
In the sink-or-swim environs of south-central Los Angeles, he was given every challenge possible in teaching: outdated materials, under-resourced classrooms, up to 43 kids in one classroom. “I make my living on the stage,” Sekou says. “and the classroom is an incredible training ground for the stage. It is one of the hardest stages to cut your teeth on. It’s like what they say about New York: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. You have an audience you have to impress every single day and do something new for them every single day. Their attention span is worse than any audience you can imagine. If you can learn how to captivate that audience, it teaches you creativity, the power of good content, that content is nothing without delivery, the power of story and human connection, diversity, inclusion, innovation, how to educate someone and educate yourself in creative ways. It was a powerful training ground for what I do now and I appreciate it for that.”
He loved teaching, but poetry came calling. “Then it was just a matter of being honest with myself about what I wanted to do and being brave enough to step out and do it,” he says. “Acting and music are both multi-billion dollar industries, and in the process of that pursuit, I discovered and fell in love with spoken word poetry, which has no industry, or at least no monetized profitable industry. I had to figure out if I was going to do poetry for a living, how would I make that work? It was a huge leap of faith. I needed to create my own income but also had to create an entire model for creating income. That was the biggest challenge and also the biggest reward.”
Then there was the matter of how to describe himself. Show promoters announced him as the world’s greatest hip-hop poet or street poet, but those weren’t entirely accurate. Neither was just plain speaker, or motivator, or actor or entertainer. So Sekou created his own label: poetic voice, the combination of artist and speaker who seamlessly blends inspirational speaking and spoken word poetry. Used as a noun, poetic voice can be used in the same context as business coach or manager or keynote speaker.
Once Sekou arrived at his moniker, he felt he had to define himself further. There were more parameters and preconceived notions he encountered, such as people who just didn’t understand the term or his artistry. Since it wasn’t a recognized industry, with regulation or success model or media coverage, Sekou had to define and promote his value.
“Every time someone says I don’t get it, it becomes incumbent on you to help them get it,” he says. “Which means you have to laser-focus your language, your intention, your purpose, your direction, your value and your brand. The WIFM (what’s in it for me) factor. I think I was able to do that successfully, more than other artists, because I’ve always been half artist, half entrepreneur. Artists live and bathe in that creative space. If you’re a construction worker by day, and in a band at night, it stays a hobby. You book a few gigs and make a few dollars. For me, I was suddenly in a space few artists get to be in: How to make your art your commodity. How you make this your way of life. I had to make decisions and educate myself on how to do that. The poetry industry is different from other industries because we don’t have models of success to follow. Poetry is a bit of the Wild West. Every time someone said this is not possible or not valuable here, I had to constantly receive and input data, decide which parts of it may be true, which parts to purge. In doing that, the thing I ran up against most was being relegated to entertainment only. ‘Your value is at a company holiday party, not at our senior leadership meeting.’ That’s based on a preconceived notion of what spoken word is. They see it as something they see at open mic night for $5 on Tuesday. And they get entertained, but not just entertained, they get inspired.
“One of the best and longest-running spoken word venues in the nation is Da Poetry Lounge, my home venue, one of my biggest starts in Los Angeles. When I bring people there, they say, ‘How could I have not known about this?’ It’s more than entertainment; it’s inspiration. But they didn’t feel spoken word was business content and valuable, applicable content that was relevant to their industry. I knew I could bring business value. Obviously, I’m not an expert in every industry. But I could bring thought leadership that could take your business to the next level.”
But even when he was booked as entertainment, the feedback he received was, “You gave us more value than half our speakers,” and, “You captured our message better than we were able to.”
“Again, here’s this disconnect between what you are telling me I am and what I told you I could do. So I kept having to fill that void, and it was at that pivotal moment when I said I’m going to create poetic voice as a new speaking category because people only define spoken word poetry as form of artistic entertainment. And that’s where they assign its value. I wanted to give it value in the speaking, but I had to rebrand it, reposition it and recontextualize it in the world’s mind as a form of speaking. So that was really what led to what I do now, to wow those audiences and industries that thought they were ‘unwowable’ by spoken word.”
What he is can be just as important as what he isn’t. “I’m diabetes on Monday and cloud computing on Tuesday,” Sekou says, “I’m not the guy that speaks on social media Monday through Friday to multiple companies. I’m not the guy that speaks on mortgage lending Monday through Friday to multiple companies. I’m diabetes on Monday, cloud computing on Tuesday, shoes on Wednesday, and real estate on Thursday. So when people are mystified on how I’m able to make such an impact across industries, I’m never speaking to industries, I’m speaking to human beings. Under the suits and ties, we’re all the same with hopes and dreams.”
Several years later, Sekou has wowed the employees of companies nationwide, from eBay to Financial Times to Google and Nike. He’s inspired graduates of the University of Michigan and Ashford University. He’s performed at private events for Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Hillary Clinton and Quincy Jones. Which might lead one to think Sekou Andrews has arrived. “At its highest level, success is defined as doing what it is that feeds and fulfills and rewards you in the ways that you love most and are most purposeful for you,” Sekou says. “True success is intrinsically tied to purpose, and the more aware of your purpose you are on the planet, the more aware of how successful you are based on how much you’re fulfilling that purpose.”
With his presentation for Geraci Activate, he plans to lead them to new ways of thinking about innovation and making it personal to activate their growth plans. Innovation, he says, is a state of mind, a lens through which we see the world. If you’re not viewing the world through that lens, you’ll never be the next industry leader. Learning how to see, think and communicate as an innovator. And all of that learning can come from listening.
“We don’t put listening first sometimes,” he says. “The only reason I am successful is because I was forced to listen, forced to take that in and use that to innovate. So all that innovation came from listening to the data that was out there, but not letting it render my possibilities inert.”
For all his conferences, he wants listeners to feel they have access to greater possibilities than they had before, to be inspired educated, and have actionable takeaways. But the one lesson from his experiences he’d like to impart: “When you get tired of trying to break into the industries of the world, it might be time to create your own industry and let the world break into you.”