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Big Music Feature

Positive Force

Sekani Williams Knows Bling Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got Meaning

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Big Music Issue 2002

Big Deal Baltimore: Center of the musical universe? Maybe not, but Charm City may have its highest pop profil...

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Soul Trained The Spirit is Still Willing for Veteran Jazzer Jackie Blake | By Bret McCabe

Over There Oxes Take Europe by Storm | By Hank Baker

Positive Force Sekani Williams Knows Bling Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got Meaning | By Jason Torres

Nights to Remember Local Music Yokels Remember the Best Shows They've Seen in Baltimore

By Jason Torres | Posted 7/17/2002

Beyoncé Knowles, Wyclef Jean, Lil' Bow Wow. Those are some impressive names in R&B and hip-hop right about now. Ever wonder what it would be like to work with them? How about write songs for them--on the same project no less? Baltimore-based lyricist and songwriter Sekani Williams knows what that's like. He wrote lyrics for last year's MTV film Carmen: A Hip-Hopera. And for him it was nothing but a job.

"People tell me, 'Sekani, you did a movie. Where's your big house and car?'" he says. "My goal was never to get a deal. I was just trying to perfect my craft."

First and foremost, the twentysomething Williams is a writer. He'd rather be regarded as an artist than a rising hip-hop star trying to score the ultimate set of rims. He's more interested in songwriting than in being like Nelly, spitting out catchy tunes with little substance.

Lyrically, Williams has more in common with a young Rakim than the Cash Money crew. He paints vivid pictures with words to tell stories--witness "I'm like a Picasso painting on toilet paper/ Kind of rough, but the skills are there."

But he's not all swagger. When rapping he can camouflage himself in a track, finding the flow that suits the beat, weaving raw and witty rhymes. No less could be expected from the son of a poet and conceptual artist raised in America's cultural stir-fry.

This Queens, N.Y., native learned his appreciation for language from his mother, a writer. From his father, a painter and jazz enthusiast, he learned about drive and determination. "My pops was an artist," Williams says. "He taught me all about expression, creativity, style, and responsibility--how there's a responsibility as an artist to stay creative and move your art forward honestly, no matter what it is."

It is that responsibility that fuels Williams' focus on his craft, though that maturity took a while to find. In the early '90s, after a series of events Williams declines to discuss in detail, his family relocated the then-14-year-old to live with relatives in Gaithersburg. "My family moved me around," he says. "I was just being a hardheaded kid, hard to contain but not doin' anything too crazy."

He landed at Morgan State University in the mid-'90s, where he first started writing rhymes. "I was writing as a release. It was [only] for me at first. I would write about everything I was going through with school. It helped me cope with that transition." But when he shared his rhymes with his boys, they encouraged him to enter a studio and cut a demo. "The first time I heard my voice in the studio," he remembers, "it was love."

His pop's words of wisdom kicked in then. Writing became Williams' obsession. He would miss morning classes because he had spent the previous night writing, and he barely had a social life because he'd spend his last dollar on studio time.

His tenacity paid off. In late 1998, through a few degrees of separation, he managed to get a demo to Riggs Morales, then music editor for The Source magazine. Morales liked the tape and wanted to meet the young man behind it.

A get-together was set. One cold January morning in 1999, Williams skipped classes and drove to Morales' New York office, but the editor didn't show. Williams returned to Baltimore disappointed, but not discouraged. Eventually the meeting came off, and Morales put the young MC to the ultimate test: "He threw on an instrumental and I started rappin' for him," Williams recalls. The impromptu freestyle landed Williams in the March 2000 Source's Unsigned Hype column, a space that boasts alumni such as Eminem and the Notorious B.I.G.

Michael Elliott, at the time a Source Entertainment scout who was producing on Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, saw the column and contacted Williams. Elliott was looking for a lyricist for his radical take on Bizet's opera. "He wanted a lyricist that was still underground," Williams says. "At first there were a few MCs writing together. [But] after we all did our renditions, MTV said they liked my songs the best and flew me out to L.A."

For Carmen, Williams had to write lyrics from the perspectives of sultry vixens and dirty cops, words destined to come out of the mouths of acclaimed artists. In two and a half weeks he penned lyrics to 16 songs for characters to be portrayed by Knowles, Jean, and Bow Wow.

The experience earned Williams an impressive credit, but he remains a free agent and an on-again/off-again part-time Morgan student. He knows he could have gone the easy route, parlaying Carmen into a record deal, churning out a few radio-friendly jams, and popping up on MTV Cribs. But the lesson his father taught him still rings in his head.

"People hear that I rap and they think I'm involved in the drug game," Williams says. "Everybody goes through that period when you need more money than your parents can give you and times get desperate, but I didn't want to turn to selling drugs. I couldn't have that as my foundation, something that's not positive. If there's no positive in my life, my foundation's gonna be nothing."

Fortunately, Williams has an extended family that helps him stay focused: the Serenghetti Movement. This local underground musical conglomerate was founded by Williams; his partner in rhyme, Aaron Mingo; and composer David Tyler, aka Black Anomaly. It has since grown to double-digit membership.

Serenghetti keeps Williams grounded, but it hasn't curbed his artistic ambition: "When it's all said and done I want to be spoken about like Langston Hughes, [Willem] De Kooning, Thelonius Monk, [John] Coltrane, just from my music."

He makes that claim with confidence, even if he doesn't have the catalog to back it up just yet. At the moment, Williams' song book contains about 70 compositions ranging in topics from sports to relationships to everyday observations. But he's got other things in the changer. Earlier this year he finished writing and recording with Erykah Badu for R&B/jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers' next album. And he is working on another Elliott film project, and will travel to Los Angeles in late August to begin writing.

All this activity springs from a drive to achieve what Williams believes he's supposed to do: live up to his responsibility as an artist.

"A lot of rap is not art," he says. "And as soon as you realize that, it opens your mind to a lot of things that are not what they seem to be. Politics, news you see on TV--it's not reality. The Serenghetti's focus is to fill ourselves with knowledge and build on things that allow us to do bigger and better things."

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