Music Poetry Profiles

Sista Zock: A Poet in Perpetual Motion

Sista Zock Solid. Photographed by Solwazi Afi Olusola

In my teens I remember poetry readings were held in small rooms in libraries, apartments and brownstone basements. Intimate settings where poets read their work to an audience whose quiet clapping at the end of each poem was the only other sound besides the poet’s voice. I believed poetry was a quiet art form with just the poet reciting in front of an audience. Then I heard recordings of Jack Kerouac reciting with a jazz band and Langston Hughes reading “The Weary Blues” with Charles Mingus, the renowned Jazz bassist accompanying him. Then the Black Arts Movement moved into a Harlem brownstone, and I experienced Amiri Baraka, Larry, Neal and other poets reading their work, also accompanied by jazz musicians. Those listening experiences opened me up to understanding and deeply feeling the marriage of jazz and poetry. Realized poetry still could be quiet but with music, even more poignant. Zakiyyah Modeste also known as Sista Zock, carries on that tradition. She is a whirlwind in front of an audience incorporating original poetry, song and African dance. We met at a Harlem restaurant, and these are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Roger: How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
Sista Zock: 3 years old. It was a class contest. Came in 3rd. That was in Chapel School in Bronxville. I grew up in Mount Vernon.

Roger: Were you one of those children who always had your nose in a book?
Sista Zock: I was a problem. Both my parents were educators. They emphasized education. I learned a little. I got over it. My parents encouraged my attraction to the arts.

Roger: What is it about poetry that attracts you?
Sista Zock: Attraction came from different sources. When I was 18, I went to the Marriott Hotel. It was my birthday, and I wrote a poem Killer Bees about friends infringing upon my stuff. I also used to write cheerleader cheers.

Roger: You often work with jazz musicians. When did you begin those collaborations?
Sista Zock: From frustration. I started searching. Paula Larke, guitarist and vocalist had a gig at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem and I was asked to watch the bar. Met a lot of musicians. Bill Saxton, Gregory Porter. Was called up to read poetry. Was doing more rapping than poetry. Heard Resolution by John Coltrane. Also realized that there were young musicians playing straight ahead. That’s when I started working with jazz musicians. Rest is history.

Roger: I’ve seen you work with Lakecia Benjamin at the Schomburg and Craig Harris at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Talk about those two experiences.
Sista Zock:Working with Lakecia was very driven. I’m on her second album. I’m grateful to her. She took a chance with me. With Craig it was at home, inspiring, creative and working with words of Sekou Sundiata (deceased). Time stood still. Love working with Craig. Very improvisational, not so structured. He raises the culture.

Roger: Who have you studied with and has influenced you?
Sista Zock: Dennis Davis (musician), Abiodun Oyewole (poet), David Wright (playwright and actor), Doug E. Fresh (rapper), Jazzmeia Horn
(vocalist), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (actor). No college teachers. All
“street.” And my Aunt Edith who told me, “Don’t stop dancing in your shows.”

Roger: You also sing and dance in your poetry performances. They blend so smoothly with your poetry.
Sista Zock: It’s an innate thing. Write a tune. Feel the movement. Standing still is some other poet’s niche. No niche is my niche.

Roger: One of your guiding principles is the Sankofa philosophy, “It is not taboo to fetch what you have forgotten.” Talk about that.
Sista Zock: I think it’s like exposing young musicians to the Harlem cultural jazz scene. Minton’s, St. Nicks Pub, Lenox Lounge. Had a gig at Minton’s last night. Helping people to remember what they forgot. I use my poetry and music to persuade them to learn about the culture and who they are.

Roger: As a Black female artist do you feel a specific responsibility?
Sista Zock: To extend and enhance the culture.

Roger: At the University of Tennessee, you were a Division One track and field athlete. How did that commitment to sports connect with your work as an artist?
Sista Zock: I got interested in athletics and the arts when I was 3 years old. I believe physical well-being gives you clarity and optimal health discipline and goal setting.

Roger: You are an Adjunct Lecturer at John Jay College. What course do you teach?
Sista Zock: Dynamic Wellness and Fitness. I try to have an artistic approach. Sometimes I sing or bring in musicians to play while my students do the movement. I change up the movement. Been doing it on Zoom since Covid.

Roger: How did Zakiyyah Modeste become Sista Zock?
Sista Zock: You know when I attended University of Tennessee, I worked at a radio station. My Program Director wanted an on-air name for me.

Roger: Where will you be performing next?
Sista Zock: This April for Harlem Boxx. Then the Afro Cabaret Tour which will be a build up for my CD release in August. We will perform in Asheville, North Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia and back to New York in Utica. My musician wish list for the tour is Lonnie Plaxico (bass), Henry Ramone (piano) and Russell Carter (drums).

Roger: When an audience experiences your performances, what do you want them to take away?
Sista Zock: Be inspired, elevated. To be optimistic. G&S

IG: @Sistazocksolid

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