On Friday night, Youngstown State University continued its celebration of Black History Month with a performance from poet Mwatabu Okantah.
A crowd of students and parents filled the seats in Kilcawley Center’s Ohio Room to hear Okantah read his poetry. Guitarist Kwame Nyamekye sat in a chair next to Okantah, strumming a rhythm to accompany Okantah’s words.
Okantah has performed with the Cavani String Quartet and the Rhodes Street Rude Boys, and he is the leader of the Muntu Kuntu Energy Ensemble.
Shaneka Colpetro, a sophomore at YSU, said she enjoyed the way Okantah’s words flowed with Nyamekye’s guitar.
“He really read his poems with a lot of charisma and power. I thought the subject was interesting, and I really enjoyed it,” Colpetro said.
The topic of the night was “Black Arts and the Civil Rights Movement.” Okantah read excerpts from his book, “Reconnecting Memories: Dreams No Longer Deferred: New & Selected Poems.”
Okantah said Black History Month is not just for African-Americans. He encouraged audience members to remember their roots, explaining that they’re important regardless of background.
Okantah asked audience members if they owned smartphones, and more than half raised their hands.
“If you don’t know who you are and where you have come from, how smart is your smartphone?” Okantah asked.
As an 18-year old freshman at Kent State University, Okantah began to write.
When a writing instructor required Okantah to keep journals, he was surprised by how therapeutic it could be.
“Writing became the process through which I discovered myself and my heritage,” Okantah said.
After earning bachelor’s degrees in English and African studies at KSU, he then received a master’s degree in creative writing from the City College of New York. Around this time, Okantah decided that he was going to become a griot poet. A griot is a storyteller in western Africa who keeps history alive through poetry and music.
Anna Kasamias, a freshman at YSU, said most people would be uncomfortable speaking about the subjects Okantah covered on Friday.
“I thought it was great. He brought up how American culture tries to commercialize everything, [and] how Native Americans and the African culture have basically become lost and overlooked,” Kasamias said.
Okantah first learned how powerful words could be after he read Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
“I could express and discover myself at the same time. Being introduced to the world of black literature changed my life forever,” Okantah said. “I wanted to learn how to write words that could make people feel the way I felt reading those books.”
Okantah said he believes that diversity will become a reality when everyone learns and respects the stories of others.
“Ultimately, as students, we get out of it the exact measure of the energy and effort we put into it,” Okantah said.
Okantah said that through education and the celebration of Black History Month, students will “learn how to live — not just make a living.”