From Watts to Wisconsin, 23-year-old Kenneth Cole is looking to make a positive impact on the social, political, and economic struggles that he and many African Americans face through both activism and music.
He performs by the name “K. Sankofa.” “Sankofa” is a Ghanaian proverb which translates as “Go back and get it” … a phrase and name he now lives by. He learned the name at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he currently attends, through the social justice and diversity involvement he became active in on campus.
Cole came from the west coast to the Midwest in pursuit of a degree and found activism as well as a life-changing reconnection to his passion: music.
His style is unique and can be described as a powerful and soulful mix of Hip Hop, Reggae, and Gospel.
“I was singing in a choir at church all the way until I came to college,” he tells Madison365. “I even sing in the University gospel choir.”
After recording songs and performing at his first show, titled “Bless Up” in Lacrosse, he had fans and family mention elements of Reggae in his music, further molding his style. Although Cole started performing and recording more recently, his musical history goes back to middle school.
He remembers being challenged by his friend (an artist who goes by the name AR Caliber) to write sixteen bars…which is just one verse. After that, he continued to write throughout high school as a hobby, sharing his thoughts only with those closest to him. However, since moving to Madison, he has been more active in sharing his thoughts and story through activism and his music.
Cole hails from Watts, a neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, California. Through the poverty, educational disparities, and gang activity, Cole remained steadfast to the best of his ability.
“I don’t talk about it as something that’s so traumatic or negative because it’s my world,” he says. “It’s the world that I grew up in. I was living in Watts where there was gang violence…I remember being in that area and growing up in a very spiritual household. I was at church every Sunday, while a lot of my friends were out on the block hustling, trying to make money or trying to figure things out. I remember seeing these things around me and I remember always wanting to be clothed in spirituality. I believe I need God to move forward at all times. I believe that from the bottom of my heart. The success I’ve had at this university and in my life, I give all credit and glory to God.
“When I go back home, I think about the people that didn’t have the opportunity to be as blessed to be able to attend college. I think about having some of the smartest homies. Some homies who I think are smarter than me who are still in Watts or still in South Central. I go back and I speak to them about things that I learned here (in Madison) and they’re in a completely different mentality. Some people ain’t thinking about social justice because they got to eat, they got to survive every day. They’re looking for jobs.”
Coming from the L.A. area, Cole found inspiration in the music and the artists that surrounded him–especially Kendrick Lamar of Compton, California, who frequently references his city and experience growing up in a variety of songs.
“In a very real way Kendrick kind of painted a picture for a young black man like myself, a lot of good kids who grow up in a mad city,” he says
Cole’s musical influences span across multiple eras of hip hop. He’s inspired by artists like Andre 3000, Tupac Shakur, the vastly politically charged styles of NWA and Lauryn Hill, who he feels is one of the most talented of all time. Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and J. Cole, are hugely influential on him as well, although rap isn’t his only musical go-to.
“I look at people like Bob Marley, with a style of reggae and revolutionary spirit and very hard-hitting music that touched a lot of souls,” he says, pausing to reflect. “That’s the type of music that I resonate with. Music that comes from the soul. Music that you know is coming from the heart. People speaking their mind.”
“My little brother makes beats,” Cole says proudly. “When I hear the beat that he sends me, before I pen any words to it, I can feel what he’s trying to do with it, which is the incredible part of expressing yourself through music and telling stories.”
Cole’s older brother, Eric, released a mixtape himself years ago as well, but his influence on Kenneth Cole delves much deeper than music.
“He [Eric] graduated from college, got his degree, had a wife, two kids, owned a home and a car at the age of 24,” says Cole. “To us, that’s absurd. To us, that’s like wow. You are like the shining example of truth. And to see him go…he was Superman.”
Eric also taught the importance of self expression, integrity, and hard work. Cole took these lessons seriously, applying them both to his life and his music.
“What inspires me is music that uplifts, music that teaches, music that is there to push a message that is ultimately going to better our community,” Cole says.
Cole knows the power of bettering his community, which is why to him, the name Sankofa means going back and finding his side of the narrative…going back and getting something in his past, or fixing something in the past, and acting on it as it relates to his future.
“Within this University, it’s about going back and looking at our roots of indigeneity,” he says. “Looking at where we came from as Africans in America. Within a lot of social justice movements it means going back and looking, even as black Americans, at the spirit that we had in the 60’s. We had people like King and we had people like Malcolm X and you had the Black Panthers coming up on the rise with Huey and Bobby Seale. It’s about going back and getting those things as they relate to our future. I believe strongly that a person or a people that don’t know their history…don’t know themselves, it’s going to be very difficult to strive towards where they want to be and where they need to be. Much of our identity and who we are is based in our history.”
Beyond going back to rediscover history, Cole says “sankofa” is about rediscovering music.
“For me Sankofa was, during one of the hardest time periods of my life, going back and getting the music, because that’s where I found solace,” he says. “That’s what made me whole. That’s what made me feel one. That’s what made me feel connected and spiritually alive again. It revitalized my soul really at the place of ultimate darkness for me. Sankofa was go back and get the music because it was what I needed in order to move forward as a person. Everybody gets real hyped up and active to do something to quell the negative social, racial, economic, and legal tensions that exist here. My job is to just say what I feel…now with music more than anything. For those of us who want to consider ourselves leaders, the first thing we got to do is be servants.”
He wants to move his activism efforts towards the community, noting black performance in schools is much lower than that of their white counterparts.
“If a student ain’t learning, it’s not the students fault,” he says. “You got to look at the social factors around them and you got to empower teachers to be able to connect and relate and you got to put the right people in the right position. You got to change pedagogy, you got to change curriculum.”
Cole wants to play his part in improving the state of African American youth, referencing Marcus Garvey’s quote: “It’s easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.”
““Youth deserves a chance. Just because you a young black male, you shouldn’t be cursed with a scar of criminality,” he says. “Just because you a young black woman you shouldn’t be disrespected. If my music gets me into any type of position to be a role model for them, that’s what I want to go do…just to let them know that they can. They can do better, they can go to school, and they can graduate.”
“I’m performing with a group called Impact Records. For the most part, we got shows lined up every month. We’re usually at Maria’s on the Eastside of Madison.”
These days Cole is performing regularly with a group called Impact Records, usually at Maria’s on Madison’s east side. His next show there will be November 30.
On December 7th, K. Sankofa will make a guest appearance at Intellectual Ratchet’s Second Annual Players Ball – Battle of the DJ’s. It’s a free event at The Sett located on South Dayton where DJay Mando, who recorded Cole’s first mixtape, and DJ Boyfrrriend will battle for the Players Ball title.
Cole’s next project will be released soon.
“The plan is to release in December,” he says. “I’m not going to give the specific date, but December is when we are trying to make things happen…I actually got a couple of jams coming out this month.”
To Cole, success in music isn’t measured in sales.
“I think the music and activism got to go hand in hand,” he says. “Even if it’s building community, building community centers, creating programs, empowering the youth, staying vocal. I wasn’t getting paid to do activism. I feel the same way about music as I did and do about activism. I feel purpose in it. I feel a call to do it.”