The gospel of Suncere Ali Shakur

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Suncere Ali Shakur is a community activist currently based in Cleveland who has worked to feed people in poverty, fight human trafficking and heal trauma caused by gun violence and Hurricane Katrina. Philip Metres is a renowned Arab-American poet who teaches at Ohio’s John Carroll University. We asked Philip to write an original poem in the style he’s known for — documentary poetry — a genre that uses techniques from journalism including interviews, archival material, and primary source research. It’s been around for a long time but might seem new — and offers a fresh way of hearing today’s news. Philip chose to interview Suncere for the poem, and we got the two together to talk about what that was like. 

The Gospel of Suncere Ali Shakur

Philip Metres & Suncere Ali Shakur


In July 2023, Suncere Ali Shakur and I met outside Willson Towers, a public housing apartment in Cleveland, where Shakur has lived for a decade. Born and raised in Washington D.C., Shakur is a lifelong activist who walks in the footsteps of the Black Panthers. He made history in New Orleans, when, while providing aid for people after Hurricane Katrina, he and other activists saved the oldest Black church in America from closure. In 2019, he was named one of Cleveland’s Most Interesting People for his many projects to love and care for his people and to challenge the powerful. These words are his.  




My elders taught me to do The Work

         not because I want someone

                     to tap me on the back

or admiration

or money


but because it’s my job




One of the attributes of The Five Percenters

         is to be sincere


and the sun comes out

         whether people like it or not

                                 it has

         a job to do


so I put them both together:



Ali was a man loved by the people

Shakur I had to earn





When I was a kid

my dad sent me

                     to the store

         but it was closed


had to walk eight blocks to another and went up

         to the counter

         seen this oil painting of dudes

in berets with pump shotguns


I asked who it was he said

                     Black Panther Party

and I fell in love





I was a throwaway

                     my family

                                 threw me away

and wanted the streets to kill me


but somehow I survived


I’m a product of everybody

         I met along the way


wound up in a shelter

met a renegade from the Weather Underground

learned at the feet of Panthers





It was a white woman from West Virginia

got me hooked


taught me to do a building takeover

got me hooked

knew I had a big mouth

so she took

what I had


Franklin School building was supposed

to be the site for a hypothermia drop


two people froze to death but the mayor

hadn’t opened it


so we took it over


I was the outside guy

                                 because I had a big mouth

got the crowd

                     all hyped in front

of the news


and when the police went in

         when they broke in

                     and brought them out

         in handcuffs


It was the looks

                     of defiance

they had on they face

                                 the handcuffs on

and surrounded by police


it was that look on they face

that did it


I said I’m going inside next time





Wound up in New Orleans after Katrina


not to toot my own horn

but I’m 53 years old

and ain’t in that good a health


we went down there

and made history


made history by loving people


saved St. Augustine Church

oldest Black church in America


the St. Aug Twelve

         look it up




This place is like a university

         I get to get over


         and see people

for who they are


if you don’t deal with the trauma

         the food and the clothes and the shelter

         is important but


you know the Pyramid of Life?

we living life

but can’t think

about education and politics


if you don’t deal with the trauma


they gonna rip

all that shit   down




I’m an asshole

                     but I’m a recovering asshole

I fight the thirst

                     to be an asshole




a coward takes out his anger

         on innocent people


but when I’m angry, I go up

to my room


it can get kind of fucked up

out here


you got people

         overtaken by substances

turn into gremlins


but food

I use food

                     as medication



if you give good people

         who got issues

                     a chance


they may surprise you






Corporations always got slaves


they make sure

the underbelly

                     never stays empty


I feel like I’m on a reservation

watching my people


fall apart


ten years here

went by

just like that





I can’t wait to get out of this mothaf****—


go back to the essence

to try it all again


I’m beat down

nobody cares

about my children


who wants to live in world like that?


every night white vans pull up

and our babies are gone

in twenty seconds


I was a fatass superhero

an extension on my phone

to take photos of license plates

and a paintball gun

to shoot the backs of cars


the only real peace I see

is sleep





deep in the night

everything is calm


no one

I can see is getting hurt no one

is screaming for help


and then the sun comes up

and it’s on

like popcorn




This would be my dream:


get restaurants to do meals

not no beans and rice and shit

but good food


we got seventeen police

for housing projects


and we can’t give the people

three meals a day?


         my love comes through

my food


I cooked one hundred steaks

                     Maggie got from Trader Joe’s

         for the homeless

                     at the Ramada in Independence


homeless deserve to eat

                     West African

         stuffed pineapple


         but what we need is revolution

         Fidel Castro was a hell of cook

but nobody was talking

about his cooking


music and food

build community


I would love to build a village here


but I would feed them first




Trust me, my people

                     make sure my head

         don’t get too big around this mothaf****


I got my ass whupped, my shit



see these folks, how fucked

         up they are?


we’ve brought in 250,000

pounds of food

through here


do you know all these

“wretched of the earth”

                     helped me organize that shit?


this is a historical movement

         but I did it

with alcoholics

dope fiends

people that make

bad choices


I’m over 500 pounds I tried to commit suicide


but they love me, brother


the kids in the neighborhood over there

if you say something about me

they will

tear  your ass       up


I’m teaching them    to see

         a black man a man


that love you

         and don’t want anything from you


all I want is one



one out of a thousand


to replace me