Kondwani Russell: Luzerne's poet laureate

City Paper

Kondwani Russell can be found sitting on his grandmother's step penning prose and pondering the perplex nature of black life in America. His recent poem 'The Baltimore Bullet Train,' a cinematic spoken-word video posted to YouTube, addresses the school-to-prison pipeline, black leadership, violence, and sticking together despite institutional despotism: "People can't even say 'the summer is mine'/ You can't enjoy yourself looking over your shoulder every five minutes without hearing guys dumping the nine/ Wearing R.I.P. shirts, my little man got slumped in his ride." Later on, Russell quotes Idi Amin and declares he's "coming at you raw and direct straight from Uncle Sam's basement."

'The Baltimore Bullet Train' is also indicative of his turbulent upbringing and his formative years. Growing up "Down Da Hill" surrounded by a culture of crime and drug use, Russell learned how to do the all the wrong things the right way and at a young age, engaged in his fair share of mischief as a child. “The entire neighborhood just knew for a fact that I was going to be dead or in jail by the age of 18," says Russell. He could have easily fallen victim to that self-fulfilling prophecy. Because his parents were in and out of jail, Russell was eventually taken in by his grandmother. While she had struggles of her own, she sought to it that Russell was placed in a controlled environment and put him in Archbishop Curley High School for ninth grade.

After transferring to Baltimore City College the next year, Russell thought deeply about his next step in life: “I always had dreams of staying in school no matter what. I always had outstanding grades, not because I loved to learn but simply because it was instilled in me to do so."

Although he wanted to stay in school, throughout his high school career there was a struggle in finding his sense of purpose and fulfillment. Upon graduation Russell had no real ambitions of attending college. Like most high schoolers, he applied to a lot of schools out of state. “I wasn't going to go to a school in Baltimore and Virginia State accepted me," says Russell. He was then confronted with the collegiate burden of existentialism and capitalism and when it came to choosing a major, he wasn't sure if he should purse something for self-edification or something that would provide him a high salary.

He went with the high salary, at least at first: “I studied sports management because I heard they make great money." His life course changed when he switched his major to English in his sophomore year. Russell found poetry and went from a college kid hellbent on partying to becoming an intellectual force on campus. He went on to start The Creative Couriers, a mentoring organization under the mission and acronym “R.I.C.H.” (reach people, inspire, change lives, heighten awareness) and became a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His inspirations range from Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, and John Keats to contemporaries such as 2Pac, J. Cole, Nikki Giovanni, and Jay-Z. "I believe in inspiring others to break traditional barriers, I believe in challenging the status quo, and I believe in impacting society in a positive way," says Russell of his writing. 'The Baltimore Bullet Train' currently has more than 15,000 views and he's about to release a self-published book titled "Asperous Artistry."

"I want to inspire people. I believe that my upbringing and ambition can inspire others. I want them to say 'Hey, Koni did it, and Koni is doing it. So can I.'"

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