Finding the Words


  • Author of Raw Wounds
  • VSU Alum
  • University of Baltimore M.F.A. Student
  • Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat: @KondwaniFidel

By his own admission, Kondwani Fidel skated through grade school. When he was very young, an aunt would give him $20 every time he got an A, so the East Baltimore native figured out how to do the work. Later he found ways to stay afloat—finessing his teachers to let him hand in work late, even cheating.

“I never saw the importance of education,” Fidel says. But he was willing to listen: “When adults or anyone spoke about it, they’d say, ‘Get good grades because that’s the right thing to do. You want a good job, you’ve got to get a high school diploma.’”

Kondwani Fidel performs live in his “Pieces of a G” show at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center. (photo by Reginald Thomas II)

Now, with four years at Virginia State University and a year in UB’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program under his belt, his perspective has changed. In 2015, a video of Fidel performing one of his poems in a Baltimore classroom where he was substitute teaching—about growing up with drug-addicted parents and murdered friends—went viral. His gut-wrenching essay, “How a young boy has been decaying in Baltimore since age 10: A Death Note,” on was read more than 100,000 times in the first month after it was published.

In 2017, Fidel released a book called Raw Wounds to acclaim from prominent writers and civil rights activists, and his newest collection Hummingbirds in the Trenches debuted last summer. His essays and poems are written either for the page, for live performance, or for both. Fidel is also the subject of a new documentary by Jackson Tisi (available on his website, in which he narrates a journey through his experiences and neighborhood.

He credits his literary awakening to fellow Baltimore writer and UB professor D. Watkins B.A. ’09, M.F.A. ’14. “When I got introduced to him in 2015, this was my first time seeing a guy that came from my neighborhood, that looked like me, talked like me, walked like me in these positions where you don’t normally see people like that,” he says. “That’s why I always talk about how much representation matters.”

His M.F.A. studies haven’t necessarily made him a better writer yet, he says, but have made him a better reader: looking at poems line by line, deconstructing meaning at the level of the phrase as well as the full scale of a finished work. He thinks about recording spoken word more, and he wants to get more creative with storytelling, maybe even work on children’s books.

“Before I’m a good artist, before I’m a good performer, I’m a good listener. I listen to everything. I listen to everybody around me.”

Reading has been his ticket to a life in art, and he wants to pass it on. “People ask me all the time, what makes you different [from the peers you grew up with]?” he says. “We are no different. I am them, they are me. I stumbled across some opportunities that’s not afforded to everybody in my community. And lucky enough, I used those opportunities to my advantage, to pull myself from out the gutter.

And before I’m a good artist, before I’m a good performer, I’m a good listener,” he continues. “I listen to everything. I listen to everybody around me. And I’m good at taking advice, and I believe that’s one of the main reasons that got me where I am today.”

Jared Brey is a writer based in Philadelphia.

View Jackson Tisi’s short documentary, Hummingbirds in the Trenches, about Kondwani Fidel.

by Kondwani Fidel

Timidness awards you two
Black eyes
Ever wonder why I’m the
“angry Black guy”

Confidence awards you,
Your flesh might burn
Your blood might churn
But…you’ll be what everyone
else wants, which is
to be themselves

Slouches can’t survive monsoons
You have to be hotter than fire
or stronger than water, where
i come from

Die a coward or get crowned
Your crown might have thorns but boy
the joy of being a King.


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