West Philly rapper Sterling Duns talks about his writing process and how he came to be a Quaker.
I put my life on pause, rewound, now I’m pressing play.
Then come up,
grinding until the sun up,
knowing it could all be gone if one person puts their guns up.
A black Quaker no savior, I’m on my Bayard Rustin
I really feel like, in a lot of ways, that the lyrics that come to me, I really do feel like I’m just a vessel. I’m just somebody being used to spread messages of love and growth and empathy.
My name is Sterling Duns. I’m from West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and I attend Merion Meeting in Merion, PA, so not too far from West Philly.
I went to public school for all my life up until the 9th grade. My Mom had heard about a scholarship program at Friends Central School right outside of West Philly so I went there for 4 years. It was a very transformative experience. One of the most life changing moments was when I was 14 I went down to the American Friends Service Committee and sat down in a room, 14, and someone came in and was like, “Alright, we’re going to write holiday letters to death row inmates.”
And I was like, “How do I even comprehend what I’m doing? What this means?”
And that seed was planted. It’s serendipitous, it’s the universe, but little did I know, 13 years later I’d be working on prison reform in our country and really trying to educate myself and others about the prison system in this country.
Writing Poetry as a Spiritual Discipline
I feel like I’ve been writing hip hop verses or rapping for as long as I can remember, but I think when I got to college I really started to hone in on rapping and crafting my skills. I was an English major and poetry minor. I got my masters in poetry. Definitely having the opportunity to find my voice through poetry has influenced the hip hop that I do, and it’s been such a gift. It’s so cathartic for me – hip hop specifically – it’s this way that I use to speak my truth.
I think being patient with yourself, which I learned a lot through Quaker Meeting – has been really important in music. I’ll write something down, and want it to be finished right then and then. And I’m like, “I can’t force this.”
I think in a similar way, when sitting in Meeting, you could be grappling with something and you want resolution right then and there, knowing that it’s all about the process. It’s not about finding all the answers right in that moment. And you may come back a week later or a month later, and somebody will share a message and you’re like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.”
Guided By An Inner Truth
Quakers are constantly searching and re-defining what it means to really just embody Light and see that of God in everyone. You really are able to ask yourself some deep questions and be introspective and then from that introspection, I love the aspect of really dedicating yourself to social justice issues. That’s one of the things that really drew me to Quakerism. The spirituality, but also this action. You can’t just sit in the Meeting room and think about things, and then once you get out of there, you know, “my job’s done for the day.”
I was asking myself these questions about what’s going on in the world and what’s my place in it all, and do I have a place in it all? And you know, the way was open and opportunities came up for me to put into practice things that I really felt deep in my core, and next thing I knew I was at Quaker Meeting every Sunday and I was helping to organize different learning opportunities around the prison system and doing work around education reform and playing music that had to do with social justice issues. Things just started to open up because I really started listening and being guided by this inner truth.