BALTIMORE — Growing up, Kondwani Fidel Russell said it was common to learn about a particular type of literature or poetry in school. Authors like William Shakespeare and Robert Frost often set the bar, but for a kid growing up in Baltimore, they weren't always relatable, Russell said.
"They're amazing," the East Baltimore writer and poet said while sitting outside a cafe on Charles Street recently, "but that's all we were taught."
Instead, Russell, now 24, looked to music and lyrics by hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur and J. Cole, and songstress Amy Winehouse. Later, with the guidance of a college professor, he delved into the works of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Aaron McGruder, creator of cartoon series "The Boondocks" — literature that documented the beauty and struggles of being black in America.
In 2011, Russell began his journey into writing honest and gritty accounts of city life, including topics such as violence, drugs, depression and poverty — all of which were fueled by systemic racism, he said. Now, Russell is making a name for himself as a voice of Baltimore — with works including, most recently, his viral essay "How a young boy has been decaying in Baltimore since age 10: A Death Note."
But it's not the first time the University of Baltimore graduate student, who goes by Kondwani Fidel or just Koni for short, has received widespread attention.
In 2015, his filmed spoken-word piece "The Baltimore Bullet Train," in which he condemned city violence, received more than 20,000 views on YouTube; another poem he performed in front of a classroom while substitute teaching at a local high school received nearly 3 million views on Facebook and coverage from various news outlets.
Russell, who has received support from mentor and fellow East Baltimore writer D. Watkins, has been requested to perform his original poetry at funerals, including rapper Lor Scoota's wake last year and at a vigil for Korryn Gaines, who was fatally shot by Baltimore County police at her home last summer.
His "A Death Note" essay has taken off online in recent weeks, receiving roughly 113,000 views on the online self-publishing platform Medium, he said, and reaching the likes of "13th" director Ava DuVernay, who described it in a tweet as a "harrowing, must-read." The heart-wrenching account details the hardships Russell has faced growing up in East Baltimore, including the deaths of a sibling and friends and the climbing number of homicides in Baltimore.
"By the end of this year, if this pace continues, the death rate will be swollen like broken jaw bones, making 2017 the deadliest year ever in Baltimore. Grandmothers will outlive their grandkids and the smell of sizzling flesh will dangle over nappy fades and colorful barrettes," he wrote in "A Death Note." "However, I'm supposed to pretend that I'm happy, while I walk on ground where shy blades of grass grow plump from swallowing the blood of babies."
The essay took him two weeks and many tears to write, Russell said, but the feedback has been rewarding, much of it coming from those who said it has opened their eyes to the realities that many Baltimoreans and people in inner cities face every day.
"That's what good writing does. You take people on new journeys and get them to pick up new tools and get them to understand more about the world or new situations," said Russell, who published his second book, "Raw Wounds," in January.
Like the essay, his book dives into his life experiences, depression, thoughts of suicide, and loss of loved ones, with commentary about how racism contributes to poverty and injustices in Baltimore. It's part of his mission to make people understand it all in a digestible and candid manner, he said.
"Sometimes, I feel like Robin Hood," he said. "I get [expletive] from these institutions, and I have to get it back to my people and make sure that it's accessible to them."
Watkins, who similarly explored his life growing up in Baltimore among drugs and violence in the "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir" and "The Beast Side," has served as a mentor and father-figure to the young poet, helping him navigate the literary business while embracing who he is as a man, Russell said.
The two connected on social media a couple of years ago. Since then, their relationship has grown — and so has Russell's work, Watkins said.
"He's got an amazing story," Watkins said.
"When I first met him, I think his poems were good and they were impactful, but over the past few years, I saw him level up. I saw him become more of a reader. . . . He always had a lot of confidence. He's a real tough kid. You have to be."
The oldest of seven siblings, Russell was raised by his grandmothers. His father, now in prison, and his mother both suffered from drug addiction. His brother Fidel died at a young age from injuries sustained in a house fire — a vivid memory he explores in his book.
On top of that, witnessing countless people in Baltimore become victims of violence took its toll, Russell said.
"It's so [expletive] depressing watching your friends and family fade away in jail cells. . . . I legit have friends who went crazy just living in Baltimore just from hardships, just beating them down and not knowing what to do with themselves," he said. "It's depressing to see people you love just go. . . . It's like, you was just chilling with this guy, sharing chicken boxes, eating and laughing, and he's not here no more."
He found an outlet through writing while at Virginia State University. Russell credited Arnold Westbrook, a language and literature professor there, for introducing him to African American literature and history and putting pressure on him to take his reading seriously while in college.
"He is a proud black man," Westbrook wrote in an email to the Baltimore Sun. "[Russell] is 'not afraid to be great' and understands that . . . the impact he has on his hometown community and possibly the African-American culture is priceless."
Russell performed an autobiographical poem for the first time in 2013 while in college, opening up about his life in Baltimore. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, he recalled. He left the stage in tears, overcome with emotion.
"I had people tell me 'I can relate to that.' . . . That's when I first found out how much reach I had as far as touching people and helping people with my words," he said.
The next day, Russell changed his major from sports management — a career he assumed to be lucrative — to English. It quickly became his new passion and his therapy, a way to channel his feelings and write about things occurring back home in Baltimore. He has been focused on it ever since, being "unapologetically black" in his approach. He has to be, he said, when facing everyday struggles and racism. His criticisms of the world around him run deep.
"Anytime you talk about crime and you don't talk about unemployment, or don't talk about where it stems from, it's a racist idea," he said. "The real way to fight crime is not about throwing people in jail. It's about creating jobs. Everybody knows that.
"There's a system in place in America that nourishes racism and nourishes white supremacy and nourishes all of these things so it has nothing to do with us as humans. That's a tough pill to swallow. People aren't born racists or murderers. People are born people. The society around you constructs who you are."
While his most recent essay is still making the rounds on the Web, Russell said he's just getting started.
He began his first semester at the University of Baltimore this week, in pursuit of a master of fine arts degree in creative writing. He's aiming to write another book and sign with a literary agent, and he has plans to create a program for young writers to help them to generate income and create an anthology of essays.
Invoking a quote from his mentor, Watkins, Russell said: "If you're not telling your story, you're giving society space to kill you.
"I don't want anyone to say who Kondwani Fidel is or what they believe I was thinking," Russell said. "I want y'all to know."