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Baba John Watusi Branch, 70, founded Afrikan Poetry Theatre

John Watusi Branch, co-founder of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, died last week after suffering a heart attack.
TimesLedger Newspapers

John Watusi Branch, co-founder of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in Jamaica, died last week. He was 70.

Branch, who was known by the honorific “Baba,” meaning “father,” went into a coma after suffering a heart attack Dec. 23. He was taken off life support Dec. 28.

Along with the late Yusef Waliyaya, Branch co-founded the Afrikan Poetry Theatre Ensemble, the progenitor to the theater, in 1976 as a collection of poets, singers and musicians focused on jazz, funk, African rhythms and poetry, according to the cultural center’s website.

The Afrikan Poetry Theatre was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1977 and found a home on Merrick Boulevard the following year. It moved to its current location, at 176-03 Jamaica Ave., in 1979.

Under Branch’s direction, the theater expanded to offer cultural and educational tours to West Africa and developed a summer youth employment program.

Branch was a respected and well-known figure in the pan-African movement to establish independence for African nations and unify black people across the world.

“With his great leadership of the APT, Baba Watusi helped to foster the pan-African, civil rights and the black nationalist movements with his regular invitation of critical leaders to the center,” P.D. Menelik Harris, of the World African Diaspora Union wrote on a Pan African website. “Baba John Watusi Branch was and is the spiritual embodiment of an African with profound love, an authentic legacy and an uncompromising loyalty to African people.”

Branch was a published poet and author of several titles, including “A Story of Kwanza: Black/Afrikan Holy Days” and “Journey to the Motherland.”

Information on funeral arrangements was not immediately available. The theater was in the midst of celebrating Kwanzaa earlier this week.

Andrew Jackson, executive director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Corona, said the theater is an important Queens institution and its co-founder would have wanted the Kwanzaa celebrations to be disrupted.

“His death is a great loss for the borough,” he said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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Gregory Branch from Kampala, Uganda (originally - Jamaica, Queens) says:
John Watusi Branch, our Nana, our Eze, our Igwe, our Inkosi, our Oba, our Kabaka, our African King, our love and respect flows to you from Africa and every person that you have touched!
Jan. 1, 3:55 am
Bob McNeil from Hillside Ave. says:
For many years, along a road of racial opposition, the Black Arts Movement traveled. Brother John Watusi Branch was one of the great directors who guided us towards our destination, a place replete with dignity and empowerment.

Today, as a result of his death, we have been forced to navigate through a problematic path. Nevertheless, our respectful memories of him will serve as a compass.
Jan. 3, 1:20 am
Adrienne Cooke from Corona says:
I Met Mr. Branch many years ago when I lived in Westchester. I was on his mailing list for many years. I received a news letter which had a Wolof language lesson workshop. I attended this workshop driving down from Westchester once a week. This was my first encounter with Mr. Branch, the last encounter was New Years eve 2012 where I spent with him and many others at the Afrikan Poetry Center.

I only knew him for a short time, but will miss him!
Jan. 5, 11:13 am
Tobius Simmons from Harlem says:
I have travelled with him to Senegal and my family members have travelled with him to other destinations in Africa. My wife and I also have participated in the Kwanzaa market in Queens as vendors. I have always found Mr. Branch to be a regal, thoughtful, focused gentlemen of good humor and fine intellect. He has been a treasure of a human being and more importantly, an institution builder!! His legacy lives on!!!
Jan. 5, 10:59 pm
Folami Fana from Cambria Heights says:
The APT has brought so much of our rich culture to the Queens NY community . Much love and thanks go out to John Watusi Branch and all those like him past, present and future.
Jan. 6, 9:04 am
elmitchellbey from farrockaway , ny says:
I met baba john watusi branch, many years ago, at Morgan Station NY. History is something he is a very important Part of.
Jan. 7, 6:39 am
elmitchellbey from farrockaway , ny says:
Baba John watusi Branch will remembered and missed Much.What he contributed in his lifetime speaks for It's Self.
Jan. 7, 6:49 am
Veloney Smith from Rochdale Village says:
On behalf of the Rochdale Village Community Center, it is with a deeply heavy heart that we acknowledge the passing of our dear Brother Warrior Lion - John Watussi Branch.

We will always owe our dear brother a debt of gratitude for his leadership of his legendary Afrikan Poetry Theatre and all that its edifice provided as a leading torch of light, institution and work towards Black Sefl Determination and Pan Afrikan historical, political and cultural thought, discourse, community development and activism.

Watussi's willingness to partner with the whole of the Africentric community to bring about consciousness was always evident and oh so appreciated by the learned people of Rochdale Village.

John's ability to capture the hearts, and minds of over 800 attendees of the communal family to include tots, children, teens, young adults and seniors at partnerships to co-host Kwanzaa in the Rochdale Village Coop of 5,600 apartments was formulated with precise determination to teach and impact multi-generations on the spiritual, cultural, and creative works of the African Diaspora will live on with for us forever, as the 2nd largest Kwanzaa in NYC for a great number of years. As will the cherished shared memories of brother Branch's lectures and artifacts on his travels to the Motherland.

Brother Branch's support of youth development and leadership provided sustainable resources for the Queens Community childcare development agencies, community centers and others during crucial times of the summer months, despight many cuts to youth funding.

I will personally treasure many of our collaborative projects in the spirit of Umoja, Ujima and Ujama.

Ode to my dear Brother Warrior Lion - John Watussi Branch a fearless leader, warrior, comrade and partner.
May our ancestors be proud, accepting and deeply touched by his contribution to African People, forever and forever, as he takes his place in the ancestral world.
Your Sister Muslimah
Veloney Aminah Smith
Executive Director
Rochdale Village Community Center
Jan. 8, 10:46 am
Joe Newton from Jamaica says:
I met Mr. Branch for the first time in the summer of 2013 when I began drumming in the weekly drum circle held at Afrikan Poetry Theatre. While I did not know him well, I will remember him as a stoic, gentle man who provided me with an opportunity to share the joy of drumming in a warm community of peers. Thank you John
Jan. 14, 11:37 pm
Thelma Brown from Vallejo, California says:
Many years ago, I talked to John regarding a trip to West Africa. Though miles apart he helped me organize tours to Senegal and Ghana. John was a mentor and a friend . His book, Journey to the Motherland has been my reference for a large number of African countries that I want to visit. John's journey on earth had a positive impact on the lives of people he met. He will be remembered. Ashay! Ashay!
Thelma Brown
Thelma's African Connection
Vallejo, CA
Jan. 31, 3:17 am
JABULANI THANDIWEUMI from East Windsor New Jersey says:
I am deeply saddened by the passing of Baba John Watusi Branch
My first trip to Afrika in 1988 was with Baba John and I got to know him by attending lectures and other functions at the Afrikan poetry Theater. He will be missed

Jabulani
March 6, 1:13 am
Stephen kwanena Goodlow from Ghana says:
My family has known John Branch since 1988 on his first tour to Ghana my late Dad Victor Kwami Kugbeadzor as tour Operator and since then the family business priceworth tours has been handle his tours to Ghana and Togo. Baba you will be in our mind each day.

Stephen Kwabena Goodlow
233 241264085
April 29, 5:56 pm

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