Photo by Christina Santucci
By Rich Bockmann

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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