Davu Seru Creates Outside of the Confines of the Known World

As children, we are curious about our reality, striving to become the very things that pull us in. When we pivot into adulthood and begin exploring our purpose in this world, what we covet as children can transform. But Davu Underwood Seru is the anomaly — he became exactly what he proclaimed he would be as a youth: an improvisatory, expressionistic, and impressionistic artist.

A longtime member of the American Composers Forum ecosystem and past ACF awardee, Davu Seru (born David Allen Underwood) grew up in North Minneapolis near the housing projects that existed along Olson Highway. Both of his parents are native Minneapolitans from the north side, yet he was raised by his mother and stepfather. Unlike his biological father, his stepfather’s roots grew in Chicago, though in 1975, he transplanted to Minneapolis where he met Seru’s mom.

The Underwoods have been in Minnesota since around 1915. Davu’s great-great grandfather Clarence C. Underwood Sr. (a graduate of Wilberforce in Ohio) met his wife on the city’s south side sometime after returning from service in WWI. His wife, Julia Wallace, was a Black woman born in Hastings, MN, in 1889. Their son, Clarence Jr., left south Minneapolis for the northside in the 1950s. Having once been grouped together near the Sumner Field Homes and the Phillis Wheatley Community Center in the area nearest downtown, eventually Black families would spread north and west, further and further into the northside with each generation. Davu spent most of his childhood with his family in an old clapboard house on the 1900 block of Penn.

The generational challenges Seru faced were not only socio-economic but also academic. Ultimately, he received help from a bevy of teachers and other mentors, and he was able to participate in programs funded by companies like Pillsbury and Cargill that exposed him to professional mentorships.

Davu Seru dancing with his great-aunt Joyce Irene Acosta and cousin Leondria Jett--Photo courtesy of the artist

Davu Seru dancing with his great-aunt Joyce Irene Acosta and cousin Leondria Jett–Photo courtesy of the artist

What he did inherit from his bloodline was a love for music and the arts. Seru’s great-grandmother played the organ, his great-aunt and godmother were singers, and his stepfather played drums. Seru tinkered with the drumset in the basement until junior high, which is where he meddled with alternative rock, Hendrix blues, and eventually jazz.

As for the arts, Auntie Phyllis was the first art teacher and artist he’d ever met. While babysitting Seru, she gathered scraps from newspapers and magazines, quoted scripts from the Bible, practiced lettering, and gathered eggshells, glitter, and other things to sculpt greeting cards made for every occasion. He discovered she’d occasionally go down to the emergency rooms at the hospitals and sell them to people. What he admired about her is that there was something in her that just told her to make things, and Seru followed that pull just like she did.

By the time he graduated from North High in 1996, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that becoming an artist was a part of his life’s purpose. It was a normal day in the quad when Seru found himself standing with some peers.

“I remember one of them saying to me, ‘What you going to do?’” says Seru. “I was like, ‘I’m going to go be an artist,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, but what you going to do?’ So, at that point, I was stubborn, I said, ‘I’m going to go make art.'”

The seed planted by his Aunt Phyllis began blooming under the surface, but it wasn’t until he secured a job as a security guard at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that he was closer to his dream.

“I cried when I got the job because I felt like I had arrived. I was a security guard, had a nice union job at a place where I could stand around looking at art all day,” Seru says.

But his new life wasn’t without challenges. Seru realized he lacked the ability to articulate himself like his coworkers, who came from privileged backgrounds. So he decided to make a shift from looking at art all day to creating art and training the next generation of artists. At 24, he wanted to hone in on something that would honor his family and his community, so he set his sights on becoming a university professor.

As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Seru pursued literature and African studies, which enabled him to become a research fellow at the Givens Collection of African American Literature. While processing documents at the Elmer Andersen Library, he began curating exhibits of works from the archive. This got him thinking about archives, history, memory, and relational community-based processes.

Following undergraduate and graduate school, Seru became a visiting instructor in the English department at Hamline University, where he now leads courses in first-year writing and literature. But in addition to teaching, Seru has also been continually developing his own work as an improviser, composer, and writer. These skills have afforded him access to opportunities such as the Jerome Foundation Composer and Sound Artist FellowshipMetropolitan Regional Arts Council Next Step Fund, and commissions from Zeitgeist and Walker Art Center.

Seru was also awarded a 2013 ACF Minnesota Emerging Composer Award (now Minnesota Music Creator Awards) and a 2020 ACF McKnight Composer Fellowship. These two awards from ACF helped Seru continue the archiving and documentation work he had already been doing in his community, but with new resources.

ACF’s McKnight Composer Fellowships recognize and support mid-career artists living and working in Minnesota who demonstrate a sustained level of accomplishment, commitment, and artistic excellence. The award provides direct funding and mentorship to a broad and diverse field of music creators as part of ACF’s mission to highlight those who have been historically excluded from participation.

“I’d been quite busy serving as an artist in this community up to the point of getting the McKnight [Composer Fellowship],” says Seru. “What I promised to do with the [award] was to make it possible to start documenting much of what I’ve been doing because recording studios can be expensive, though they’re absolutely essential to what we do out here. I was playing so often that I wanted to be able to document as much as possible, and with so many different people as an improvising musician. I was able, with the grant, to get a portable recording rig, which I got in summer 2020 and have used extensively since then.”

Davu Seru performing at Orchestra Hall--Photo by Keith Miesel

Davu Seru performing at Orchestra Hall–Photo by Keith Miesel

Seru’s new professional mobile recording rig has helped him to document and serve others in his community, including musicians Douglas R. Ewart and Mankwe Ndosi, ceramicist Sayge Caroll, and art historian Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski. Seru is also using his new gear to capture audio interviews with his elder relatives, which he plans to transcribe and submit to the Minnesota History Center for their oral history project.

Outside of his ACF award, Seru is finishing up his second book, which is an archiving project with Saint Paul artist Seitu Jones. This summer, he will be entering another artist residency where his ensemble Motherless Dollar will be recording some of his newer compositions that he wrote before COVID hit.

Davu Seru’s life outside of the confines of the known world – that is the world he’s grown used to – is painted in improvisation, outlined in expression, and based in storytelling with the intention of preserving history. He is exactly who he set out to be and more, although the path leading to this dream unfolded in unexpected ways. Ultimately, Seru’s history is our history, and our history is history.


ACF’s Minnesota Music Creators Award is made possible by the Jerome Foundation. The McKnight Composer Fellowship is generously funded by the McKnight Foundation.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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