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Master storyteller M.K. Asante keeps it real in the classroom

From Amanda Sealy, CNN
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A writer, film maker and a professor
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zimbabwe-born M.K. Asante is an author, filmmaker and professor
  • His books and movies have won several awards
  • He communicates the power of art to new generations through a language they understand

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Zimbabwean-born author, filmmaker and professor M.K. Asante.

(CNN) -- As a disruptive teenager, M.K. Asante was expelled from school on more than one occasion.

Yet today, as an award-winning writer, filmmaker and professor, he's welcomed back in classrooms around the world.

A master storyteller, Zimbabwe-born Asante is a major creative force. He's written a number of books, as well as three movies, including 2008's "The Black Candle," which was narrated by American poet Maya Angelou.

Only 29 years old, Asante has also embarked on a mission to make art more accessible to younger generations.

As a tenured professor of creative writing and film at Morgan State University in Baltimore, he leads classrooms of students, many of whom are close to him in age, using language they can understand.

"When I come into school, I keep it real with my students," Asante says. "I use examples that they understand, we talk about things that are relevant in contemporary society," he adds.

Having a troubled past
Having a love for writing

"I want to show them this is what a professor can look like. You know what I mean? Yeah, I write books, you can write books too," Asante says.

"Whether you wear a bow tie or not has nothing to do with your intellectual rigor or whatever, it's irrelevant -- it's really about your ideas and what you bring to the table."

Asante's passion for art has also led him to travel across the United States and to many African countries where he gives passionate lectures about his craft.

He says the trips back to the continent in which he was born have been a great experience for both him and the young Africans who come to listen to him.

"They're inspired and you can see it," he says. "They're shocked that this person from America is so rooted, you know, sometimes even more rooted than they are."

Born in Harare to American parents, Asante moved to the United States at a young age.

Whether you wear a bow tie or not has nothing to do with your intellectual rigor.
--M.K. Asante
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His life's journey got off to a rocky start while growing up in Philadelphia -- he was kicked out of his private school when he was 12 and then was sent to two public schools where he continued to get into trouble by being disruptive and fighting.

But Asante's life took a major turn when he was 16 when he joined a creative writing class and was encouraged by his teacher to write about anything he wanted. He says that this was something he'd never been told before at school.

"I tested her at first -- I wrote a couple of curse words at first just to see if she was serious about this," he recalls.

"And she looked at it and said 'good.' And I was like, 'OK, this is crazy!' So I take the pen and my hand starts shaking because I get overwhelmed with this feeling about what I'm gonna write."

Asante says that defining moment changed his life forever, triggering his love for writing.

"There were so many other things going on at that same time -- I had gotten arrested, I had a very close friend of mine, Little Chris, who got murdered by gun violence in Philly, my brother was incarcerated, people were dying and it was sad," Asante says.

"And that was one of the things I was writing about. I felt like I had an obligation to those things and I had to write about them in a way that was inspiring and empowering so other people wouldn't go there."

He published his first book, a collection of poems called "Like Water Running Off My Neck," when he just 20 years old. He followed up his debut with "Beautiful and Ugly Too" in 2005 and then "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop" in 2008.

Asante made his film debut in 2005 when he wrote and produced "500 Years," a film about the effects of slavery and colonialism on people of African descent that went on to win five awards on the international film festival circuit.

His latest film, "Motherland," won Best Documentary at the Pan African Film Festival last year.

Despite his success, Asante isn't slowing down. He says he wants his art to reach as many people as possible.

"I like to do things on a big level and continue to take things to a higher level because for me if you're going to be serious about art and serious about the work you're making, you have to also be serious about making sure it reaches people," he says.

"If I'm going to investing my energy and time on something that I think is really important, I want millions and billions to read it and have access to it."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.

 
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