Cover photo for Michael "Zuki" Modunkwu's Obituary
Michael "Zuki" Modunkwu Profile Photo
1988 Michael 2024

Michael "Zuki" Modunkwu

September 8, 1988 — April 6, 2024


Michael Azukaego “Zuki” Modunkwu made his final loud, echoing mic drop on April 6, 2024, etching into eternal stone a life full of melody, beauty, expansive creativity, unrestrained inspiration and endless joie de vivre. In classic Zuki fashion, he refused to transfer to hospice, and stubbornly insisted on waiting for his lead oncologist to return from out of the country – and made sure to passionately argue with the ICU staff in the meantime: “Figure it out!” And as a testament to his genuine love for community and belonging, at his deathbed he was surrounded by dozens of his best friends from across the country –  so many people that we were spilling into the hallways and waiting room – and waited until everyone touched down before he transitioned.

Zuki made his iconic entry into the world at Baptist Hospital on September 8, 1988 in Nashville, Tennessee. His childhood was full of superheroes, which he loved, and some of his favorites were Batman, Spiderman, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There wasn’t a couch or precariously high surface that was spared from his pretend battles, the incessant sounds of “pish pish pish” for punches, and his leaping from one point to the other. He left books with the appearance that they’d not only been enjoyed, but devoured. His childhood home was littered with countless dog-eared, well-worn copies of comics, Animorphs, tomes of political theory, movement organizing, and Black liberation.

As a young child, Zuki was really good at making something from nothing, whether it was making beats, cooking weird ramen noodle combinations in our kitchen, or making strangers his friends. Zuki’s childhood soundtrack consisted of not only the artists he loved, but also a constant barrage of original music production of his own. Synths and booming percussion pulsed from his room, a testament to his loud, creative spirit. Nights were filled with family pleas to “turn it down a notch” or “please keep it down,” but Zuki would nonetheless keep dancing to the beat of his own drums. He loved football, and played as a student at both Cameron Middle and Antioch High School. He was a feverish fan of the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics, and revered Tom Brady (loudly, passionately, unwaveringly, and annoyingly) his entire life.

So much of his life was invested in community – making it, making it better, and making it last. He embodied the change he wanted to see. As a young adult, he was a prolific community organizer and poured a great deal of his passion into youth in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. After high school and during college, he worked as a community organizer at the Oasis Center, organizing with young people in East Nashville around education and economic justice. He believed that young people, when given the space, can be a change agent in their communities. His work led to an increase in the number of young people in Nashville attending college, and Metro Nashville Public Schools adopting a Bill of Rights, which aided in codifying protections and ensuring viable pathways to a future of possibility and opportunity for all students.

He was an artist’s artist and the total package creative – he not only produced music, but he also rapped, authored spoken word and so much more. His family and friends have fond memories of traveling to watch Zuki perform and compete as a young poet with Southern Word, who awarded him with their Legacy for Inspiring Lifetimes through Poetry & Music honor in September 2023. In their April 2024 tribute to Zuki, they included the following: “The best people leave gifts of their lessons for you, and Zuki’s combination of humility, concern for others, and ‘I’m going to do this because why shouldn’t this opportunity be for me’ is a formula that should be shared as widely as possible,” as well as Zuki’s own words from one of his timeless poems: “I got a well for a throat and a wish just for some change.”

He graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in political science and my God, did everyone around him know it. He was an incisive, clever orator and debater, and pushed you to reexamine your own biases and beliefs. As a community organizer, he loved progressive politics, and believed in the endless capacity of possibility, opportunity, and especially in young people. He loved Jesus, the original community organizer, and modeled his love and care of the marginalized, the young, and the powerless; Zuki’s prayers were quiet and contemplative, and his actions were loud and impactful. He was always unapologetic about his Blackness and fearless in his pursuit of Black liberation across the world.

He also never stopped growing, and was curious about himself until the very end. During the uncertainty of the pandemic, Zuki bet on himself and initiated a career pivot by earning a professional certificate in user experience (UX) design, an incredible feat that required rigorous study and training. After graduating, he got to explore his potential as a full-time product designer, and developed digital experiences for brands that were and are engaged by millions of consumers – and infused elegance, ease, simplicity, beauty, and optimization into every line and stroke of code.

Zuki was the ultimate ambassador of enjoyment – no wedding, reunion, birthday party, house hangout, or any other excuse for celebration went untouched by his exuberance. “Life of the party” isn’t sufficient to capture his presence; he made you feel like life was the biggest party ever, and that you would never stop being invited. Terabytes of footage in the phones of his loved ones hold countless memories of him dancing, singing, and making himself and everyone around him collapse in laughter. If you are honored to have a Zuki video in your possession, you have forever treasure – guard it and relish it as such.

However, as much as he was extroverted, he was also deeply introverted. You could often find him tucked into a nook in your local coffee shop – think of the funkiest, artsiest one – with over-the-ear headphones swallowing his head, which was constantly thumping to music. Zuki loved music – he loved creating it, engrossing himself in it, and curating experiences around it. With his best friends, he founded Lagos Vibes Day Party, a recurring social in Nashville with Afrobeats and hip hop at the center, along with curated custom playlists on streaming apps to keep the party going even when you were by yourself. He also co-founded Something Different, an emerging creative umbrella company that specializes in existing in unexpected places. He was full of endless genius, creativity and innovation, and we will keep doing our best to learn from it and keep his fire burning forever. We have no doubt that as our ancestor, he’s already guiding each of our brushstrokes day by day (and most likely multitasking, making his new heavenly neighbors think with his arguments and collapse with his comedy).

He is survived by his fiancee Melissa Mosby –  the two share an angel baby boy, Malcolm, who he’s now reunited with – as well as his parents Bibi (Semi) Stevenson and Bobby (Irene) Modunkwu, his siblings, Esé (Ife) Morrison, Queen Stevenson and Laura Modunkwu, and his soul brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and countless friends.
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