By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Cleo Cartel was here. Laboring in love, the multi-talented creative commanded attention while creating a space for herself and others to grow.
Even the brightest lights go out and the artist formerly known as Frances Florence Ethyl Wesley passed away on August 14 after a courageous two-year battle with cervical cancer. She was 51. She also went by the African-centered name Sfensa Ariantch Shepsuaba.
Originally from Oakland, Cartel relocated to Sacramento in the 1990s. She brought the Bay Area vibe with her and made her new home her own. Whether Cartel was hosting an event, performing at one, lending her art and artistry to a community cause, or simply supporting someone else’s endeavors, she shined.
As a poet, Cartel was a member of Sacramento’s first ever poetry slam team. Back in 2002, the team placed 30th in the world at a national convention. She toured the country performing and back home, she was also a co-founder of the Mahogany Urban Poetry Series, the longest running Black-owned poetry venue in Northern California.
She blessed future generations of spoken word artists as a mentor with Sol Collective and Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS). In celebrating Mahogany’s 23rd anniversary last summer, SAYS alum Andreas “Dre-T” Tillman, Jr. spoke about the support Cartel gave him during that time. He recalled making music out of his car and how Cartel encouraged him to turn that into a bigger vision for himself.
“She believed in me, she gave me an opportunity to actually put that into work in terms of (being able to look at it as), ‘I have a mobile studio and I can produce a full length project for you.’ I wouldn’t have been able to say that or make that possible if Cleo didn’t give me that opportunity,” Tillman shared at the 2022 event.
Never selfish, Cartel made it a point to teach young people how to run a business and be self-sufficient. She taught them to hustle like she did.
“She led by example,” her best friend and confidant Khiry Malik Moore said.
Cartel wore many hats. Her gifts included being an accomplished painter, singer/recording artist, gardener, fashion designer and seamstress, hair stylist, makeup artist, and business owner. She was also known as Chef Sfensa.
Often awed by Cartel’s “genius” and seemingly inexhaustive creativity, Moore also enjoyed a number of working relationships with her. In addition to Mahogany, they opened a gourmet grocery store, Momma’s Market, along with Cartel’s husband Uahsuf Shepsuaba and friend Temperance Bonner, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Momma’s Market was an extension of Cartel’s desire to provide healthy and culturally relevant food options to the community. The small market featured fresh locally grown produce, spices and herbs from around the world and held weekly cooking pop-ups. Cartel would often give food away for free to the needy. She also employed area youth at the store.
Alongside Momma’s Market, Cartel operated Sage where she and her husband would sell everything from books and candles to jewelry, herbal remedies and art. She was also the brain behind Yummy Goodz and Urban Gypsy brands. A champion for self-sufficiency, Cartel hosted a number of Marcus Garvey market events and festivals.
While fighting cancer and in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, Cartel often planned events from a hospital bed. At one point she was warned to slow down, to be still. Cartel looked at her doctor and said what she said, “You can’t stop me from living.”
As a testament to her impact, countless people flooded social media, upon learning of her passing, sharing photos and memories of their interaction with her. Comments were made by fellow poets and artists, other local entrepreneurs and community-minded friends.
She often found kindred spirits in other women. In a light-seeks-light kind of thing, Cartel counted some of the area’s most active people in her friend group. They publicly collaborated and worked behind the scenes, supporting other Black women who needed upliftment. They celebrated with her in February when she was featured as a Black vendor at Nordstroms.
“Whether it was building a business or building relationships, Cleo attacked them both with a genuine ferocity that would make a person hold their breath,” said local entrepreneur and stylist Tonya Mack.
“Her creativity is unmatched — cooking, making jewelry, sewing, gardening or providing emotional support, everything and everyone that experienced just a little bit of the magic that is Cleo will forever more be changed for the better,” Mack continued.
“Thank you for showing us the meaning of inspiration, innovation, consciousness, culture and community,” said former mentee Patrice Hill, who currently serves as SAYS director.
“We will continue to sow the seeds you planted for us to blossom into our blackness, our strength, our community.”
Spoken word artist Chris Coon expressed his feelings in a poem, sharing that Cartel was “one of the very few that truly saw me for who I am and spoke life into who I am meant to be.”
She was particularly supportive of young people and their potential. She hired them through her businesses and events and encouraged their own entrepreneurial endeavors through opportunities to showcase their talents, and through buying whatever it was they were selling.
When Mellonie Richardson’s son was making desserts, Cleo bought cupcakes, even when there were too many to eat herself.
“Your living, loving, giving, growing, sowing, teaching, creating and truth talking impacted more lives than can be counted,” Richardson wrote in a Facebook tribute. “You showed us all how to live, to thrive, to honor our sales community and others. No thanks is enough.”
Fellow poet Ifamadupe Eddington called Cartel an incomparable creative force.
“I know the ancestors are preparing for the arrival of a queen,” Eddington said of her former roommate.
Cartel bestowed her good vibes on all she came across. She frequently shared gardening tips or words of wisdom on Facebook. She regularly texted friends and family offering words of love and encouragement, the messages undoubtedly began with one of her signature salutations, “Hey Sugapop” or “Hey Luvbug.”
Moore is now sharing words of comfort to those trying to come to terms with Cartel’s passing.
“We’re limited by the physical aspect of who we are,” he said. “We’re spiritual people. We’re spirits, so as long as you can hear her voice, as long as you can see her photo and remember who she was, that’s what counts.”
Cartel’s legacy is in the seeds she sowed in others.
“If you want to honor her, do as she would do, go support a child, go support your community,” Moore said. “Everything she taught you, let that be how you remember her. If you miss Cleo, you’re going to go out and support your community. If you want to be healthy, you’re going to do everything that she tried to do until the day that she died.”
Cartel was preceded in death by her beloved mother, Carol Ann Jones who passed away in February.
A Celebration of Life service was held Thursday, September 7 at Ramsey Wallace Funeral Home & Chapel, located at 1831 Howe Avenue. Cartel will be interred at Camelia Cemetery. A Gofundme fundraiser has been started by her husband. To contribute, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/cleo-sfensa-ariantch-celebration-of-life?utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook