This story is part of Image issue 12, “Commitment (The Woo Woo Issue),” where we explore why Los Angeles is the land of true believers. Read the whole issue here.)
Dr. Sebi’s legacy changes, depending on whom you ask. To some, the controversial, self-taught healer was a visionary, a man who claimed that he cured HIV/AIDS, sickle cell anemia, cancer, asthma and, on occasion, blindness. He was also the man who was dragged into court on multiple occasions: in 1987, he was charged for practicing medicine without a license (a case he won), and then he was hit with a civil lawsuit from New York Attorney General's office preventing him from making his so-called therapeutic claims in New York newspapers. He was an herbalist, pathologist and biochemist whose popularization of the alkaline electric diet and herbal compounds offered a different path for people with ailments such as hypertension and diabetes.
And yet, to others, he was far from above board. Doubters called him a grifter and a fraud, while many skeptics sympathetic to his cause reasoned that he was more a master storyteller and a salesman. He was a doctor who was not technically a “doctor” — at least not according to Western medicine or certification — but he did say he cured himself from mental illness, impotency and obesity through the same herbs and diet he touted to others until his death. Born Alfredo Bowman in Honduras, Dr. Sebi was the person who said on live radio that carrots were an artificial vegetable. The figure whose name and likeness are still associated with nature’s cure-all: sea moss.
But one of the main places Dr. Sebi’s legacy exists is a lot less debated: Los Angeles, his home base for decades. The city, whose openness to unconventionality and hunger for information served as a muse for his holistic teachings, has kept him alive in so many ways, even six years after his death. Bring up Sebi’s name in certain rooms in L.A. — especially ones where dried herbs line the walls and containers of shea butter stock the shelves — and you’ll see people’s eyes light up with recognition ... and theories. “Why do they kill all holistic doctors?” said Nipsey Hussle on the Breakfast Club in 2018, two years after Dr. Sebi became ill in a Honduran prison, where he was being detained on money laundering charges, and, according to the Associated Press, died in his cell. “You’re short stopping their grind.”
Dr. Sebi was seen, in so many communities in L.A., as an underdog hero; the mythic figure The Man didn’t want you to know about. People saw him as a champion of the truth, or a truth. If he had healed himself, maybe we could too. If he didn’t need the systems that had failed us, maybe we didn’t either.
Listen closely and you might catch Sebi's ghost still whispering his teachings throughout the city. If you’ve ever heard someone turn down the chicken wings or mashed potatoes or even a bowl of rice and beans because it caused “mucus in your body, and mucus is the source of all illness,” you just knew: They’d been Sebi’d. Suddenly, the question of alkaline versus acidic foods — Dr. Sebi’s theory that all foods that fell below a 7 on the pH scale, therefore being acidic, were harmful to our health — entered the chat. Spoonfuls of Irish sea moss, despite tasting like the bottom of the ocean floor, were being eaten like candy for their mineral content. The superfood could grow back your hair, plump your skin, coat your joints, give you most of the minerals your body needed — 92 of the 102 our bodies are made up of. “Sea moss is a gateway to Dr. Sebi or Dr. Sebi is a gateway to sea moss,” says Dani Solorio, the founder of Compton Health Bar, which sells its own sea moss gel and capsules. “They’re very much synonymous with each other.”
Dr. Sebi’s spirit is still thick in places like Compton, where he lived for years on 143rd Street. “That small house, it was my classroom,” says Dr. Sebi’s daughter, Kellie Bowman, who was born in Carson and now runs her holistic health business, called Sebi’s Daughters, out of Atlanta. “It was a full curriculum in nutrition, and how my nutrition directly tied to the structure and function of my human body. My youngest memory of me in Compton was walking through his garden in his backyard with big stalks of different vegetables and flowers and grains. For me that was normal — in the middle of Compton.”
For Bowman, one of Dr. Sebi’s 22 children, her dad’s energy also lives in Leimert Park, where she spent countless hours with him. “The alkaline lifestyle lives in Leimert Park,” Bowman says. “And for that reason, when you catch me coming home once a month, you may see me sitting on the curb there taking it all in. Whether we were in Puerto Rico or in Honduras or Leimert Park, we would always sit and talk and watch the people go by. Those were some of my favorite times.”
Since the pandemic, there are more vendors than ever hawking the benefits of sea moss in the Village. “He’s the GOAT when it comes to sea moss,” Bowman says of her father’s popularization of the superfood. “You can’t even touch him in it.”
Dr. Sebi also lives on at the corner of La Cienega and Hargis, in a building that houses the business he founded in 2014, Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food. Despite no longer having ties to the Bowman family, Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food sells the same supplements, formulas and compounds he created when he was alive, with recipes that haven’t changed at all, says the company. These include Bromide Plus, for the respiratory and immune system, aiding in hormone health and detoxification, and Vento, meant to target oxygenation and circulation.
Sebi lives in Hollywood, in the homes of the celebrities he reportedly treated, including Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy. He lives in the music industry, through the memory of his mentee Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who followed Dr. Sebi’s teachings all the way to his native Honduras, where she would tragically die in a fatal car crash (a trip that was captured in the 2007 VH1 documentary “Last Days of Left Eye.”) He lives in the lyrics of L.A. icons Nipsey Hussle and Kendrick Lamar. When Hussle was killed, fans were quick to theorize that his death was directly connected to the fact that in 2018, he announced he was making a documentary about Dr. Sebi beating his 1987 case. (Those theories, as of publication, have not been proven. Nick Cannon took over producing the documentary after Hussle’s death. The official trailer is out, but the documentary hasn’t been released.)
In “Worldwide Steppers,” a song off Lamar’s latest album “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” he raps:
Yesterday, I prayed to the flowers and trees
Gratification to the powers that be
Synchronization with my energy chakras, the ghost of Dr. Sebi
Paid it forward, cleaned out my toxins, bacteria heavy.
In “Blue Laces 2,” Hussle makes a reference to the man whose teachings resonated with him, encouraging a new generation of fans to look into Dr. Sebi:
They killed Dr. Sebi, he was teaching health
I f— with Rick Ross ’cause he teaching wealth
Dropped out of school, I’ma teach myself.
Sebi's presence can be found in unconventional places too. Like on the shelves of Erewhon, which sells a full-spectrum sea moss gel “sourced from the pristine waters of St. Lucia,” in flavors like magenta-colored Cosmic Berry and radioactive-looking Blue Neptune. All over the internet, from TikTok to Instagram, there are dedicated accounts showing you how exactly to follow an alkaline electric lifestyle (no seedless fruit, no soy, no starch!). There is one TikTok from the brand Morphit Sea Moss that shows a chiseled man with brown skin and curly hair eating a coconut with his bare hands. The white text overlay on the video reads: “When you’re on Day 9 Of Your Sea Moss Fast Feeling Electrically Vibrant & Coconut start Tasting Like Some General Tso Chicken.” Another, by the creator @mayadanielle, shows “A day in the life at Doctor Sebi’s Village in Honduras,” which at more than 400,000 likes gives us a glimpse into life at Dr. Sebi’s retreat center, which people still flock to today.
But the TikToks and Instagrams ultimately cannot replicate the energy of the man himself. Dr. Sebi’s charisma was magnetic — he was a November Sagittarius — and he both looked and spoke like you might imagine a sage would. Take his final lecture in L.A. in 2014, for example. He spoke about how a 94-year-old Mexican healer changed his life when he was 30, how people of African descent should avoid specific foods (or “gene-food consistency,” as he called it), how alkalinity and fasting are a direct path to healing. He waved his long arms, inflecting his voice for dramatic effect. He cracked jokes and recounted stories about his life in painstaking detail. (“At 81, I still gotta change diapers, and somebody gonna soon change mine.”) And he encouraged the audience to practice humility and love.
“I’m not better than you, I’m not wiser than you,” he told the audience, pointing his index finger at them. “Everything I know I got it from you. … I love you very much, and I have put together a message that’s going to help you.”
The nature of belief is, by definition, not always rational. It requires committing oneself to something that isn't necessarily easy to articulate. One of Dr. Sebi's most memorable stories is about the time when, he claims, he healed a blind man with herbs, while he was allegedly working for the County of Los Angeles. "That shook me because I couldn't explain to the world the mechanics behind this blind man seeing," he says. His faith in himself was a magnet for others.
It's been six years since Dr. Sebi's death. Since then, his passion and his rejection of gatekeeping is still making people believers. To commemorate the occasion, we talked to six people in the Dr. Sebi L.A. universe — including Dr. Sebi himself, through quotes taken from archival footage, interviews and books — about his teachings, life and legacy. And, of course, sea moss. Their testimonies speak to the sincerity of experience — and the way in which an awakening can reorient or clarify purpose.
Kellie Bowman, founder of Sebi’s Daughters:
L.A. was a wealth of knowledge, of people and ideas for [Dr. Sebi]. Having a father that had so many different ways of looking at things, people were open, always open to hearing him. It was like a muse. For that man looking to get out a message, L.A. was it.
I believe that Los Angeles had a lot of heroes, and I believe that they had commonalities. I think Nipsey found a hero commonality in standing up for Dr. Sebi. Nipsey Hussle was a man about his community, and he knew that Dr. Sebi was a man about his community. The power of truth rings to everyone who's in it — you will feel it. So when I listen to what Nipsey had to say, and I look at what he did in his life and how he was there in the community, I get why he wanted to make that connection with Dr. Sebi. [Dr. Sebi’s] words were not missed. He found them to be jewels because they were the truth. Living your truth is important, and I think he was on a journey of truth. And let me tell you, nothing denies that now. I listened to words of my father on different tapes — I have personal tapes — and I get why Nipsey got it because there's a certain rhythm of conversation that you understand when you're looking to grab hold of your journey and have courage to move on and use that as a tool. He just kind of stirred with it. He was like, "I get it" — so much he put it in a rap.
I had been mourning my father for two years when I came back to L.A. and walked into a grocery store — I think it was Whole Foods — and a woman grabs my arm and says, “You look just like your father and I miss him so much. I've been a client of your dad for over 20 years.” She says, “What are you doing now? I remember you when you were young.” That memory, right there, of who I was — I think the light bulb went off in my head. I thought it would be cathartic. I thought it will be an honor. I thought that all those talks that we had were now coming into play into my life because I never thought I'd take this position. I never thought that I'd be here without him. But I'm not, and I figured that out at that point.
Sebi’s Daughters started out with that [in mind]. For us, sea moss is Irish moss or Irish moss-bladderwrack mix. Both of them come from the ocean, but they're only grown in so many places, and the great part about this particular plant is that it carries a lot of minerals from the sea. You'll hear [my dad] say it a lot: those 92 out of 102 that the body requires. It's been a sacred secret in the world forever. Those in the Caribbean knew about the Irish moss, they use it in everything. It's a natural, growing ocean plant and it's beautiful. It gives a power punch of minerals. [At Sebi’s Daughters,] I turned it into a whole bunch of different kinds of products, because I knew it helped from exterior to interior. The 18- to 35-year-olds will call me and they’re like, “I love sea moss. Period.”
Our mission is to educate and empower and to inspire our communities to a better way of living out of our food sources because it was done for him, and he did it for me, and we want to give it to others because this is freedom.
Dani Solorio, founder of Compton Health Bar:
I think part of the reason that people love him so much is because he inspires hope. You look at certain ZIP Codes and their health outcomes there — and you will likely find a lot of popularity with Dr. Sebi in those areas. He's the folk hero. He got this better outcome by turning to nature and gaining autonomy from our health industry (I can't even call it healthcare, because there's no care in it these days). I’ve never been against Western medicine. I've always tried to work alongside of it and recommend that folks talk to their doctor. But it seems like more and more, whenever I say that, people are like, “I already talked to my doctor and my doctor had nothing useful to say, unfortunately.” I think that's part of the reason he's so powerful as a person, why his legacy lives on: He provides a sort of hope of what our health can look like when we tend to our indigenous healthcare systems or community systems.
Agustin Miller, head of growth strategy and corporate affairs at Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food
I think he was ahead of his time, honestly. He had a vision. And he did a lot of research. He had a lot of empirical knowledge. And as he would say, he spoke the truth. That's how he was able to connect with so many people. Thirty years ago, plant-based was not a term. He was already practicing it because his nutritional data hasn't changed in a long time. Fasting is another one. I mean, fasting has been around since the beginning — since the biblical era or hunters and gatherers — our ancestors would fast for long periods of time. There's theories that say that we are not meant to receive constant food in our system. He would use fasting to promote healing. He would use fasting to let the body heal itself and regenerate itself because I do believe that the body's meant to do that. It's capable of doing that.
Da' Moss Lady (a.k.a. Gwen Moseley)
I'm a breast cancer survivor. I came out with breast cancer out of the blue in 2018. I had to get a whole mastectomy. Somebody else gave me the sea moss to take and I liked the energy that I got from it. So I said, "Let me look into this." I went to Jamaica, found a plug. I started to recover, but I noticed my skin was so dry from the radiation or chemo pill every day. My hair was falling out. So that's when I came up with all these different products, like the Moss Butter, the Face Scrub. Not only does it work inside of your body, it also works the outside of your body. I’m trying to create a shampoo and conditioner, because you know, that saltwater is good for your hair and your scalp. In Leimert Park, there’s so much competition out there with that sea moss right now. That’s why I had to do something different with my products. I'm not trying to say, “Oh, it's the cure for everything.” But I do know it will help you. Like, if you ain’t having no regular bowel movements, that sea moss will definitely give you a regular. Seriously. Some man told me he had eczema all his life and he used my cream and said it made his eczema go away.
Sayra Trigueros, brand success associate at Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food
When I came here, I had no idea what the place was. My first week, Dr. Sebi came through with a small lecture with his employees and at first I thought I had joined a cult. But I enjoyed hearing him in person, started learning everything that I could about the man, and after his passing we wanted to make sure everybody knew that his message was still going to remain strong. I accidentally cured myself from asthma just because I started taking the products. I was just curious, and next thing I knew I was no longer using my inhaler. It just grew from there. Sea moss is a product on its own and the fact that he was able to create these compounds to make sure there's healing in multiple places within your body is just amazing.
One of the most impactful videos that you'll find out there is of Dr. Sebi, 80-something years old, throwing himself on the floor like a little 5-year-old, just getting on his knees. He said, “Sea moss has me doing this.” There's people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s that cannot do that. The alkaline electric diet is foods that create the least amount of mucus. When there's mucus buildup, that's when you experience inflammation, and with inflammation, disease shows up in different ways, whether it's a heart condition, your diabetes, arthritis, asthma. So because of that is that we try to have people eat foods that will not create mucus, that will have them going to the restroom and eliminating everything that their body doesn't need anymore. We try to do and make sure everything was to his standards. He already has a blueprint, and that's what we consider our bible. There's no use of changing it.
I was always a different person. I disagree with everything. I disagree with everything. Everything I heard I disagree with. At 14, I made a statement that I was going to do something to help humanity. But when I made that statement, I also knew that I was going to come up against the established or prevailing philosophy of life. That I knew at 14 years of age. I didn't know that one day that I will become the person that I'm known for today — the healer. I didn't know that.
Before I became the healer, I said I was going to do something for the Black women of the world, because she's the one that has been disenfranchised, dejected and rejected by everyone, including us. What was that something was going to be? I didn’t know. I was a merchant seaman then. [At 27], little did I know that I was going to be a healer. Ladies and gentlemen, I was suffering asthma, diabetes. I was impotent. I was angry. Very, extremely angry. With the help of Mexican people, I was cured. I decided to enter the field of natural medicine. [This Mexican] was so grounded that he took your brother Sebi and healed him. That Mexican prepared me for you. You see the connection? Being a steam engineer, I knew that the pH value, the pH factor had a lot to do with healing. I begin to check the pH of all the Earth. I begin to test it. I test comfrey: acid. I test garlic: acid. I also tested aloe vera, St. John’s wort, rose hips, comfrey, all of these things are very acid. I quit my job and said, "I'm going to heal the world." I'm going to make everybody happy. When I told my mama that I had cured my 13th AIDS patient, she said, "They're gonna get you." How did [I] cure AIDS? [I] removed the mucus from the system and build the body back up. But they say, “What? It’s [a] virus.” I say no, never been. It’s mucus. The judge said, “Dr. Sebi, why do you give everybody the same medicine? I said, “Because there's only one disease.” “One disease?!” the doctor said. “I told you this man is unscientific. And he's insane.”
I am unscientific. I repeat, there is only one disease.
More stories from Image
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.