The poet, essayist, teacher, playwright and political activist Amiri Baraka was just short of eighty years old when he disappeared on January 9, 2014. Born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, he was named LeRoi Jones. In the 1950s, he was part of New York’s avant-garde, allied with poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, a group from which he subsequently detached himself. In the 1960s, he was the fierce supporter of African-American civil rights, moving to Harlem, arguing against Olson’s ideas of projective verse, instead embracing black musicality, which made blues and improvisation a common ground for both the bourgeoisie and the working class. In the 1970s, he was clearly a Marxist, favoring the emancipation and decolonising of the Third World. More recently, he was embroiled in a controversy, accused of anti-Semitism for his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America”. Amongst others things, the poem alleges, in the form of pointed questions, that some might have had forewarning of the Twin Towers attack on September 11, and that over 4,000 Israeli citizens had been warned to stay away that day. But he also wondered, “Who have the colonies / Who stole the most land / Who rule the world / Who say they good but only do evil / Who the biggest executioner / Who? Who? Who? … Who invaded Grenada / Who made money from apartheid / Who keep the Irish colony / Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later…[?]” (Baraka 2001) The catalogue of attacks in the poem is extensive, looking to subvert the values of the good/bad, white/black dichotomies in a rhetorical manner similar to that made famous by Malcolm X, but also resembling that of Aimé Césaire in his unforgettable extended essay on colonialism. Baraka wanted to identify exactly what he saw as the Devil – so that this was clearly visible in the world – and that God had never been manifest in this world.
A polemicist ante litteram and disillusioned fighter disinclined to compromise, he took it philosophically when, a year after his appointment as the Poet Laureate of New Jersey, his appointment was quickly withdrawn after the appearance of “Somebody Blew Up America”. However, Baraka liked to recite it and a few weeks before his departure, he performed it at his last Italian concert in Milan, accompanied by jazz musicians D.D. Jackson on the piano, Calvin Jones on double bass and Pheeroan AkLaff on drums. Some of these photographs date back to that concert, our last meeting, as documented by the photographer Pierantonio Tanzola.
Even in a cursory review of his work one cannot miss his essays and articles on jazz and jazz musicians, perhaps the greatest passion in his life. But it was through an alliance with Langston Hughes that Baraka discovered the different blues variations and the African roots he needed to develop collaborations with jazz musicians. In an interview quoted in the first study of Baraka, Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, by Werner Sollors, Baraka confesses that Hughes sent him a letter of appreciation for his first texts, inviting him for a coffee: that was the beginning of an important partnership with Hughes, who had devoted most of his compositions since the 1920s to blues and jazz. In contradistinction to the European aesthetic idea that poetry is an artistic object to be admired, the idea that poetry is life was already contained in his total dedication to blues. In 1963, in Blues People, Baraka stated that in African culture there is no separation of music, dance, songs, artisanal products, life and the worship of deities, and that, since all these expressions are a part of life, they are intrinsically beautiful.
His 1964 recordings with the New York Art Quartet, directed by Roswell Rudd, are an important part of the history of the period. He was barely thirty years old, yet they could rightly be considered among the first experiments of free jazz combined with poetry, coming as it did soon after earlier works by Jackie Maclean, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach. That project was later followed by “Blue Ark” – resulting in Real Song, 1994 – and concerts with the William Parker Octet, with whom he had performed several times previously, including in Vicenza, Italy, in 2007, and incorporating rearranged Curtis Mayfield songs. After that came the recordings with Vijay Iyer, and much more. He made no secret of his absolute conviction that music and poetry belonged together, especially on stage. Speaking with Kimberly Benston, he observed that he had always thought of poetry as a form that, more than all others, corresponded to music, both consciously and instinctively, because of the high concentration of rhythm in verse.
There has been endless discussion about the relative values of “highbrow” versus “popular” poetry, and poetry written for the page versus oral performance poetry. The latter often included rhythm, precise timing, musical instruments, and the use of hands, facial expressions and whole bodily gestures, a “theatralizing” of the text that is always, when written, “dirty” text, sometimes gross, sharable and shared only at the time of performance. This was a true revolution of style; it was soon named “jazz poetry”, and involved several generations up to rap, dub and spoken-word poetry, or various elaborations of “performance poetry”. Zumthor comments on this African-American revolution: “One could set up the inventory of these universal ‘Africanisms’, memories of the mythical time when language and music were one. In the most diverse regions of the world, ethnologists have remarked the impossibility for many oral poets to recite one of their texts without singing it. Does not the mystical or communal trance that Rouget describes – sought after and provoked by African cults, but observed also in several Islamic and Christian sects – involve the most formidable effort (even unto death) to erase all distinction between speech, music, and dance” (Zumthor 1990: 146).
For Baraka, natural alliances and friendships developed with committed jazz players of his time, from Albert Ayler to Sun Ra, Miles Davis to John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, musicians who had deep roots in the avant-garde, and who not only experimented musically but also helped to voice the cry of the oppressed African people, trying to put into play that “trace” of an ancestral past that Edouard Glissant describes when he talks about the Middle Passage and the enslavement of black people in the Americas. These were Baraka’s friends, intellectuals and jazz musicians responsible for a strategy he directly transferred to poetry, as he observes when he states, at the start of his essay on Sun Ra, that some of the things he does in terms of word games and language dissolution, are taken directly from Sun Ra. Thus, Baraka concludes the sequence of Wise, Why’s, Y’s by dedicating the text of his poem, ‘So the King Sold the Farmer’, to Sun Ra. The use of precise adverbs, such as “below”, and a series of synonyms, such as “beneath”, “underneath” and “under”, signals the subjugation of black people. They are always relegated to the lower levels, “undercover” and “chained” during the Middle Passage, humiliated, degraded and reduced to the status of goods or garbage when “chained” or disposed of in “wells” or “drains”. They are a people forever condemned to tears, and forever condemned to be prisoners of the clichéd and predetermining dichotomy of angels and demons (which directly alludes to the title of Sun Ra’s musical piece, Angels and Demons at Play, to which Baraka refers):
A people flattened chained
bathed & degraded
in their own hysterical waste
Jazz is present in all of Baraka’s writing, not just his non-fiction or music. It influences rhythm, punctuation techniques, repetition and variation, use of interjections and capitals, the stretching of vowels and consonants, a persistent parataxis, and the use of parentheses. As he says in “Hunting”, poetry stands on its own, is a process, a verb. Each section of Wise, Why’s, Y’s refers to a piece of music (and text) as an epigraph, against/with which Baraka plays a continuous counterpoint between poetry and music, between subversive music (“The New Thing” as he called it) and the writing of struggle, both personal and tribal. Yet, as a writer he never had a great following: in Vicenza, in 2007, when he took part in the Vicenza Jazz Festival, as opposed to his evening performance at the Canneti Theater (Conservatory of Vicenza), which was completely sold out, he could be found reading to a small group of people in a bookshop – and this was the writer who had written famous plays such as Dutchman (1964), The Baptism (1964), The Death of Malcolm X (1965), etc.; who had for many years been kept behind bars by CIA and FBI officials because of his poems; who had taught and lectured at State University of New York at Stony Brook, The New School in New York, Buffalo University, Columbia, San Francisco State University, Yale, George Washington and Rutgers; and who had talked at many conferences together with his friends, the Beat generation and those black leaders who were translated and read in Italy a few years later, changing our way of reading and living after the war.
The journey that Baraka made to Cuba in 1959, and his encounter with international writers and poets from the Third World, had already convinced him in his twenties that fighting poverty, wars, famines and despotic governments would have to be his mission in life, even if it meant bearing the costs of swimming against the current, even at the expense of sacrificing a life, and even at the resultant cost of being unpopular. Almost utopianly and naïvely, he continued to write “UNITY + STRUGGLE” in his books as a dedication to the Wobblies of the Twenties, or to Woody Guthrie, or to many working-class blacks, both in Africa and America, or even to the only two white heroes that could fit with Baraka: Pete Seeger in America and Billy Bragg in Great Britain. In this, Baraka was an irreducible idealist, and clearly identified that evil was on the rise today, in large part due to the radical transformations brought about by rampant individualism in transnational and multinational financial and political power. Certainly, he was up to date on the Italian empire of the last twenty years, and on the connections between high power and its ramifications in the Americas, in the Caribbean, on those islands that are also tax havens for several Italians, fertile land for the recycling of illegal money, real repositories of the occult power, which a writer like Jamaica Kincaid attacked in writing, and for which she personally paid a price. The soul of the black musician as a saboteur had never abandoned him, with his particular way of launching invectives built on direct metaphors, real means of waking up and provoking the listener, both “a cappella” or in collaboration with a jazz band. Among the many invectives, let me present one at random taken from his famous “Afrikan Revolution” (in Harris 2009: 245):
No more useless pain
We must refuse to be sold out by anyone
The world can be changed, we do not have to lick
All over the world the world can be changed
No more stupid ugliness everywhere
Death to the vultures of primitive disease +
ignorance. America must change or be
destroyed. Europe must change or be
destroyed. Capitalism must be destroyed.
Imperialism will die. Empty headed
mummified niggers who support racist
rule over black people will be killed too…
His funeral took place on January 18, 2014 at the Newark Symphony Hall, with an official commemoration. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” said the African Nobel Wole Soyinka in a famous book, The Man Died: Prison Notes. The loud and penetrating voice that is Baraka reminds us that he never died, that he lives among us in the form of his cries in the ears of an America (and Europe) increasingly embattled by an ambitious, yet frustrated, dedication to the cause of freedom.
(translated from the Italian by Douglas Reid Skinner)
Bibliographical Notes on the Quoted Sources
Amiri Baraka, Real Song, Enja Records, 1995.
Amiri Baraka, Wise Why’s Y’s, Third World Press, Chicago, 1995.
Amiri Baraka, Eulogies, Agincourt Press, New York, 1996.
Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones, Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago, 1997.
Amiri Baraka, Somebody Blew Up America, Blackdotpress, Oakland Layout, 2001.
LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Home: Social Essays, Akashic Books, New York, (1966) 2009.
Kimberly Benston & Amiri Baraka, “Amiri Baraka: An Interview”, Boundary2, vol. 6, no. 2, 1978: 303-318.
Aimé Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000.
Edouard Glissant, Introduction à une poétique du divers, Gallimard, Paris, 1996.
Yan Han, Variations of Jazz: The Legacy and Influence of Langston Hughes on Amiri Baraka’a Views of African American Music and the Function of the Arts. A Thesis, Emporia State University, 2011.
William J. Harris (ed.), The LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader, Basic Books, New York, 2009.
Meta DuEwa Jones, The Muse Is Music. Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word, University of Illinois Press, Urbana Chicago, 2013.
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2000.
New York Art Quartet, ESP, 1964.
Werner Sollors, Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones, Columbia UP, New York, 1978.
Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes, Rex Collings, London, 1972.
Malcolm X & Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove Press, New York, 1965.
Paul Zumthor, Oral Poetry. An Introduction, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1990.