Skip straight to content

Amiri Baraka: Soul and Madness

By Martin Smith | 22 January 2014

Pic credit: David Sasaki

Pic credit: David Sasaki

On 29 December 1965, a group of musicians, critics and activists gathered at St Paul the Apostle School in New York to debate the relationship between jazz and revolutionary black nationalism.

Participants in this roundtable discussion included musicians Archie Shepp and Steve Kuhn, jazz writers Nat Hentoff and Frank Kofsky and the poet, writer and performer Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones).

The debate stimulated a section of the jazz avant-garde movement to align its music and art to the growing politicisation taking place in the black community in the US. Amiri was at the centre of that movement. His intellectual contribution was second to none and his Black Arts Repertory Theatre and the later Spirit House were creative spaces for young black artists.

I was fortunate enough to meet and work with Amiri in 2007 and 2009. Sadly he is no longer with us: he died on 9 January 2014. Depressingly, too many obituaries concentrated on the controversies that surrounded his life. As I sit listening to several of his important recordings, I thought it would be useful to write a brief summary of his life highlighting the important contribution he made to jazz, politics and poetry.

Amiri was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934. After a stint in the army and at university, he moved to Greenwich Village, New York in 1954. Working initially in a music record warehouse he fell in love with jazz and at the same time came into contact with the avant-garde Beat Generation and activists in the emerging Civil Rights Movement.

In 1963 he published his pioneering book Blues People: The Negro experience in white America and the music that developed from it (1963). Written under the name LeRoi Jones, Blues People shaped and continues to shape the debates surrounding the jazz avant-garde/free jazz/fire music of the 1960s and 1970s.

Fire Music

As he put it: “The most expressive black music of any given period will portray the Negro at that particular time.” It was the first serious attempt to place jazz and blues within the context of American social history. Blues People was followed by Black Music (1968), a vital collection of essays charting the rise of the jazz avant-garde.

Baraka didn’t just write about the US black music scene, his crackling prose, plays and recordings helped nurture and politicise it.

After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Baraka moved to Harlem. He now described himself as a “black cultural nationalist” and was influenced by the ideas of the Nation of Islam. He broke away from the predominantly white Beats and became very critical of the Civil Rights Movement. His revolutionary poetry was full of rage and anger. In Home, a collection of Baraka’s essays from this period published in 1966, he wrote:

“The black artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.”

Some of his poems inspire, some warm the heart and others – like Black Art – are full of nasty anti-Semitic invective that disturbs and disgusts. The collections of his poetry at this time – Black Art (1969), Black Magic: Collected Poetry 1961-1967 (1969) and It’s Nation Time (1970) show both the depth and the cultural development of his work. Without excusing some of his poems which are sexist and homophobic his politics are closely aligned with Malcolm X’s and like Malcolm’s politics Baraka’s politics constantly evolve.

Baraka wasn’t just a commentator, he was an activist – one who always attempted to fuse his art with politics. Baraka invented the Jazz-mobile, a black educational bus that toured Harlem playing free concerts, teaching black history and black unity. He joined protests against police brutality and supported organisations like the Black Panther Party and smaller less known black nationalist groups.

In 1967 he moved back to Newark, and married poet Sylvia Robinson (Amina Baraka). That year he also founded the Spirit House Players, who produced, among other works, two of Baraka’s plays against police brutality: Police and Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself. His play Home on the Range was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther Party. That same year he became a Muslim, changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. Imamu is Swahili for “spiritual leader”, derived from the Arabic word Imam. He dropped the honorific Imamu and eventually settled for Amiri Baraka.

He was arrested in Newark for having allegedly carried an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. This was later overturned on appeal. He set up his own black Muslim organisation, Kawaida. From 1968 to 1975, Baraka was chair of the Committee for Unified Newark. He was a founder and chair of the Congress of African People, a Pan-Africanist organisation.

Baraka also set up the Jihad record label in 1968. Any serious collector of soul and jazz records cherishes these recordings. Only three albums were released, but all are essential in their own right.

Jihad

First up was the soulful Black and Beautiful – Soul and Madness. As early as 1966 Baraka predicted that the music industry would respond to the radicalisation, taking place in the US. It was Aretha Franklin’s chart-topping version of Respect that brought with it a flood of political songs. Baraka attempted to fuse his political poems with R&B – Smokey Robinson meets Malcolm X. This little known gem of a record works on so many levels. He returned to this synthesis of radical poetry and soul on his CD The Shani Project (1993).

The next two recordings are very much part of the avant-garde scene. The first, A Black Mass featured Baraka and Sun Ra and the Myth Science Arkestra. A Black Mass is a morality play about racism. It is written, directed and performed by Baraka and a cast drawn from his Cultural Centre. The incidental music was performed by Sun Ra, but sadly it is poorly recorded and is therefore appreciated more as a historical artefact than a work of art.

The same cannot be said for Sonny’s Time Now. If your groove is mid-1960s free jazz and ESP-Disk classics then this is very much for you. The stellar line up was Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Louis Worrell, Henry Grimes, Sunny Murray and Baraka. The album ends with Baraka reciting:

“We want poems that kill…Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns
Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.”

Disillusioned by the failure of black politicians who were hoisted into power on the back of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Baraka saw class and anti-imperialism as central to his political philosophy. Sometime in 1974, Baraka distanced himself from black nationalism and became a “Third World liberation Marxist”.

From the 1970s until his death, he produced a number of volumes of poetry, appeared in a wide range of films and documentaries. In 1985 Baraka became a lecturer in Stony Brook University’s African studies department. In 1990 he co-authored the autobiography of Quincy Jones, and in 1996 Baraka contributed to the AIDS benefit album Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip. He also collaborated with The Roots on their track Something in the Way of Things (In Town) on their 2002 album Phrenology.

In 1984 he published The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. In it he denounced his former anti-Semitic and misogynistic poems, declaring himself an anti-Zionist and a Marxist. While in no way excusing his anti-Semitic, homophobic and sexist poems of his early period, it is important both to put them in some historical context and to recognise that he retracted those comments in later life.

World Trade Center

However in 2002, Baraka was again the focus of attack when he published his poem Somebody Blew Up America, which was about 9/11. The poem was denounced as anti-Semitic for implying Israel had prior knowledge of the attack and anti-American because it was critical of the US government’s foreign policies. The extract all the media concentrated on was:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

It certainly was anti-Semitic, it definitely was crass and it was a conspiratorial view of 9/11. But those who attacked Baraka always failed to discuss other sections of the poem, which attempted to put 9/11 in some socio-political context:

Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
Medgar Evers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed
Who put a price on Lenin’s head

Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said “America First”
and ok’d the yellow stars
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebknecht
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced,
tortured, assassinated, vanished

Baraka was a controversial figure: on the occasions he used his prose against the oppressed he filled many people’s hearts with sadness, but when he turned his invective on racism, inequality and injustice there were few more powerful. If Langston Hughes was the poet of the Harlem Renaissance and James Baldwin was the bard of the Civil Rights Movement then without doubt Amiri Baraka was the voice of the Black Power Movement.

Amiri Baraka (1934 – 2014)



Leave a comment