"The two things people just really need are education and employment based on that education."
Walk On To The Freedom Land
Before the Beats there was Jazz poetry. The poet/activist Amiri Baraka, a leading figure of the evolution of the spoken word genre, who has influenced politics, artistic practice and cultural change on an international scale. Amiri Baraka was born LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism, a poet icon and revolutionary political activist who has recited poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
After leaving Howard University and the Air Force, he moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1957 and co-edited the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen and founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others.
His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for "Best off-Broadway play") and was made into a film. In 1965, Jones moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The BARTS lasted only one year but had a lasting influence on the direction of Afro American Arts. He and his wife, Amina Baraka, edited The Music (Meditations of Jazz & Blues (Morrow) Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984.
Amiri Baraka is widely celebrated as the father of the Black Arts Movement and is one of the most prolific and influential African-American writers of the 20th century. Baraka is a widely published poet, playwright, essayist, factionalist and journalist. His book of music criticism, Blues People, is widely regarded as a classic in the field.
In 1994, he retired as Professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995. In 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and Newark Public Schools.
The legendary Amiri Baraka, jazz poet and a major influence on the Beat generation talk about the blues, jazz, poetry and the new generation.
What is the relationship between poetry and music?
The relationship is that poetry is a form of music, it is speech…a speech that’s created to be musical, it’s a musical speech, a speech that is music, music speech, a musical speech. That’s what it is. And so in my way of thinking the closer you get it to music, in words that are actually very close to be music, a musical, then you create to me a strong kind of poetry.
Amiri Baraka at the Malcom X Festival in San Antonio Park, Oakland, CA. Photo by David Sasaki
Which experiences in life make you a good poet?
I think it’s more the ability to grasp the experience, to know it and finally perceive what it is. To actually content often that you know that you have that experience. Secondly to actually understand that experience, and then the third thing is to try to use that experience in some kind of productive way. In other words, it’s actually taking that experience on its raw form, like to understand that you have the experience, like you have experiences you don’t even know. Let’s say that you have an experience, to understand that experience is what I mean. And the third thing, how do you actually use that experience? Waste it or do you actually use it in some kind of positive way? In some other way of thinking how do you use the experience? People have experiences and a lot of people don’t understand them. Even if they understand, they don’t know what to do with them, for those that know what to do with them it should develop a few things. If you are a sensitive person it should develop like that.
Do you think that blues and jazz come from the heart, the brain or the soul?
It’s a combination, it’s the same thing. Feeling is got to be translated. You feel from them. The question is a dance, it’s like the whole question is feeling…how does that feeling come out? You want to tell somebody about it, if you want to report on it, what it was, how do you do that? So that is what the blues is. The blues is simply a recalling of experience, a lot of it negative but some of it positive and to try to transmit that you know to actually tell people what it is. So, actually, the blues is a form of storytelling. It’s a kind of narrative song, expressing the past and even what you hope to be the future or you hope not to be the future, one of those two things. It’s like that…It’s that kind of narrative song telling about a person’s life, and that you’re studying the blues. A professor told me this when I was in college, a professor named Sterling Brown, he said that if you study music, particularly the blues, the people are always telling you about their lives and their experiences. Actually to study the blues is studying history.
What do you believe is the turning point of our civilization?
Don’t we have to define what we mean by “civilization”? Are you asking me what‘s the most important thing to civilization or what leads to civilization? I think that we have to change what we might have thought was civilization some years ago. At least it was not in terms of the needs of a society. You might think United States was highly civilized, except its modernity is not necessarily connected with high levels of civilized life. You can be living in a very modern environment and then not really be civilized, it’s like going backwards. And I think that’s the question, how do you translate the needs for civilization into actuality not just modernity? Because you can push buttons and they only have computers and things like that, they think that’s civilization but that’s modernization, modernity. But in terms of what we want to express as civilization and making life actually more humanly productive, sometimes the words are not always tuned in together. What might make a society more modern might not make it more civilized. A lot of times technology gets people fired from their jobs and technology gets to be more progressive, this means that a lot people who used to have those jobs get laid off. So as far as civilization, that is actually eliminating one aspect of civilization. You can have people wondering around unemployed and maybe homeless, that’s certainly not civilized. It’s a contradiction in what civilization to your definition is and how much you have been able to achieve with that. It leads the need to want livelihood about civilization. Now what the world need is some peace. They need to end oppression and ex-civilization, political oppression, economic exploitation, they need to end that. They need to be stopped, and I think until those things happen it is very difficult to talk about civilization. First we have wars kill the people every day, drones, car bombs, people putting up fences between people, none of that is civilized to me.
Which was the most interesting period in your life and why?
The most interesting period I guess is…still I’m bowling actually, I think it began with…you know your life changes. You’re turning into what you’re trying to do. From the time of the whole Black Liberation Movement, when the whole question of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the bus boycott of Montgomery, the liberation struggled massacre, the Black Liberation Movement here in United States, those are the most interesting periods. And I think that continues to extent, that we still try to apply those same principles, to difficulties that we had. There was a saying from Sekou Toure “a victory to those who struggle”, and I think that’s what I‘ve learned, that in order to have victory you have to struggle, and that making that struggle relevant to the things that you want, that’s the task. But I think that’s the whole purity in pacification and the Black Liberation Movement and as it plays out today, it is still happening. Our second son became a city councilor two years ago, he is also the principle of the newest high school in Newark, and so to me it’s still an exciting kind of development of what we were doing before. You struggle at one point the idea of a black being on a city council was fault, impossible. Another time the idea of a black being a principle on a high school was impossible. But those things have changed, they still are struggled, and so… how those things continue to develop still makes this period interesting.
Amiri Baraka (center) at the entrance to Spirit House, Newark, with musicians and actors of the black arts movement, 1966.
What characterizes the philosophy of blues and jazz and generally the Afro-American culture?
I think the philosophy is…What is it? ... Well it actually can go back to the Bible. What they used to say. Even though songs that Martin Luther King used to lead the people singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, keep on walking, keep on talking, walk on to freedom land” it’s the question of overcoming these obstacles doesn’t put in your life from slavery to segregation, all those obstacles to civilization, blues and jazz, that philosophy is always the reason we will overcome. Well that is part of it, no matter what it is, we are going to struggle with it and eliminate it. That is always part of it, that “keep on walking, keep on talking, walk on to the freedom land, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around”. Those things are timeless, that’s why they used those, even though they came out of the Bible and the church. That’s why they were that evil in the movement itself, because that was the philosophy. Old church philosophy of overcoming evil, it’s fundamental of overcoming evil and being able to triumph and live your life the way you want to.
What is your secret dream and what is your nightmare for the world?
I’m a socialist, and my minimal dream is to see imperialism and monopoly capitalism eliminated in the world, that’s minimal. The idea of what society could be after that, that’s another discussing. But we’re talking now the organization of people’s power across the world to eliminate those kinds… There was a time when slavery was accepted throughout the world, and people might have thought that slavery will always be with us and they’ll always have slaves, not so, people organized themselves to get rid of it. It might exists still in places but it’s not universal anymore. It’s the same thing, the kind of basic level of impression that they cooperate, control cooperate rules, monopoly capitalism, imperialism…those kinds of basic exploitation of a person. My minimal hope is that they can be destroyed, and then, if they’re destroyed, then the people will go on to develop much more civilized ways of living on the planet. Just like you didn’t held back by a primitive species. People that want to control everything, control your life and their life too, they think that being backwards it’ll be painful.
What is your advice for the new generation?
My advice is… First of all the most important thing in the world is education. That’s the most important thing in the world, education. The two things people just really need are education and employment based on that education. Currently the United States sent factories out of the country, jobs out of the country, they have no message of educating the people. They’re not even thirst in education anymore in the world. The goal to the people of this country is money, making money, and the idea of actually educating people, which is the most sacred concern that exists… I mean, imagine the people living on this planet, who doesn’t know anything about it, they just walking around, stumbling around, they don’t even know what’s going on. There are people in the modern world who is like that, who don’t know anything of what’s happening, who don’t understand anything, who are just subjects to people that has the power. So I would like to see universal education. I think that is the most important thing, how you ensure that people always receive the maximum education, not some people but all the people. All the people on the planet need a PhD. Imagine a planet full with doctors. If you believe you could deal with this, that’s what primitive people would do, they‘d knew how to cure themselves, they could use various remedies and they could read signs… Well, the world has changed and we have to have developed a form that we can still do that.
Which historical personalities would you like to meet?
Oh…there are so many of them… Well, I would like to meet Frederick Douglass, I would like to meet W.E.B Du Bois, and I’ve once seen Castro but not long enough. I met Malcolm X but within only a couple of hours. There are so great people that I would like to really have met, like I met Dr King. Dr King came to my house, but he stayed only for fifteen – twenty minutes, so it’s impersonal and the quality of the meeting is I would like to get increased. I would like to meet Lenin and certainly I would like to meet Musky Tom, maybe one day I will.
What is the thing you miss most from the Totem Press and Yugen magazine years?
I miss the fact that there were many many publications. The whole development in this country and the more and more austerity which increases institutions, selling, closing and that includes journals, publishing companies and record companies. You miss the kind of vary venues of expression that exist, and that I think is the biggest lack that we have got.
Blues People: Negro Music in White America, is a seminal study of Afro American music (and culture generally), who published it as LeRoi Jones in 1963
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Ginsberg, Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and Gregory Corso?
Well, this is to me a wound…the day that Ginsberg died, he called me up and told me he was going to die, I asked him why he wanted to call me and asked me if I needed some money in which I said no, which was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and he said ok see me go, see me…he called me in a Friday, he said: Come see me Monday, I said ok, I hang up…the next day he was dead. His partner Peter Orlovsky told me that what he did, he came back from the hospital, he sat down, he cuddled and he mumbled…they could ask him, he cooked some soup and he slipped over and died. We were friends, close friends, you look for many years and the only thing we agreed about was literature. He was so passionate I wanted to make a war. But other than that, we were close friends, and after Malcolm’s death I couldn’t see him because I moved in another area, but we still were in touch. Still had some basic kind of agreement to how literature needs to reflect the American speech rather than English or British poets. That’s basically… The other folks that you mentioned… I wasn’t really that close to them but I knew them, still I live in Long Island so I haven’t seen any of them.
If you could go back to your past, which things you would like to do better, and what you would avoid to do again.
I would spend a lot more time on learning art’s organization that was developed simultaneously with political organization, because I think that the problem is that we developed political organization without the art organization and you were left talking to yourself. We have to be able to create a kind of distribution…so if you have to build arts organization you have to build political organization. If you need political organization, you have to build the art organization. You have to try to build them simultaneously, although fundamentally, the political thing is you cannot do without. But the dialectical that is the unit to commit or even insist to create a cultural revolution is important. Even if you had the power of guns, if you’re gonna make a cultural revolution they would take it back. The people must constantly have the revolution explained to them. Why? What? Who is your enemy? Who is your friend? That’s why it’s that important. Otherwise you find yourself surrounded by enemies while you’re trying to gain political power.
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