Amiri Baraka: Poetry for the 99%

Considered one of the big names in contemporary American literature, he became famous in the sixties as an avant-garde poet in New York and is now on the barricades alongside the Occupy movement. A portrait of Amiri Baraka, eternal revolutionary.

  • Amiri Baraka

‘Do-da-do-daaa, do-da-do-daa…’ It’s early December 2011, and 78-year old Amiri Baraka is on stage at the Spoken World Festival in Kaaitheater, Brussels. In between verses, he hums cheerful jazz melodies, contrasting sharply with his words. ‘Someone blew up America, but who live on Wall Street, who genocided Indians, who made the bombs, who you think need war, who bought the slaves, who sold them? Who, who, who, who?’, he asks in a loud voice, while rhythmically drumming on the pulpit, his head barely sticking out. The short, slightly bent man is moving cautiously on stage and appears in a coat, with a laptop bag in his hand and papers under his arm. It’s as if he were just taking a break from work to share his words with us.

Right before his performance, he told us about the time he lived in the apartment above jazz legend Miles Davis. ‘Davis was my hero. Especially in his early period. His later transformation and that Cyndi Lauper cover, we couldn’t quite understand though.’ Besides a poet, play writer, essayist and political activist, Baraka is also a renowned jazz critic. His life story reads like a Malcolm X-biography: besides Davis, anyone who is anyone seems to have crossed his path—Allen Ginsberg, Count Basie, John Kerouac, Frank Sinatra etc. Meanwhile, he speaks just as easily about Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Amy Winehouse.

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At age ten, Amiri Baraka edited his first newspaper, then still listening to his birth name LeRoi Jones. It was handwritten—only four copies were made to share with his friends. ‘It seems that even back then, I was trying to communicate with people’, he said in an interview. After reading Langston Hughes’s translation of Garcia Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads, he was determined to become a poet. He went to Rutgers University, a mostly white institute at the time, and later to the historically African-American Howard University, where he was expelled shortly after arriving. He ended up in the US Army Air Force. At a base in Puerto Rico, he spent most of his free time in the library, reading one book after the other. ‘It is there that I received my real education’, says Baraka.

 

Accused of being a communist, he was kicked out the army in the fifties and moved to New York’s artistic Greenwich Village. His stories from that time are soaked in nostalgia and historic awareness. In 1960, he was invited to replace Langston Hughes to speak at a conference, where he met Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. ‘My writing in those days was not really political, I had not that much revolutionary to say.’ The activists there along with his two absolute heroes, Fidel Castro and Malcolm X, opened his eyes to political art. After Malcolm X was murdered in February 1965, he left the hip Village for Harlem and changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: ‘the blessed prince’.

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A certain vulnerability is shown in Baraka’s stature. But as soon as he opens his mouth, his physical fragility completely disappears. With humor, self-deprecation and a disarming enthusiasm, he explains his insights with astonishing ease. ‘Companies should just pay their taxes, nothing mysterious about that’, he says of the economic condition in his country today. He tells me about an insurance company in his hometown of Newark that hasn’t paid taxes since the seventies, ‘only because they were once given an exemption that was meant to be temporary. That very same company now owes us € 230 million tax money annually, but in the meantime, our mayor closes down libraries and sells our water supplies in his desperate search for money. We need leaders who go after our tax money, day after day.’

His feelings about president Obama are mixed. In 2008, he was convincing young people in the streets of Newark to vote for Obama. Today he is more skeptical, due to the bank bail-outs and intervention in Libya, among other reasons. Indirectly, Obama’s presidential term had negative effects for the black emancipation movement. ‘We are still struggling with self-determination, housing and unemployment problems, but criticizing Obama in the black community is very difficult.’

Nevertheless, it is clear that Obama needs to be supported. ‘This is the corner we are driven in by our opponents; these rightwing republicans, these Tea Party lunatics, these former KKK members who may have thrown away their hats, but defend the same old racist ideas in congress today.’

Amiri Baraka marks his words with a rhythmic finger drumming on the table, and speaks plainly on the issues. A second term should not be too problematic for Obama, thinks Baraka. ‘These republican candidates are a joke, one starts to wonder whether they are taking this whole race seriously. I just hope Obama will act more aggressively against the enemy in his next term.’ And the enemy for Baraka is capitalism. ‘I am a Marxist. For me, the whole idea of private property of production means is just wrong. True democracy is only possible if the people own these means’, he summarizes the Communist Manifesto in a nut shell. And alluding to a recent discussion in America, he adds: ‘Corporations are not people.’

He thinks it is absolutely undemocratic that companies in the US can finance presidential candidates without limits. The light catches his eyes when he tells me about the message he recently read on a demonstration placard: ‘I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.’ He smiles. ‘That right about sums it up.’

Still, the blessed prince is optimistic about the future, thanks to the Occupy movement. ‘Occupy is something good. Each movement which is aggressively acting against American capitalism has my support.’ However, he is aware that Occupy mainly attracts young people from the white middle class. ‘They often don’t know the details of the battle and for that reason, many Afro-Americans turn away from the movement. But this has to change. There should be an alliance between the middle class and the working class. We should be more militant again.’

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Baraka’s performance in Kaaitheater ends with a standing ovation. Throughout his show, enthusiast reactions from the predominantly white audience fills the theater. I wonder whether people fully grasp the meaning of his words, when they are replying to his caustic lyrics against the white establishment with consenting nods and enthusiastic applause. ‘We were slaves’, he shouts from stage, beating the podium with a flat hand in the same way he did throughout my interview. ‘On the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, there is a train track of human bones.’

I ask him whom he made his poetry for. ‘Ideally for the 99%’, he answers. ‘Once I mainly addressed black people, but if you care about the faith of the repressed, you end up doing things that concern all of them.’ Baraka cannot deny that he was once a black nationalist. ‘Black Nationalism was necessary, because we were fighting against white supremacy. It was our only way to create self-consciousness.’

After moving to Harlem, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, visiting neighborhoods to perform avant-garde art forms. It contributed to the rise of the Black Arts Movement, in which artists no longer sought recognition from the white artistic world. After a single year, the school initiative fell apart. ‘Being black is not an ideology’, says Baraka. ‘There is a certain point when nationalism becomes a negative factor. When you can only work with certain people, when only your own demands are important. It should be about liberating people from a suppressing system, not about replacing white imperialism by black imperialism.’ Today, Baraka makes his poetry to encourage people to keep fighting.

‘We should be generous with our art, it’s about all of us.’

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