Nobody sings anymore.
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there …
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands.
-LeRoi Jones, excerpt from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… 1961
“Never settle for the given. What is it that hasn’t been mentioned? What is beyond that?” These are the words of activist, actor, poet, playwright, director, and music critic Amiri Baraka. He passed today in Newark, NJ at the age of 79. “Art is supposed to unlock you, make the world more available to you,” he said. It was the way he felt when he heard Thelonious Monk for the first time. I heard Baraka speak at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles two years ago this month, in conversation with his daughter, Kellie Jones, curator of the wildly successful exhibit, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960—1980, discussing art and family, though the conversation inevitably turned to Baraka’s recurrent theme, surviving America. “Do you understand the world?…What do you think?… What is important to you?…What is it you want to say?…How do you say what the world is?…How do you tell us who lives on this planet?…How do you make something speak to the world?…” These are the questions he asked of himself and of other artists, for over 50 years.
Born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in Newark, NJ, where he lived until the end, he changed his name to LeRoi and chronicled the birth of free jazz as a journalist; he wrote an Obie award-winning play, The Dutchman, and he is the author of Blues People, one of the first books to make connections between music and social history. Equally informed by the poetry of Langston Hughes, the politics of Malcolm X and the Black Mountain College poets, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement, in the mid-‘60s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem which contributed to the development of a new, unapologetically black style of writing, its creation dovetailing with the Black Power movement’s cultural agenda. By the late ’60s he’d changed his name to Baraka; his album It’s Nation Time—African Visionary Music, for Motown’s Black Forum label, features his Black Nationalist poetry set to music.
Stirring it up for 50 years, in 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and of the Newark Public Schools amidst controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (who? who? who?). That same year, The Roots accompanied him on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” on their album, Phrenology. Condolences to the surviving members of the Jones and Baraka families.
(More on Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and his connections to music, from blues to hip hop in Keep on Pushing)