Monday, January 13, 2014

Amiri Baraka: Two works

Hope to be able to tune in to the webcast of the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters Concert, going down tonight at 7:30pm EST. I believe you'll be able to watch here. In conjunction with the festivities, Josh Jackson posted a very welcome Richard Davis conversation. I was intrigued by their frank discussion of the "angry black man" trope. At the 18:00 mark, Richard Davis self-identifies as such, but adds, "I contain that type of energy because it scares people, and they won't listen to you when you throw out anger."

To judge by the content of his various obituaries—many of which have fixated on the "Somebody Blew Up America" controversy—Amiri Baraka scared plenty of people. I hesitate to speak for him, but something tells me this was intentional. Containment wasn't his thing.

I don't know Baraka's body of work well, but a few items really speak to me, among them "Dope."

There no mistaking the message here, nor the near-hysterical rage that underlies it. It's an astonishing performance, and, for me, one of the best illustrations I can think of for the idea that poetry is oratory, dramaturgy, as well as writing. You could see these words on a page and they might draw you in. Baraka wants to grab you by the throat, though, and to do that, he has to stand up, open his mouth and spit fire.

For me, the other key Baraka work is "Black Dada Nihilismus," which he reads on the great self-titled New York Art Quartet album (recorded approximately 39 years and 10 months ago). The words are terrifying—hyper-specific yet more oblique, message-wise, than "Dope."

I haven't heard a lot of jazz/poetry that speaks to me. This is a major exception. I heard "Black Dada Nihilismus" in the car yesterday (part of a Ben Young–hosted edition of WKCR's Jazz Profiles, devoted to Baraka) and was re-struck by the tension between the ominousness, tipping over at times into outright horror ("Come up, black dada / nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats. Black dada nihilismus, choke my friends / in their bedrooms with their drinks spilling / and restless for tilting hips or dark liver / lips sucking splinters from the master's thigh") of the verse, and the composure of the delivery. "Dope" is all sardonic, jittery catharsis. But this performance of "BDN" embodies an eerie chill, as though Baraka, making a recording for the ages, wanted to make very, very sure that emotional static didn't obscure the clarity of his words.

I'm bummed that I missed Baraka with Milford Graves at last year's Vision Festival—see here—but I'm glad I was able to see him read/speak a couple times over the years. He was a riveting presence. I'll never forget witnessing Baraka choking up while discussing his relationship with fellow poet Ed Dorn (some thoughts buried within this 2007 post). That was one of those moments when I really felt the weight of the artistic lineage, the procession of the generations, the obligation survivors feel to pass on the message of their contemporaries who die too soon. It's clear from reminiscences like Ishmael Reed's and Questlove's that Baraka's legacy is just as heavy.

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