Poetry, jazz and radical politics aren't exactly strangers to counter-cultural activity. As the black civil rights movement grew during the 1960s, so jazz grew ever free-er and subversive as words and music cried out for liberation. One of the pioneering provocateurs of black American poetry is Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey-born poet and playwright who has been agitating, educating and organising ever since he moved into Greenwich Village, where he discovered jazz and Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Since then, the artist formerly known as LeRoi Jones has become one of the most significant writers of his generation, courting controversy with every line that questioned what he saw as an oppressive establishment. This has been the case whether in volumes of jazz criticism, revolutionary inclined poems that were a clear influence on early rap, or as a figurehead of the radical Black Arts Movement. Baraka's poem, Black Art, in which he called for 'poems that kill', became a manifesto for the movement. More recently, his status as Poet Laureate was undermined and the post abolished following publication of his post 9/11 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, which claimed there was an Israeli conspiracy involved in the bombing of the World Trade Centre.
Baraka's visit to Glasgow next weekend is a major coup for Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Episode 4 of the Arika organisation's ongoing weekend platforms based around one form of left-field sonic activity or another. Where Arika previously ran experimental music festivals, Instal and Kill Yr Timid Notion, these series of Episodes go beyond the mere gig experience to explore the ideas, thinking and social context that formed the music being presented. As Baraka's presence suggests, Freedom is A Constant Struggle looks at the Black experience via several major figures. While Baraka will be appearing alongside bass player Henry Grimes, who has played alongside iconoclasts such as Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor, as he makes clear, this is no exercise in radical chic nostalgia.
“It's changed,” Baraka says of jazz today compared to the 1960s. “It's fundamentally the same music, but it got into a much free-er role. My poetry has evolved in the same way along with my own consciousness. You have to take into account all the things that have happened since then, and apply that to what you're doing now.”
One of the things that has happened is that America now has a black President. This is a move which Baraka supports, albeit cautiously.
“It's kind of contradictory in some ways,” he says. “Even though I support Obama, because I couldn't vote for Milt Romney and all the other lunatics, he's provided a kind of cool-out mechanism for black people. Obama's in a dead-end struggle with the Republicans, who are dedicated to rejecting everything he proposes, and trying to keep it a corporate, bank-run economy. But the Republicans are in the early stages of fascism. They want to block everything Obama does, which is stopping the whole development of America.”
Baraka discovered the power of words from an early age.
“I was writing when I was a small child,” the seventy-eight year old remembers. “I had a newspaper when I was ten or eleven. There were seven of us, and we called ourselves the Secret Seven, so I made seven copies, which I wrote out by hand. Then when I got to High School I took a writing class, and at college I started doing my own stuff, which I continued doing when I was in the army, and it all got rejected from everywhere I sent it.”
After a dishonourable discharge following accusations of being a Communist, Baraka found more receptive responses to his work in the Village.
“It was more accepting,” he says, “which was to do with what was going on around the world politically. The civil rights movement has begun, and there was a lot of revolutionary activity.”
Baraka's work became notable for its directness, which may have something to do with some of the controversies which have flared up in its wake.
“If you try to tell the truth,” he says, “and be direct, and put things in a language most people understand, then people react to it more directly, both positively and negatively. That's what I learned when I came to New York, to write in my own speaking voice and conversational tone, which gives things deeper substance.”
Which brings us to the furore over Somebody Blew Up America.
“I was reading it to 4000 people,” he says, “and then a couple of people complained, and they cut the post of Poet Laureate to get rid of me, and declare their ignorance to the world.”
While Baraka won't be silenced, with such a reaction to any kind of dissent, can art ever be truly revolutionary?
“That's the point,” he says. “You have to try and make it that way. Poetry and music have to shape it. That's what the Black Arts movement tried to do with it, to try and make poetry and music relevant to social struggle. That's what the bourgeoisie does with their ideas, they pump it out at people, so you have to pump it right back at them."
Amiri Baraka appears at Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Tramway, Glasgow, April 18th-21st
Free Players – Other artists appearing at Freedom is A Constant Struggle
John Tilbury – Pianist Tilbury has consistently applied radical thinking ton his work, ever since his days working with composer and Scratch Orchestra founder Cornelius Cardew, as well in the group AMM. Tilbury appears solo and in a duo with Wadada Leo Smith
William Parker – Bassist Parker has been seen in Scotland playing alongside some of free jazz's major figures, including percussionist Hamid Drake and violin player, Billy Bangs. His book, who Owns Music?, collected his political thoughts, poems and musicological essays. Parker appears in duo with saxophonist Daniel Carter.
Sonia Sanchez – Radical poet and author of more than a dozen volumes, Sanchez was associated with the Black Arts Movement, and has won numerous major awards for her work.
Wadada Leo Smith – Trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Smith has been a key figure in the musician-led AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative musicians), and has recorded with the likes of composer Anthony Braxton and guitarist Derek Bailey's group, Company. With guitarist Henry Miles, Smith has released several tribute albums to Miles Davis' lesser-known 1970s electric period. Smith will play solo and in duo with John Tilbury, and will take part in The Experiment, a conversation with Amiri Baraka, poet Sonia Sanchez and writer Fred Moten.
The Herald, April 12th 2013