Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1934, Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) was already an acclaimed poet and Obie-award-winning playwright in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated. His move in the aftermath from Greenwich Village to Harlem was far more than a symbolic gesture. It marked his departure from the aesthetics and politics of the Beat generation, of which he’d become an integral member, to the forming of the Black Arts Movement, the major force in shaping the multiculturalism that transformed the arts and arts education during the latter half of the twentieth century.
In the more than four decades that have passed, Mr. Baraka has dedicated much of his art to speaking out against inequality and oppression. He has said art that does not address the social crises of its time supports the status quo by its silence, and that the purpose of his art is to educate and advocate for change. His outspoken political opinions have often resulted in controversy. One of the more notable cases was his reading of “Somebody Blew Up America” at the 2002 Dodge Poetry Festival, which led to the dissolution of the New Jersey Poet Laureateship.
An internationally recognized poet, dramatist, essayist and musical historian, Baraka’s place in his hometown is unique among artists of his stature. For over four decades he has been committed to remaining actively engaged in the life of his community, supporting Newark’s artistic, cultural, social and political life, and has earned the respect and gratitude of the generations of artists he has encouraged and mentored there.
Like many poets who were part of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka’s poetry is shaped by what the late Sekou Sundiata defined as the “oralizing” tradition that links contemporary poetry to the ancient griots of Africa. His deep study of jazz and blues structures have also been a major influence, and he and his peers were the precursors of the rap, hip hop and spoken word artists who have emerged in recent decades.
There are many audio recordings on the web that offer opportunities to hear Baraka reading his poetry. A short video segment from Def Poetry Jam offers an example of vintage Baraka. A longer reading, which includes Robert Hass’s wonderful introduction, can be seen on UCBerkeley’s Lunch Poems series.
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