Walking the Air: An Evening with Amiri Baraka

By Kamaria Muntu
17th October 2012, 15:30 GMT

Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air ~ Amiri Baraka

An artist had landed. Not just any artist, but a powerful maker of word to art …to vision….

He had landed

someone with whom I had been in other spaces and rooms over the years, but had barely spoken to. Being from the States and taking for granted that I could probably see him at any given time, at some festival, playhouse, conference or reading – even though I hardly ever did, I still took it for granted. But on the other side of the same Atlantic, it felt a little different.

An artist, a poet landed on 9th October 2012 on the Eastside and I had to be there.

Actually he probably landed a few days before to get set up in his hotel and begin his schedule; a couple of dates in the city, then on to the Manchester Literature Festival. But it was Tuesday the 9th of October that I was going to see him at Rich Mix near Brick Lane. The him of whom I’m referring, of course, is Amiri Baraka the legend, but I do hate that word, legend.  For who Baraka is and has been for so long is of a much more intimate significance than the platitudinous timbre of that word. Amiri Baraka, the poet, the friend to all who recognise the purity of passion that is at the centre-point of those who write to make music, to make palpable sound that penetrates, permeates the crap.

It was rainy, damp – this is London. He’d come from Newark, USA. I was exhausted. This past year like many before had been particularly hard. 2013 around the corner, perhaps the promise of a little down time, some Spanish or Parisian sun, but if not then no matter, something real was rolling in. And as I rode the underground to Liverpool station, I felt a slight irritation contemplating the long hours before the main event, – there would be a workshop from 4-6 pm, then an hour to kill before 7, which I thought was the start of the program. Turns out it was 7:30, which is critical because I was so anxious to see this man.

Sprit House Pic: Led by the legendary revolutionary black poet Amiri Baraka back when he was known as LeRoi Jones, the Spirit House Movers was a spoken word collective a la the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets based out of Jones’ cultural center in Newark, New Jersey, named, well, the Spirit House. The group’s long-out-of-print 1968 album on the Jihad label run out of the Spirit House (which also released music from Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra) Photo courtesy of zimbio.

Art is clean water and air to me, poetry beloved as far back as the age of four. Art is not a commercial thing, not an athletic event or ego thing, although with humans being humans these elements factor.

But to paraphrase a close colleague of Mr Baraka’s from way back in the day, when the builders of the Black Arts Movement were transforming and evolving a Black canon; poetry is prayer to me, “a way into things.”

Too early, we stood waiting, my daughter and I the first ones in the queue. He entered, and he was beautiful, silver-haired and more bent than I had ever seen him, but his presence was unmistakably strong. Not strong in the way of artificial celebrity, but in the way of true celebration – a dancing spirit that continues to make its sizable imprint on the aesthetic value of each location it touches. He was dapper to be sure, dressed in the up-south style of mature men of his kind. When he walked in, I introduced myself as a friend of a long-time friend of his. What I had not anticipated was how much warmth would walk in with him on that damp, chilly night. He returned my greeting ever so kindly before attendants shuffled him through the side door.

Amina Baraka and Amiri Baraka.

A young man the colour of a light camel with long locs who had previously asked the folks on the door if he could leave Amiri a note had left momentarily and appeared again. “You just missed him” I said. The young man seemed affably defeated until one of the door attendants took pity and let him in. “My father is a friend of Amiri’s” he said, “I haven’t seen him since I was this high”, he gestured close to the floor.

I came of age reading Amiri Baraka. I laboured over the meaning of “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”, and pretended to understand his plays “Dutchman and the Slave” when I didn’t. His luscious, leftist lyrics opened me. And thus I embarked upon a political education, not with Fanon or Cabral or even Woodson’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro”, but first with nommo (the poetic word), the Spirit House where poetry and jazz merge. And later when he would take the podium to read and explain how he came to create his Lokus, (haikus for Black folk who didn’t have time to count syllables), I laughed remembering how I once thought Loku was some exotic African word. I guess that wasn’t terribly far from the truth.

Once inside where the stage was, where the event was to take place, there was more waiting.

I kept my coat on because my daughter and I had strolled around Brick Lane in the hour interval between six and seven and I had caught a chill. I was fortunate to steal a few private moments of conversation with Mr Baraka before he took the stage.

He shared with me when I inquired about his obvious fatigue, that after Manchester was only the beginning, there would be the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark.

The first part of the presentation was an interview with a reporter from the BBC about the tremendous influence jazz played in his work and what that musical conveyance, that blue-note bridge from word to song meant in the way of education for his readers. He was tired because it had to have been around ten by then. There had been several artists on before he took the stage and I found myself getting antsy, because as wonderful as they all were, it felt disrespectful to me for a seventy-eight year old man to have waited that many hours. The artist’s own preferentially egalitarian politics notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but want to yell… do you actually know who this is?

Amiri Baraka at the Bridging the Gap Symposium in Essex.

He walked slowly to the lectern and was nothing short of grand – beginning a little softer, a little weaker than we are use to hearing him, but then he gained momentum, almost as if deliberately trying to deceive us. The lectern became his drum, his vocals sliding easily over familiar terrain – this was his bandstand, his comfort zone. He worked his audience with the intensity of his word-craft and masterful execution, a poet, a true artist, a most natural jazzman. He sang, he played, fervently spoke his latest favourite poem of mine “In Town”. What I had foolishly referred to as the title when I spoke to him earlier was the first line – Something in the Way of Things –

Something in the way of things
Something that will quit and won’t start
Something you know but can’t stand
Can’t know get along with
Like death
Riding on top of the car peering through the windshield for his cue
Something entirely fictitious and true
That creeps across your path hallowing your evil ways
Like they were yourself passing yourself not smiling
The dead guy you saw me talking to is your boss
I tried to put a spell on him but his spirit is illiterate-

The poem is lengthy, melancholy, abstract and dead on – a liturgical urban blues, a psalm of the deepest pain. I told him I cried when I first heard it. He smiled slightly, without irony –

Ain’t it too bad y’all said
Ain’t it too bad, such a nice boy always kind to his motha
Always say good morning to everybody on his way to work
But that last time before he got locked up and hurt, real bad
I seen him walkin’ toward his house and he wasn’t smiling
And he didn’t even say hello
But I knew he’d seen something
Something in the way of things that it worked on him like it do in will
And he kept marching faster and faster away from us
And never even muttered a word
Then the next day he was gone…

The hush of the multiracial audience while he was reading it, taking them to a place they may never have seen depending on their background, colour, position in society. And yet he made everyone know that they had indeed seen, felt something in the reach or touch of something near to themselves. And that is the magic, his gift. Calling him the Malcolm X of poetry is not simply about his uncompromising fist-pounding revolutionary dogma, it is about how he associates, connects the all of us to the word, to the beat, to the syntactic essence of justice.

He carried a large, extremely pregnant leather bag on stage, filled with what I know is only a smattering of the eloquence he has signed his name to over the years – a bag overflowing with poems, writings, so as to gauge his audience, know exactly what will work. At a point he dropped a folder full of those precious words down on the stage. He is seventy-eight, so I worried as he bent to recover them. I also waited for whoever it was who was supposed to be attending to him, thinking to myself they were doing a piss-poor-ass job of it. But retrieve them he did, slowly lifting the papers in good humour – he proceeded as I’ve said to wow us. He is if anything a consummate pro. His time not done, even after some of us stood to give him an ovation after the performance…

He still had books to sign.

At the table I said, “You still look fit, strong…” “Looks can be deceiving” he replied. I was amazed again at his sheer patience, how he earnestly listened for the longest to a stout, bearded and aging hippie-type offer his views on revolutionary politics.

Amiri Baraka is not without his controversy, not without a historical narrative of sexist ideology, but more impressively, not without an ability to change his mind, develop and grow – simultaneously remaining incorruptible, consistent in all he knows to be right. His integrity cost him his Poet Laureate in New Jersey. As an artist and as a man he has lost so much and hurt so much over the years. Yet he still gives so much, like the spirit of his Bluespeople – he is undaunted, un-swayed from the life-essential rhythms that root us sanely as a people in the gospels of love. Baraka is the artistic embodiment of a love supreme. His soul not only shines, it swings.

“Someone Blew Up America” by Amiri Baraka, accompanied by New York Jazz Saxophonist Rob Brown. 2009.

Sometime after eleven, he was still there at the book-signing table. I was too much the mother hen, wondering when he was going to be able to drink something – I gave him a hug.  My daughter gave him a kiss and said goodbye, the hour was late and we would have to walk once we got off the bus in not the best of neighbourhoods. I wanted to ask him so many questions. He was tired. I could have said so many things. But all I could think of was, this is Amiri Baraka – this is why I am a poet and artist

“are you certain you’re alright” I said, “they need to hurry so you can get back – rest, eat”.

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