One month after spending a good portion of a late attempting to navigate the grief, loss, and shock of Imanu Amiri Baraka’s transition from elder to ancestor, I am ready to share this with the world. It is a raw first response. In respect for his family those who knew personally, I delayed sharing this. I’m compelled to today.
January 14, 2014
In baba Amiri Baraka, I have always found a kindred spirit, a combined reflection of our powerful African past, a living mirror of our beautiful and perilous present, and a mosaic of my future aspirations. I long have credited Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar as the first black poets that I read that made me view poetry as a means through which to express the black experience rather than a collection of pretty words. It was Tupac Shakur, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas with whom I identified with as storytellers in the same way that my father found kinship with the words and works of the Last Poets. My father, who made sure I knew who they were, handed me a book called The Black Poets that he had kept from his 1970s Black Studies college classes. This book was my first exposure to Amiri, but it came before I was focused enough to flip to names I was unfamiliar with.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Common, The Roots entered my life and made me realize that I lived hip-hop culture rather than spectated, and Saul Williams laid the blueprint for me and many other writers, poets and performers of my generation to give voice, presence, fire, and truth to our words. Staceyann Chin taught me the definition of fearlessness as an unapologetic Afro-Chinese Jamaican lesbian woman, she who breathes self-determination with a head held high. It was the same semester that I bought the Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star album and watched Saul Williams in the film “Slam,” just after I started performing and memorizing my work – well before I knew what a poetry slam was. The same semester when I declared Africana Studies my minor at Cornell University, joined in student protests, and participated on campus at Unity Hour. It was the same semester I would write a speech to introduce the chair of the Africana Studies Department, Dr. James Turner, who in turn introduced Rev. Al Sharpton to a Cornell crowd.
In 1999, my comrade and brother Yemi took me and a group of friends to a formal campus soiree that Amiri and Amini Baraka performed at with their live band. It was the first time I had heard Baraka’s words aloud, and I instantly connected every experience I had before that moment as a writer and student awakening to Black consciousness to this one man reciting haiku, his famous low-kus (he said black folk don’t need a form that makes them count when we have to run from police), deriding the rich, and speaking truth to power.
Before researching his contributions, reading his poetry on paper, and understanding the direct role he played in shaping Black Art, Black Power, and being a living vehicle for social change – a movement in flesh – I understood that he was the father of us all. He was the chain link between Langston and Nas, he was the storyteller that helped us survive the middle passage, the voice who reminded us of where we came from after toiling in the field, and the planner who taught us how to overthrow the plantation.
Amiri Baraka was a nation builder. In my 15 years of performing and writing, every space that I have performed in that has been about more than entertainment is filled with his influence, from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to being a regular at Ngoma Hill’s Sugar Shack poetry series in Harlem. Baraka’s Blues People is the blueprint for how hip-hop historians and critics will move forward in validating our culture and securing its legacy as art and not pop music. Everything about his lived experience normalizes every desire of my heart to unify, uplift, and advance my people using my art and culture as weapons. His criticism, wit, artistry, heart, and mentorship of every generation that followed him will be missed, but never taken for granted. He believed in us – all of us – the Civil Rights Generation, Gen X, and the Hip-Hop generation. He never believed in lost generations, and he would recognize and validate us when other spaces refuse(d) to acknowledge we exist.
My most personal memory of him was at The Bowery Poetry Club just after he was named Poet Laureate of NJ. He and mama Amina had just performed a set with their band, and my dear comrade Simone Jhingoor and I were there talking to Bob Holman about the Blackout Arts Collective, an organization we both belonged to as artists/activists. Amina overheard our conversation, and Bob invited us to the back. Amina asked “Y’all don’t mind hanging with two old communists?” We laughed and were honored. We sat there for a few hours, talking about poetry, politics, and activism. We listened a lot. Amiri was still surprised that McGreevey appointed him to the post, and was sure that the governor had no real idea who he was or what he was doing. This was around the time that shit started to hit the fan with “Somebody Blew Up America.” I don’t remember a lot about our conversation, but I do recall him listening and smiling when we spoke. Before leaving he shared his e-mail address and home phone number with me, and invited me to Newark – a trip that I regret not taking due to my own insecurities with my work, and the lack of personal worth that haunted me throughout my 20’s.
I have spent the past few nights since he transitioned from this existence to the plane of our ancestors listening to his voice – in interviews and performances, and thinking about our community. Every interview contained a detailed analysis of conditions, as well as specific potential solutions – whether the interviewer wanted to hear them or not.
Amiri Baraka was the kind of revolutionary who didn’t just speak revolution and change – he lived it. He evolved from the kind of ethereal poet whom academic poetry professors praise to a sharpener of words – every poem a spear, each book a machete. He organized politicians, taught, transformed, evolved, kicked ass, and called out chumps for being chumps. He was a spiritual leader and nation builder, and always evolving, always self-assessing, discarding the parts of himself and philosophies he found inefficient or ineffective. He was a man unafraid of growth. We will continue to miss him in his physical form, but we must remember that is with us – as he always has been. His presence is evident in each of us as we perform, write, compose music, sing, dance, and organize.
Amiri Baraka lives.