I think anyone who can put you in a trance can rescue you from one that goes for yourself too—in an exclusive kind of way you can train and untrain your own thinking and doing toward a steadying stream of rhythm that rides its own momentum, for better or worse. And the tender propaganda it takes to be a living wake up call from a bad trip or trance, an antidote, can just as swiftly soothe and pacify itself into a placid commercial oblivion. It requires a special kind of consciousness, a special kind of man or myth/science, to understand both manners of trance he is capable of invoking in us, and choose to be a guide toward emancipation as opposed to in the direction of a glitzy dandyistic thinking that seduces us into feeling so important and evolved for what we (think we) know, that what we actually do becomes secondary or less demonstrative to us of our own worth, until a we enter a paralysis in style and aesthetics, a staticy wreckage wherein potential and dailiness and how we decorate those constant factors, become excuses for an oppressive inaction, wherein self-satisfaction becomes a matter of knowledge we politely assimilate into dinner party discussions or even discussions at so- serious conferences, but rarely grant full realization in the physical world.
Put another way: will and idea are constantly striving for union and our culture often overvalues the romance of the idea in hopes that its seductive almost-but-not-quite realness, will temper our will to actualize our more subversive or transformative notions. Within such a paradigm these most transcendent ideas become mere fantasies we use to tease ourselves through tidy complacent lives, and very few people will admit that they don’t intend to really do anything about anything where real nerve and real change are requisite. It takes men like Amiri Baraka to reveal the mask of un-doing that plagues our epoch so. The highest form of knowing is doing, he decrees, and proves, on the record— a ruthlessly revolutionary doer.
But Only the Heart Minds
On a personal level, beyond just inspiring integrity and discipline in the transition from belief to thought to idea to condition to action to living, breathing, event, Amiri helps me comprehend and occupy the controversial space wherein the militant and the taboo meet and circle one another in a ritual harvest dance. His example inspires me to allow myself and my work to be raided by what Nietzsche calls why I am a destiny, to really live what I believe even when that means feeling like Hester Prynne or Miles Davis or he hit me and it felt like a kiss, even when I’m wrong but feel right, even when trauma and delight become one and betray one another in the same gesture or feigned immobility. Amiri’s example helps me to really appreciate the contradictions that fuel my growth, the victories and sorrows that are my karma, to be ruthless about that, the way he was, from eating watermelon in public to changing names and political parties, wives and religions like don’t blame me. Amiri understood those ruptures as imperative to his realest growth, from smugness to abject tenderness and back until the soul has to settle on beauty and truth and carry them through each natural flaw like no camel pass through no needle’s eye.
To be more specific, I met Amiri at the Blue Note in October of 2009 right around his 74th birthday, at a show by trumpeter Jon Faddis. We were both there solo, and happily so, and it was the last set of the night, so after midnight by the show’s end. I hallucinated Amiri as Melvin Van Peebles when I spotted him seated up front on my way upstairs, (they both have similarly probing eyes and vibes) and I only realized the error mid-introduction.
We spent a few minutes in tiny Blue Note dressing room with Faddis, complimenting the show and chatting, he knew Amiri and I know Faddis’ nephew so we had a round of common knowledge enough to last us 20 minutes of conversation, and as that wrapped up Amiri suggested he and I go grab a drink. In a mild shock of course I agreed. Not so much star struck as heart-struck by how easy it sometimes is to interact with a kindred or benevolent spirit as if you’ve known one another the whole time and time again. So we drank, I a Malbec, and he a neat whisky, and we discussed our writing like equals in a tone parallel, how we work, what we were working on at the time, the music behind it, the life behind it, our respective loves and families, true happenstance, spontaneous simplicity, except he was a longtime hero of mine and I a young poet he had just recognized some soul in. I mentioned my father’s music, which he knew well, we bonded over mutual obsessions with tone and sound and our shared belief that poetry would always be the first fidelity therein, the form wherein sound and sense could have their most rewarding encounters and unions.
My first book hadn’t even been published yet, however, and Amiri had expanded his poetics to every possible genre with such mastery that his entire body of work feels like one interdependent force of nature, the will picking up where ideas leave off and making them real things—ain’t nothin’ like it. After an hour or so we shared a cab uptown, he headed back to Newark on a train, and I headed home to write and ruminate and strive to be a better and more courageous, maybe even more elegantly outrageous, artist. And at the crux of the night, right before Amiri got out of our taxi at Penn Station, having just described the devastating murder of one of his daughters to me in vague but still vivid detail, he echoed from some inner-source: but don’t ever let anyone break you.
. . .master teachers instruct us in how to transmute our imperfections into something beautiful and redemptive
I was moved in a very cliché but disarming way, and because I’ve never understood our society’s beef with that kind of naive sincerity, his or mine, because I find it invigorating and rejuvenating, the fruit of our natural instinct for joy and self-mastery, I ran with the feeling and stayed with it and carry it with me still. No writer living or after-living has had a greater impact on my sensibility and drive, as an artist and as a person in the omni-verse we inhabit. I had been reminded that night at Blue Note, that I can be exactly who I am, no pandering, no meekness, no apologies for the raw and utter truth of me, that I can approach literature and writing with no stubborn fixations on how I’m branded, or how and where and when I spend my time. I can spend more time listening to live music than I do at poetry readings, if that’s the mood that I’m in, I can publish in any form I like if that’s the mood that I’m in, I can spend a year with a dance troupe instead of at home reading and scribing if that’s the mood that I’m in, and beyond all of that, I can be the agent of my own desires, I can publish and recognize the work I love, my own and that of others I admire, I can build my own archives, I can own my own venue eventually or sooner than eventually—I do not have to believe in an elite that excludes all aesthetics that challenge its primacy, a cannon that knocks my favorites out of the barrel. I can say that underdog is the topdog the way I experience it, and prove it on faith alone if I need to.
After that night at Blue Note I went on to live in Paris for a while, fall in an out of and back into love, publish my first book and all the while continue correspondence with Amiri via email and at jazz venues and events around the city, from Pharaoh Sanders at the Standard to McCoy Tyner back as Blue Note, to Cecil Taylor in Harlem, sometimes planned, sometimes serendipitously, we’d meet and catch up, and increasingly he would see right through me into my deepest troubles and joys, and deliver some regal and hip and poignant advice en route to Penn Station, and inevitably, it would change my life. I remember smiling with tears in my eyes one night when I had missed a show we talked about attending together at the Jazz Standard, I stayed home to write or sulk, and he wrote a terse “where were you?” Tears arrived just over the seriousness, the integrity and love of his spirit, the direct correlation of his word with his lifestyle, of his life with his meaning. The kinesis of him. It’s not that he believed everything he said and did was correct or impervious to criticism, even his own, it’s that he meant each and every moment of it, enough to pick himself apart in search of how to mean it again and again, enough to want to listen to music and discuss the word with someone who loves both as much as he did, just because. I wouldn’t call him a martyr, because he was no victim. He was a prophet, a seer, and in many ways a savior, he roused me up from a trance I didn’t even realize I had entered, one wherein I believed I had to join things rather than create and re-create them. And I still struggle to keep my heart just as open as knowing him has made it. I figured that if I could detect all of that beauty and pain and truth and initiative in him, that I too am that in some way, and I felt and still feel a kind of safety in knowing it. How mutual appreciation is the best kind of mirror.
Amiri Baraka changed my life. Leroi Jones changed my life. Amiri changed my life.
The Past as a Futurism
My own father was born in 1934, the same year that brought us Amiri, but my dad left the planet before I had fully grasped the modes in which such a close biological connection to emancipation, the land in the Mississippi South, to sharecropping and escaping that tattered lot on trains and work-for-hire contracts until far enough west to take it back by hook or by crook; I was unaware of how much that legacy has shaped my feeling and being, the very substance of my light. In witnessing Amiri continue bucking the system with unremitting dignity all his life, I was reminded of my father, in a way restored to communion with his spirit and therefore with my own, as my father did the a lot of the same, to encounter Amiri was to better understand why I run so far from tradition that I often run right back into it, why I covet lives that are messy and controversial, feeling such a life means you’re doing something right; when you can’t feel the ground you’re breaking sometimes soaring gets confused with sinking. I can now see honor in the veers that propriety tries to deem perverse out of fear that they might be purifying, that goes for the personal: affairs, lots of children, second and third wives, as long as you mean it and stop when you don’t anymore. And that goes for the political also: Conspiracy theories that aren’t theories at all, rants against everyone from Spike Lee to Spike Lee to yo mamma don’t wear no draws; critique of white critics of black music; critique of the academy and its bohemian outskirts; militancy; Communism; the constant calling out of Fascism; and yet the ability to forgive it all by remaining, above all, a Poet.
Amiri teaches what my father teaches what Sun Ra teaches and Miles and all of us strive to teach and overcome: make a mistake and so something right. To reject the “bad” in you is to reject everything; instead these master teachers instruct us in how to transmute our imperfections into something beautiful and redemptive. You can’t have a wild streak without a wild streak. You can’t pretend anything. Amiri was one of the last men around who knew how not to fear his shadow, who knew how to embrace it, to be kind to it, he knew how to teach shadow to genuflect to the light when it needed to, and to protect the light when it need to do that. He was beyond shame but not shameless, beyond perfection but not perfect. He had reached nirvana and rejected it and reached it again, time and again, naturally and still now he rests and unrests there.
And Everything Must Change
After the passing of hip-hop producer, genius, mystic, J Dilla, fans and aficionados, philistines and real things, wore t-shirts saying “J Dilla Changed My Life.” If we rally around Amiri in such a way, if we refuse to be quiet and polite about his impact, take an example from music because he is a music, maybe we’ll enter the right kind of trance/awaken. Before Amiri passed he and I had discussed projects like the re-issuing of some of the LPs from his self-made Jihad Label, and I still plan to actualize those ideas in full. This April, however, I’m starting by mobilizing Afrosonics to create an oral history documenting how Amiri changed our lives and our relationship to the work we do, made life and work one again, gave life and art a commons to command. This April the Beautiful Voices Project, which commenced a year ago and is ongoing at Afrosonics.tumblr.com and at Columbia’s University’s music library, will gather and feature audio detailing Amiri Baraka’s impact on us. He was man who organized, who always assured that until we create our own venues, venues we own, our own publishing outfits, our own archives, until we tell our own history through the creation of these key elements in the safe-keeping of that telling, that until then we might as well forget it. Now that Amiri himself isn’t here to shepherd us through those processes, to make the tedium in them seem glamorous just by virtue of his energy, even our great excuses like waiting for the right time, reveal us as nostalgia addicts too stuck on the Web of meaning to re-create meaning, and that’s just sad. But if we place a lament or homage or praise, or even an unadorned sad song on the record, it tends toward becoming a beautiful Blues we liberate ourselves by just listening to.
***Part of the goal is to bring black artists who have yet to speak on the record of Amiri, together in a kind of forum. The over-arching goal is to spark a real and lasting discussion about how to heed his advice and example, not just in theory. Send submissions, including recorded statements and comments describing Amiri’s impact on you and your community, as well as recorded readings of (previously unrecorded) passages from Amiri’s body of work, especially any work of his that is not currently circulating in print, to AstroandAfrosonics@gmail.com and see Afrosonics.tumblr.com for posts and inspiration, and stay tuned.