My first introduction to Amiri Baraka came in the form of his early work, as Leroi Jones. My father had assigned me to read the now-classic piece of musical history and criticism known as Blues People. As hip-hop and sampling were then in their original heyday, I think Pop wanted me to understand the roots of what I was listening to. And so, like a good son, I read.
The work was extremely unassuming, almost conversational to me, almost as if Jones was talking to someone who knew the deal but was merely interested in his take. I had no idea at the time (maybe I was 14) that I would spend so much of my life writing about music, and the book, in its own way, was a blueprint for the understanding I needed to have about the subject matter. Pop always seemed to know just what I needed, and had given it to me off of his own bookshelf. Its one of the few books I saved from the mass pile of them I had to give up on my way out of Brooklyn.
My next introduction came in the form of his son Ras, as I interviewed him just a few months after he, April Silver, Nicole Stevens, Retha Powers and a slew of other Howard students had taken over Howard University’s administration building in the Spring of 1990 and made a front page of The Washington Post doing it. Ras was my first in-depth interview. I sat with him for a whole hour and hit him with the best questions I could scribble on the 70 bus ride up to Howard from E Street. He looked so much like the man on the back of Blues People and was filled with youth and fire and certainty. It all made me want to meet the man father who helped bring him forth.
When I finally met Amiri Baraka, the man, some six years later(when I was 21, he was so much smaller than I’d anticipated. He shook my hand somewhat weakly, focused on something or someone else, his wife close by. There, in an Atlanta hotel lobby (for the National Black Arts Festival) populated by Bell Hooks (who had in these weird dookie braids), Charles S. Dutton( who was on his cell ALL day), actor/director Ted Lange (Issac from the The Love Boat), poet Tony Medina and some others, the man perched himself at the lobby piano and began to play, a tall can of Miller Lite in a brown paper bag resting just above the ivories. In a room full of so many people, he seems to be playing only for his own amusement.
I felt like I started to know Amiri Baraka when he was still writing as Leroi Jones. I read “Preface to a 20-Volume Suicide Note” in my tattered copy of the Black Voices Anthology, seemingly for the 100th time. It was the first dark moment in my life. I had a degree but no job, was in an online relationship that I’d learned was a complete sham, and had been dissed by every publisher in the Writers Guide to Editors, Publishers and Agents with no hope of ever getting a book deal. The idea of a depressed man who felt like he’d lost his way only to find solace in the sight of own daughter praying to God was an inspiration to my novel, Seeking Salamanca Mitchell.
In youth, I understood “Leroi Jones”, but “Amiri Baraka”‘s work seemed so loud, so cynical and angry. At that time in my reading I was still a quiet boy, still towing my Madre’s company line of not ruffling feathers, of doing a good job and knowing that God would reward me. Once I found those things to be an unbridled lie I came to dig “Baraka”. He kept the volume on ten, even though in person he was this quiet but sarcastic old man who didn’t seem to give a damn. My favorite track on The Roots’ Phrenology is his “Something in the Way of Things”, a theme for these days and times if there ever was one.
So many of the greats are moving on in these years. Their work, as it should, outlives them. I don’t think the case will be the same for the Lyric Cafe/Verses and Flow/Brave New Voices crowd. The monologue as poem with no platform, no sound system and a dwindling literary reading public makes the art of the form often feel destined to become bones to be later unearthed only by academics combing blogs and old chapbooks long after their relevance. Very few can rock a stage like Baraka did. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying.