“Those artists who say their art has nothing to do with politics or society are simply retarded. They are winking at their own seduction into either state or corporate prostitutes.”
– Amiri Baraka
Rest in Power AMIRI BARAKA 1934-2014
What happened? Although we talk at the top of our voices, and we have had socially responsible artists like Amiri Baraka we still have the same struggles we have had for the last 20, 30, or 40 years? We have lost an artist that is impossible to replace.
I wrote this review in 2004 of Baraka’s 1994 lecture on revolutionary poetics at Archive dot org, you will have to search for it since social media sites like Facebook in all their suppressive wisdom have banned its direct linkage:
“Amiri is the most effective when he is talking about things with passion and conviction. This is one of those not-so-rare moments when Baraka (speaking to a mostly white middle-class crowd of privleged Naropa students) can and does shine.
The year of this lecture the Christian right was gathering steam in the state of Colorado with another annual Boulder gathering – Promise Keepers, a men’s conference for “New Christian (right-wing) Leaders”. Up the hill, at CU, we could hear the howls of invigorated male testosterone driven energy. Another Naropa Jack Kerouac-School student and myself Myshel Prasad) got inside the conference, where we saw Wellington Boone, an African American minister and rally-rouser (amongst the other X-ian far Right disease) say to a crowd of thousands, “Brothers, we have to stop licking out wounds about slavery.. god put Israel into slavery.. God put YOU into slavery.. You must find your value in God.” Myshel and I came back shaken. The first person we saw was Amiri. Amiri smiled and said: “Did you tell them God is Dead?”
That summer, at a young open minded 23, I wrote and finished my long poem VITRIOL, a 73 page monster of personal history and socio-political outrage at what I knew was coming and came well before the Tea Party and relevant fundamentalists gained control of the Republican mainstream. I have to thank Amiri for his inspiration and permission to say what I felt on a subject that CONTINUES to unfortunately be relevant, if not redundant – until everyone listens. Like Brecht said, to “the causal connections” or simply, how shit works. If more people were aware of “how shit works” then I have no doubt the revolutionary struggle would be less seemingly reactionary and en-masse people would force change. Maybe as Amiri suggests this is the role of an artist. Maybe we were closer with the Occupy movement, except it failed in organization and execution and was finally co-opted by the liberal Democrats as a means to gain entry to the kingdom they already own with their corporate brotherhood the conservative congress. This is not a digression, but I will continue on point.
In the poem I quoted Amiri’s words. I still quote them to this day. His voice still rings in my ears. His words talk to me on a cellular level. His life, his struggles, his determination a reflection of what strength is in this world. A strength Mandala held, one that Ginsberg had, and one that is seen rarely in the world of arts and letters. He served a role we need to keep fulfilled. The poet. The griot. The town cryer. The critical eye to everything we do.
Amiri was clear at what the role of artist was in society. You can hear those words in the recording, here I will quote them so you don’t have to search.
“If we are intellectuals and artists, we really have a commitment. We really have a commitment. A whole generation is dead. Who’s responsibility is that? There is this whole generation of writers that died, you know. Who’s responsibility is that when they tell you Jimmy Baldwin or Langston Hughes are dead? It’s my responsibility. I claim to be a writer. Know what I’m saying? Who’s responsibility, it’s yours. That’s what I’m saying. When are we going to take up the responsibility we have as artists?”
Amiri never worried about the ideological differences within his own camp, or like-minded radicals and near-sighted liberals. He would unpopularly quote Mao in saying, “let a hundred flowers bloom.” There would be differences between us, our heros and execution of ideals, but what we were fighting for was important. What we ARE fighting for. Not to say he wouldn’t fight, argue, disagree with even his closest allies. Maybe this is the role of the artist as well.
“There are some people that believe that politicians are more powerful than artists. What a bizarre LIE.”
What happened to the artists? The return of the cynicism and nihilism of the power structures that divest true culture, co-opting the most advanced art that really comes from ideas, and thoughts, from the people that experience it. In my own genre from last year’s punk appropriation from the Met, to “high fashion” as a cultural ascendency. Last year saw the MetArt Gala sanitize Punk for the buyers at VOGUE, for instance, and rap and R&B still responds more to “bitches and hoes” than it’s political beginnings. Why are we not talking about Public Enemy but absolutely are fine with the words of say 2 Live Crew from the same era? Why is it the middle and upper class seem to have more time to develop ‘theories” while the ‘underclass’ feels like it doesn’t matter either way – they are where they have always been. It has always been where the line of money stops. If you have a feeling of mobility, upward or not, you can move freely. Given that freedom without the need or desire to have this false change and requirement for retirement, what happens? I guess it’s still economics, or as Amiri said, “there are two cultures in America. That of the oppressed and that of the oppressor.” In this magazine, these are things we deal with or try to, the transformative power of art, my perspective as editor-in-cheif should be clearly in opposition to anything other than the power of art and suspicion of commerce. We know the only people being funded are the ones that have the least chance of directly effecting the status-quo, obviously. Often we look for this status-quo’s acknowlegdements, awards, and committees to what it is we do. Amiri knew this when he lost his post as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate for a poem, well they couldn’t fire him so they dissolved the position. His only regret was not being paid.
“I would rather have a hundred flowers, one hundred schools contending than have us waiting for the honors from them.”
Discipline is needed to enact structures of change. Amiri told us it was our ideological differences that made the most sense in duty and participation. Amiri told us, reminded us, “Art is a weapon.” Amiri reminded us the co-opting of culture of people who could be bought, people that often replace the true artists. Yves Saint Laurent, luxury designer made the comment once, “fashion, although not a true art needs artists to survive.” Of course it does. Because a true art likely wouldn’t worry about fashion, or what was “In”. The conditioning or sanitization of true art and artists by a culture that sells to a consumer that doesn’t finally care that their clothes are made by children in sweatshops, or that the revolutionary symbols of Che are sold at H&M on tee-shirts at $40. Che-Chanel, Che-Laurent.
Yes this writing may be an indictment of myself and what I believe, who I want to acknowledge me, and what I can get done within it. About where my money comes from and who I am paid by. What I believe and what is beloved.
The old age of youth. It has been 27 years this year since I graduated Iroquois High School in Louisville, Kentucky and 20 years since I left Boulder and Naropa’s Jack Kerouac-School. Also other life events along the way, my preferred self-imposed exile in the Czech Republic, with a brief two years in Chicago, is past its 12th year and my divorce from a Czech national is now 7 years out. Notably, my daughter Diamanda turns 12 this year, and my son Dorian 9. I often think of these years and the legacy we need to empart.
Death is not unknown in life. Beloved teachers and friends have passed. Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs both in 1997, activist Brad Will in 2007, close friend Akilah Oliver, Pasq Wilson, mentor Anselm Hollo, and now Amiri Baraka.
Those of you with me, children of the 60s and 70s, teenagers of the 80s and wild-child open-eyed doers of the 90s, and now finally in the refrain of a post 9-11 world, have seen radical change in the last 40 or so years. Y2K was a joke, as was the Mayan calendar end-time. From Jim Jones to Chogyam Trungpa, Jerry Falwell to David Koresh there has been crazy to crazy wisdom. An Iron Lady, a president stepping down, a president impeached for domestic lies about a blow-job, and we’ve seen the theft of a presidency. Much of these things we very swiftly forget.
Living in Los Angeles now, I would be reminded of the LA Insurrection of the early 90s but there are no tell tale signs. But I remember riots in Thompson Square Park with the poet-children of Bernadette Mayer and a time when Denver put the KKK on the steps of the Capitol building on MLK Day and avoiding a mounted police controlling hoove. I remember walking across Starameska in Prague and being that close to dissident president Vaclav Havel on New Years 2000. I remember sharing my own brand of shamanism, glossilalia, speaking in tongues with Czech Romany-Gypsy kids that were going to become a part of parliament one day in Kolin.
Paris didn’t know my Czech girlfriend wasn’t from Russia just ten years out from the Velvet Revolution. Oh so soon humanity forgets.
History all around. Taking shape to those who pay attention. Who become part of it. Who do not ignore their lives. Who dare to be apart of it. Who dare interact. Pay attention. Pay it forward, as is said. Do something.
In 45 years, know absolutely, I haven’t done enough. The fight is the same. The struggle never ends. The following is a short transcript of a friendly debate between myself and Amiri Baraka after a talk he gave on Revolutionary Poetics. The last trailing voice is his in response to me on the recording. Now it sounds like history trailing away.
This is Amiri and I speaking.
Bil Brown: So most of us that are artists are middle class artists.
Amiri Baraka: Most of us.
BB: So if I am a middle class artist I am middle class by default. (Got here) by fake booking my way through. Coming from ‘white trash’, ‘trailer trash’ and the like.
AB: I don’t know. It depends on whether you accept the ideology of a middle class, the petty bourgeoisie. Between two worlds…
BB: This is the thing that I think is happening: I think with a lot of artists coming to a revolutionary community, or something that seems to be, we start to find models. Look for models, and especially for us that haven’t had a middle class background, we start to see the faults, clinks in the armor, and don’t know what to do from there…
What do you do from here?
You organize, you get these things together, and we’ve been doing it. Then it comes down to… even within the cultural elite… even within this specific space… it comes down to economics. It comes down to all these other things.
AB: I taught a class a few summers ago and the homework was to send me a postcard and tell me what kind of action you were doing, what you were doing to create these revolutionary networks. You know how many cards I got? Uno? Dos? We need to create a third party to at LEAST fight against the Democrats and Republicans, and we can’t even do that. Those of us that are Revolutionaries and claim revolution, want to make revolution and can’t even elect a dog catcher in our home town. We can’t even elect one school board member on the street where we live… and you see, that’s bizarre to talk about.
BB: It’s interesting at The Republican Convention all the new candidates seem to have a far right leaning toward the Religious Right. That the Right, the far Religious Right – and this is where I grew up and came from – have co-opted the radical principles of grassroots and activism from the 60s and 70s.
AB: They always do. They always will. And they will shoot it back in your face too, that’s what it is. That’s what it is.
// end recording
This brief (dare I say prophetic) debate at the end of a long lecture, circa 1994, begins new thoughts and realizations after almost 20 years of my life ‘In-Between Worlds’, you see I was raised a poor-white man from Kentucky. Economics, who-was-going-to-pay, organization, who-was-going-to-come, and radical networks have always been an issue. The far-right seems to be anything that can be co-opted and sold back to us as something close to the culture it represents.
I was the ‘Fakebook’ Middle Class Artist or Intellectual that comes from underclass beginings, or the underpinnings of the economically ignored “being in-between worlds”. Where then it was New Ageism now it seems to be this renewed sense of lost HOPE in Obama. The story hasn’t changed. The fight, as Amiri has said, “There is no justice in America, but it is the fight for justice that sustains you.”
Libertarians and Democrats can’t and won’t get it together. Amiri reminds us we should get it together, or we will all be in even MORE trouble. The newest generation of radical voters won’t even likely bother to choose – like the underclass, they don’t see a point – where is the future the three previous generations that are currently on this earth promised? Not here.
Amiri Baraka, may we never forget you. You will continue to inspire. As the internet social world has hashtagged you.
Rest In POWER.