“Somebody blew up America,” read Amiri Baraka, speaking to a packed Crowell Concert Hall last Friday night. He and his seven-person world music ensemble, Blue Ark, performed two hours’ worth of spoken word and musical medleys, combining smooth jazz with Baraka’s incendiary poetry to form an aural collage that kept audience members mesmerized throughout the performance.
“All thinking people oppose terrorism, both domestic and international,” Baraka continued. “But one should not have to cover for the other.”
Baraka, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner and recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke as part of the CFA’s Outside the Box Series, which aims to bring groundbreaking theater performances and discussions to campus. Baraka read from an assortment of pieces, ranging from his controversial 9/11 commemorative “Somebody Blew Up America,” to a collection of “lowkus,” poems composed in a self-invented form patterned after the traditional Japanese haiku.
“This is the African-American’s version of the haiku,” Baraka said. “[The] biggest difference is we don’t count syllables—don’t have the time.”
He then launched into a series of poems critical of a wide range of social and political issues, from economic inequality (“The first thing we need, said the devil to the peddler of the soul, is a larger needle and a smaller camel”) to the President (“The main thing wrong with you is, you ain’t in jail”) to racial segregation (“In the funk world, if Elvis Presley is King, then who’s James Brown? God?”). He spoke sonorously and convincingly, befitting a man who once said that poetry is “speech ‘musicked.’”
Baraka’s “lowkus” battered the audience with difficult questions, harnessing a call-and-response technique that urged the audience to provide answers to questions that have remained unanswered for centuries. Such questions often took the form of thinly veiled polemics, though they occasionally expanded into existential pleas. One poem, “Understanding Readiness,” concerned the civil rights movement and the need for revolution.
“How do we know who we are?” Baraka said. “How do we know who our friends are? Only by their suffering in our names—the beatings, the tortures.”
Baraka then went on to laud Stokely Carmichael, deceased black activist and former Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, as the ultimate example of such a friend.
“Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture, comrade, warrior, leader, hero, my brother, my dear brother,” he said.
While many of Baraka’s pieces wove together dense webs of caustic sociopolitical allusions, the audience never appeared uncomfortable. Sam Petulla ’07 cited one way that Baraka relieved some of the high seriousness of many of his topics.
“There were humorous undertones in many of his poems,” he said.
Baraka explained how the controversy over “Somebody Blew Up America” led not only to the end of his tenure as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate, but also to the end of the post. According to Baraka, the post’s demise, in fact, helped his career, allowing him to pad his resume with a carefully constructed description.
“Now I can call myself Amiri Baraka, The Last Poet Laureate of New Jersey,” he said.