Twin Cities artists gather to honor poet Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka performed at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis in 2011.
Courtesy of E.G. Bailey

Amiri Baraka's writing harnessed the joy and rage of black people in the United States and abroad. He long sought to give a voice to the powerless and speak truth to power.

He was never appeased, and that made him a beacon of inspiration to writers and performing artists in Minnesota.

On Saturday, local performers will honor Baraka, who died in January at age 79. "Spirit Reach: A Twin Cities Tribute to Imamu Amiri Baraka," will remember the poet-playwright in words, music and dance. The free event at the Capri Theater in Minneapolis includes saxophonist Donald Washington, actor Sha Cage and poets Louis Alemayehu, Lisa Brimmer and J. Otis Powell.

Many of them took part in a 2011 performance with Baraka at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis that explored the African-American experience.

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Powell, who counted Baraka as a friend and mentor, said the writer understood how "empire" used power. "It appeases enough people so that they will settle for less than they could, really, if there was such a thing as justice, such a thing as democracy, such a thing as equity," Powell‽ said. "People are easily appeased and settle for a lot less than we as humans deserve."

For Baraka, the fight for equality and dignity was as central to African-American life in the modern era as it was during the civil rights movement and before.

"Baraka knew that struggle is in perpetual motion and everybody and every generation is on some side of it," Powell said. "He was one of the smartest people I knew and he always said things that went beyond what was on the surface of things."

Baraka also was a world thinker who cared about community, Cage said.

"He helped black people rally, see themselves in the larger context of the American experience and helped them reshape the lenses that we have to really develop to see ourselves in a positive light," she said.

Born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, N.J., Baraka became one of the nation's most important — and controversial — literary figures.

In the 1960s and 70s, he was a major presence in the Black Arts Movement, which tapped the spirit of the black power movement for the arts.

But Baraka did not try to separate art from his politics, first as a black nationalist and later as a Marxist who spoke on behalf of oppressed and powerless people in the United States and abroad.

In the poem "Dope," he ridicules the mindset that black people need only suffer the indignities of an oppressive society in silence until they die.

just gotta die just gotta die
this ol word aint nuthin
must be the devil got you thinkin so,
it cain be rockefeller, it cain be morgan,
it caint be capitalism it caint be national oppression
owow! No Way!
Now go back to work and cool it

Baraka was known for his poetry collections, plays, jazz criticism and other writing, including "Blues People," a history of black music in white America.

He also challenged the status quo. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, he was stripped of his title as poet laureate of Newark because of the poem, "Somebody Blew Up America." It spoke of homegrown terrorists and the nation's troubled racial history and suggested Israel knew of the attacks beforehand:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers,
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

The poem drew widespread condemnation of Baraka. Then-New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey called on him to step down. The state General Assembly later abolished the position.

E.G. Bailey
E.G. Bailey at the UBS Forum at MPR in March 2014.
Nikki Tundel/MPR News, file

Baraka's work could sometimes alienate people, especially when it opened old wounds, said Twin Cities playwright E.G. Bailey.

Bailey, for whom Baraka was a hero, said he may not have agreed with all of the poet's ideas, but he was unquestionably a literary genius, as is clear from his final poems.

"To cover 400 years of history in 40 poems — 40 avant garde poems that often are just a page and maybe even 20, 25 lines...and then to pair it with music that connects to the issues that are being discussed and have it all be from the reservoir of African-American musical tradition and literary tradition — to me it's one of the most incredible pieces of work that's ever been done," Bailey said.

Lisa Brimmer
Lisa Brimmer's work explores the complexity of modern life -- loneliness and isolation and a key part of the modern American ethos: the myth of the self-made individual, and the idea that we can all make it on our own.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Brimmer

Baraka also was a master of rhythm. Late in life, he continued to collaborate with musicians, from jazz saxophonist David Murray to the Roots.

He also was an important influence for artists in Minnesota, including young writers like Brimmer, a poet and spoken word artist who considers him a model.

"There is such power and defiance in this language and also such flexibility and musicality in this language that we — these blues people — know that without Baraka, and artists of his kind, we would not have had hip-hop as we have known it," she said. "We would not have had rap music and culture and therefore, without him, the whole complexion of popular American music, dress and attitude would be empty of its gallant and extensive influence."

Powell said Baraka taught him not just about poetry, but how to be a black poet in America — one that embraced African and other immigrants and their perspectives.

"He was really on the cutting edge of that in way that most people aren't," Powell‽ said. "One of the things that Baraka used to say to audiences often is you have to know who this is looking out at the world before you can have a valid opinion of the world. If you don't know who you are then you can't understand the word."

Twin Cities artists say Baraka reminded them to freely speak their convictions, mindful that the powerful survive because too many others are content with the trappings of a comfortable life, unwilling to seek a truly equal world.

It's a message the artists performing Saturday at the Capri Theater embrace.

"Amiri Baraka showed me that in order to move people you can't hide the ugly truth," said Twin Cities rapper Toki Wright. "No one grows from comfort. Comfort is a luxury not afforded to most black people in this country. Discomfort is what creates movement (and) realizing that one person's comfort is the direct result of another's discomfort."

If you go
"Spirit Reach: A Twin Cities Tribute to Imamu Amiri Baraka", at the Capri Theater, 2027 West Broadway, Minneapolis, starts Saturday, April 12, with a 1 p.m. reception. Performances run from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.