Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to talk a little about a man who I consider to be the “godfather” of black music. Now, he isn’t a musician in the traditional sense, and before you jump to conclusions, no I’m not talking about James Brown.
The person I’m referring to is Amiri Baraka. Baraka is a Renaissance man, to say the least, as he holds many artistic titles including that of poet, political activist, author, playwright, music historian and music critic. He was the founder of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), which was an important literary crusade for African American writers that took place during the 1960s in Harlem.
He has written many essays and books regarding social and racial issues facing African Americans and his extensive work and research about Black Music has garnered him much acclaim. I recently had the pleasure of hearing him speak during a presentation at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, and at 78 years old, he was quite the firecracker and made no apologies about his leftist political beliefs.
His lecture was mainly a call to action for the country to build a united front, a theme that he said both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed strongly in and reiterated to him early on. Baraka said he met with Dr. King a week before the civil rights activist was murdered, and he spoke with Malcolm X a month before his assassination.
The historical events and strongly inclined social message Baraka presented certainly struck a cord with the audience, especially when he lit into a few of his poignant poems. But, all the while he was speaking, I couldn’t help but want to ask him a million and one questions about music, and what his experience was like personally knowing so many brilliant jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, and Max Roach, whom he is in the process of writing a biography about. He said he promised Roach that he would tell his story right, but reiterated that it may be a while before the bio comes out because Roach has tons of written material and kept every contract he ever signed.
And as Baraka read his poems, I started thinking about the first time I read Blues People, which was one of the first extensive academic books written about African American music. Baraka presents a very critical discussion of the evolution of Black music, and the book was published in 1963, which was a time when scholarly writing about African American music was not popular, as it is today.
That book inspired me to want to learn more about the roots of African American music and it helped me gain a more critical perspective about music in terms of its impact on society as well as society’s influence on music.
I understand that Baraka’s visit to the museum was moreso geared toward a discussion about politics, society, and historical events, but if I had my way, then the entire discussion would have been about his experience as a music historian and critic. But, just witnessing such a legendary figure as Baraka was a great honor and I am so looking forward to reading and learning more about music from the godfather.