For Hip-Hop: Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014) and Black Radical Art
Jared A. Ball
“There is, of course, the syndrome Lenin spoke about when he said that once opponents of the bourgeoisie are dead the rulers transform these class enemies into ciphers or agreeable sycophants of Imperialism (however “askew” they might have “seemed” in life) who are now ‘rehabilitated’ all the way into being represented as the very opposite ideologically of what they actually were in life.”
– Amiri Baraka
“I think the purpose of real art today is to show people how to make revolution in this society.”
– Amiri Baraka
“If Elvis Presley is King, who is James Brown, God?”
– Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka is now surely to suffer a form of what he said happened to Malcolm X, his opposition to the bourgeoisie will be rehabilitated by those who have themselves become “sycophants of Imperialism.” While in Baraka’s case the state is likely to move toward simple omission, it will be the so-called “Left” or the equally vague “hip-hop community” (that is certainly no “nation”), who is likely to transform this class enemy into one agreeable with their own solidarity with empire. The man, as he lived, will be reformed into something acceptable to an established liberal order of faux radicalism that is really politically disassociated art (scholarship, journalism…), an order already poised to ignore Baraka’s anti-imperialism, communism, and tendencies toward autonomous cultural space and institution building. Hip-hop must learn from the example of Amiri Baraka and ask, as he did, of everyone and everything, “what was the consciousness that created this work?”, the consciousness that is “the overall shaper of… intentions, as well as… methods.” Instead, today, through a variety of imposed devolutions, there flourishes a preference for vague adherences to even more ambiguous terms – i.e.“hip-hop” – that continue to leave us short of equally undefined words – “progress,” and “freedom” – and assure we never get to any of them. Amiri Baraka was first a political figure, clear in that fact, if even in flux, always placing political struggle above art (scholarship, journalism…).
Too little has been said about Baraka since his death and not enough can be said about the breadth of his politics or their continued relevance. We may see some passing references to his life or the convenient labels of his political transitions, “Beat-Black Nationalist-Communist,” but as he said of those labels, “… the truth is that in going toward and away from some name, some identifiable ‘headline’ of one’s life, the steps are names too, but we ain’t that precise yet.” In our fleeting commemorations of Baraka’s life and work, more must be done to advance our precision in identifying his ideological and political shifts so their meaning is not lost on us, our moment, and our coming moments. To be imprecise with Baraka is to also be more generally out of focus, incapable of identifying today just what continues to happen and what his ideas might mean for us going forward, not just in response to what is going on but in our assertive offensive development of something new. For even in those imprecise thumbnail labels, which of them could possibly be seen as irrelevant today?
Eighty-five people have more wealth than half of the world’s population. Half of the world’s wealth is owned by just one percent. Seven out of ten people in the world live in a country where inequality has worsened over the last thirty years. Rates of public school segregation in the U.S. today mirror those of the 1950s minus the quality and caring teaching in those past-era segregated Black schools. Putting Black women and men in prison has become central to the economy of the United States, and in this country a Black woman or man is killed by some form of cop every 28 hours. Baraka as an artist, his various forms of nationalism – cultural to revolutionary, his Marxist-Leninism and even his post-9/11 self-contradicting stance on electoral politics — should all have long-ago gained a new importance, and most certainly must now. Whatever is to be taken moving forward in our post-Baraka era is that his most identifiable attribute, an aspect of him that almost feels lost in what are ultimately insufficient commemorations, is that he was always intimately aware and involved (radically) in the political struggles of his day.
Hip-hop would do well to remember the intimacy of Baraka’s politics and his art. Black, Brown, and Indigenous people would do well not to lose themselves in or forget the circumstance that gave rise to their art. We are not “hip-hop.” We are communities still oppressed, whose circumstances led to the development of an art form which has taken its place alongside all other forms of art produced in such hostility. The oppressive cauldron that saw a forcibly created African diaspora develop this magnificence – “hip-hop” – still exists, is worse off now, and in desperate need of the politics, ideas, and motion of an Amiri Baraka. Hear him:
That’s why rap delighted me so, and still does (even though now its been widely co-opted by Uncle Bubba and the Mind Bandits), because I could see that some of what came out of us had taken root. An open, popular, mass-based poetry. It arrived, that’s why the corporations moved so swiftly to ‘cover’ and co-opt; why they disappeared Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, accused Prof Griff of the big A-S; and brought in flesh rap like 2 Live Crew, middle class negro rap like DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, and finally the straight out (white) Americans like Vanilla Ice and ‘Young Black Teen Agers.’ Gangsta Rap was also brought in to exchange political agitation with ignorant braggadocio and thuggish imbecility, justifying the state nigger-youth annihilation program… In every development of black music, there has always been a commercial shadow, a paid lie to cover it, to hide the history and meaning, the philosophy of that aesthetic that might help change the whole society.
It is true, however, that Baraka’s generation benefitted from overt and global radical, political and social movements that helped him and others challenge the ever-present and alluring, but pathetically soft and unfulfilling, liberal democratic politics. Baraka said himself that it took the assassination of Malcolm X, combined with those pre-existing movements, for him to be propelled into new levels of clarity and activity. It was that moment in 1965, that for Baraka became “A.M.” or “After Malcolm,” a new radical line of demarcation and advance. This, then should be, if it is not already seen as, our “A.M.” or “After [Trayvon] Martin.” Our consciousness too should evolve along similar patterns as we reconsider our relationship to the state.
But in the absence of those overt and organizing movements, and in a particularly threatening moment, a post-9/11 U.S. security state, it has been argued that Baraka himself lost his political bearings. His fears of fast-creeping fascism forced his own newer and even more confusing contradictions.1 Baraka went from once holding a position of non-voting, to supporting Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid, to then criticizing Jackson’s “capitulation to the Democratic party,” condemning such efforts as mostly resulting only in “colored ‘public servants’ controlled by big business and big politics,” to his post-9/11 call at the 2004 National Hip-Hop Political Convention for support of John Kerry and his reference to those of us who supported Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente in 2008 as “anti-Obama Rascals,” to saying of Obama’s bombing of Africa and killing of Muammar al-Gaddafi that:
And remember it so you know it
Imperialism can look like anything
Can be quiet and intelligent and even have
A pretty wife. But in the end, it is insatiable
And if it needs to, it will take your life.
These, and Baraka’s previous political shifts, are a testament to the need for real organization and social movements, and his attempt in every phase to develop various forms of organization, space, movement-building. No one can stand this alone. Even as nothing of that sort exists today, it becomes even more important that whatever can be done to remind hip-hop that there are communities in desperate need of ideological and political clarity, new political movements and renewed engagement with effort to organize and break with convention. This aspect of Baraka’s example should not be lost.
Our moment cries out for Baraka’s example. Think of where we are, beyond even the worsening material conditions, where we are collectively, consciously, in terms of critical thinking and public debate. Hip-hop has clearly not lost its ability to confront or challenge, but, again, on the order of what consciousness? When Baraka called out, “The So wells, Walter Williams, Crouches, Playtoy BeenYesMens, Glen Lourys, Roy Innises, Melvin Williams, Juan Williams and Tom Ass Clarences” it wasn’t just to show his literary prowess or lyrical skill. He did so to show how “Their employment is how the bourgeoisie adapts to our past victories.” When he more recently stood with us in our challenge of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X it was to show that Marable, and “social democrats” like him, are “open opponents of revolution… at base… opposed to the political logic of Malcolm’s efforts to make revolution.”2
Baraka was here in the early 1990s to tell us – accurately – just how bad Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was going to be. Baraka exposed Lee by telling us that Lee had already exposed himself as the Black petty bourgeois narrow nationalist who would claim himself Black enough to make a movie on Malcolm but who was in reality Mookie, the one who loudly inspires radical actions only to come back at the end, begging for and picking up the crumpled bills thrown at him by Whitey. What kind of consciousness produced the art? Baraka is no longer here and now it is Lee who stands in as a “radical” voice in his condemnation of the far worse Tyler Perry. Even in his break with those of us who saw the illogic of supporting Barack Obama, Amiri Baraka used his stance to ask, “But where is the Black left and general progressive, radical and revolutionary lobby?” His own, our own, contradictions all emanate from the very absence of the kind of organization for which he consistently agitated.
As hip-hop and others consider Amiri Baraka, it would appear consistent with the man that there be equal consideration given to his ideas, the nature of his critique, and his plans of action. What would the outcome be of an honest assessment of the state of radical study or political education among artists (scholars, journalists, activists)? What of the autonomous space for radical art? Or what of the involvement of artists (scholars, journalists, activists) in radical political struggle? Do we honor Baraka by studying Marx, Lenin, Fanon? What is the state of our broader political unity? We have to remember that we have yet to move past the concerns raised by Baraka, especially as many are encouraged today to see beyond the intersecting brutalities of race and class oppression, of national oppression. Hear him:
The finest idea that Kwame Turé came up with was the idea of the Black United Front. Listen, whether you went for Garvey or DuBois, they exiled both of them; whether you were for Malcolm X or Dr. King, they killed both of them. I’m a Communist, that means I am not only Black, but also red; I believe that the earth and all the wealth belongs to the people. But I know this, us Communists alone can’t organize the people. You Muslims alone can’t organize the people; you Christians alone can’t organize the people; you Pan-Africanists alone can’t organize people. I know that it will take a United Front.
To help us move in this direction, to help us move into new levels of political organization, forms meant to make the world as it is cease to exist, all communities, “hip-hop” in particular, must take up the challenge of Baraka. There has to be an art (journalism, scholarship…) consciously developed that is, as Baraka called for, “recognizably Afro American… mass oriented… that is revolutionary, that will be with Malcolm X and Rob Williams, that will conk klansmen and erase racists;” an art (scholarship, journalism…) that will call people into movement-building. Baraka said, “I became a Communist through struggle, the intensity of realized passion, and understood, and finally stood under, as a force, my ideological clarity, like a jet stream, a nuclear force of reason, from way back, birth black, history fueled, experience directed.”We learn as we actively engage, and engage we must. It is the imposed “separation of art and politics,” that Baraka accurately warned “was stupid… and more openly bankrupt,” that we suffer more today than ever, especially among so many who limit the extent of their political activity to the production of art (scholarship, journalism…). Far worse than the corporate sponsored rap, the “commercial shadow,” are the artists (scholars, journalists…) filled with well-styled proclamations of independence and freedom masking their true and damaging disassociation from real-time radical politics. It is they/we who most need to learn from Baraka’s example and intensify our attempts to fill the void left by his death.
1Anthony Monteiro writes, “He conceived of an anti-fascist strategy that translated in electoral struggles to siding with the “lesser of two evils” between the Democrats and Republicans. This strategy reversed an almost 25 year rejection of the two party fraud. By 2007 he is in the embrace of Barack Obama.” In, “Amiri Baraka Has Died: Long Live Baraka,” BlackAgendaReport.com, January 15, 2014, archived online: http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/amiri-baraka-has-died-long-live-baraka. For Baraka’s attack on supporters of McKinney/Clemente see also, Jared Ball, “Our Classic Debate with Amiri Baraka,” IMixWhatILike.org, October 8, 2008, archived online:https://imixwhatilike.org/2014/01/10/amiribarakadebate/
2 Jared A. Ball and Todd S. Burroughs (Eds.) A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2012.