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Original Beat

Amiri Baraka paved the way for much of today's rap and rant

By Nicky Baxter

POET, PLAYWRIGHT and essayist Amiri Baraka has had his poetry banned in courtrooms as too "vulgar" long before 2 Live Crew rustled up a controversy with their scatological rhymes. An original Beat poet, Baraka was always more politically mature than stridently anarcho-hedonists like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other poets of the era.

Artistically, Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, also sought to emulate the music of performers he admired; Monk, Coltrane and, of course, Charlie Parker. Still, it is his post-Village art and activism that has made him one of the most notorious cultural icons in this country's history.

Despite the revisionism of recent years seeking to underplay his massive, multifarious impact, from the incipient '60s well into the '70s, Baraka managed to alter not just the face of U.S.-African art but also its very sound and substance.

And if you are curious about the origins of rap, track down 1972's African Nationalist sound/rant It's Nation Time. As a key Black Aesthetics theoretician, Baraka was among the first to promote Africanized English as legitimate source-material for poets, playwrights and other artists.

Finally, his treatises on the function(s) of art would have an immense impact on successive generations of artists, critical thinkers and activists.

Baraka was once a radical Pan-Africanist and Communist, although in recent years, his political leanings can perhaps best be described as left-of-center liberalism. Some pundits have suggested that, perhaps emboldened by his very public flap with director Spike Lee, Baraka, now 62, has become Dole-ish, out-of-step with the requirements of the times.

That said, Baraka's powers as a performance artist/poet and sound alchemist remain undiminished.


Amiri Baraka discusses Black Arts Friday (Nov. 15) at 8pm at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10. He reads (with music by Vijay Iyer and Kevin Mingus) Saturday (Nov. 16) at 8pm at the Nu Upper Room, 1249 34th St., Oakland. Tickets are $12.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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