Poet Amiri Baraka prefaced his performance Wednesday night with a 20-minute talk on the state of the world through the scope of African-American culture.
Baraka came to USC for a Visions & Voices event to showcase his poetry and to spark conversation.
Baraka said his appearance at the university followed his visits to a number of cities across the country, namely Sacramento and “black Los Angeles.”
When Baraka is in a room, it seems like he’s about to set it on fire with thoughts and proclamations (not to mention his poetry), most of which relates to the struggle of African-Americans throughout history.
“If you haven’t read the stories of your own folk, then you’re not educated,” he said.
He related his experiences of encountering “the two greatest people” he’d ever had the opportunity to meet: Malcolm X, who he met a month before his murder, and Martin Luther King Jr., who he met a mere 10 days before King’s assassination. The message he received from both these figures was the same: Struggle against oppressive forces must be a united front of all people who are oppressed, of all cultures and creeds.
Baraka impressed upon the audience, especially the students and faculty, that “part of what you do has to be to save this country.”
Baraka creates his art from a deep personal scope, infused with his background growing up in the ethnic battleground of Newark, N.J. He said that art has to come from people’s lives and that the artist must seek to include as much of the “real” world in that as possible.
Never does the air get so quietly thin as when Baraka talks about blacks’ current situation in this country, where he reveals a true brilliance and no apprehensions about being controversial.
He criticized President Barack Obama for his part in the recent NATO bombings on Libya, which Baraka labeled “disgraceful” for its hypocrisy: a black man bombing his own homeland by assisting the two greatest arch-colonist powers in the history of the world in England and France.
But he said that he still and has always supported Obama’s re-election because of fears of an America run by Rick Perry, Mitt Romney or any other Republican candidate.
He related a theory that black people, whenever they overcome something and get new freedom, are forced to face a new oppression (as evidenced by an analogy between the Ku Klux Klan’s rise after the abolition of slavery and the uprising of the Tea Party following Obama’s 2008 election).
“I’m going to read some poetry to keep my license,” Baraka said after this lengthy political discussion.
Baraka’s poetry reflects an original mix of the avant-garde literary movements of the 20th century like the beat generation, jazz poetry and the Harlem Renaissance. Baraka himself associated with the bohemians of Greenwich Village, N.Y. and he’s often grouped into the circle that included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and countless other poets who used literature as an automatic, musical outlet formatted as similar to bebop.
His poetry works on many levels: political, musical, free-form, spoken word, imagistic. It’s no stretch to say that Baraka’s work is a precursor to rap and hip-hop.
One of Baraka’s most famous innovations with spoken word was his invention of a form of “African-American haiku” called “lowku.”
“We can’t count the syllables, we don’t have time, it’s just short,” he said.
One of the poems Baraka read was one considered his most controversial, “Somebody Blew Up America,” a response to 9/11. Many saw “Somebody Blew Up America” as anti-Semitic for its indictment of Israel, and for this reason Baraka was asked to resign from his position as poet laureate of New Jersey.
Following his reading, Baraka answered several questions from admirers and critics alike, including an 81-year-old man who professed a life-affirming appreciation and love for Baraka’s work.