Amiri Baraka: Perspectives on Music and Race
“ In fact, the election of Barak Obama has only helped to create the illusion that racism no longer exists in America... ”
Amiri Baraka is the author of the insightful and comprehensive book, Blues People. It is a book that has opened many minds and readers to the African American Diaspora along with the history and roots of African American music. Baraka has now published a new book of essays titled, Digging (The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music). He is the author of over 40 books on poems, plays, essays, drama and importantly, the founder of the Black Arts Movement of Harlem in 1960, which became the blueprint for new American Theater aesthetics. He has taught at Columbia, Yale and the State University of New York and is the State Poet Laureate of New Jersey.
Amiri Baraka has a unique and remarkable understanding of African American culture and history, but with his new book, Digging, he has written a book where his inability to overcome a racial bitterness, clouds his capacity to exercise his wisdom in support of the very culture he is trying to honor. What's more, race is the one issue that needs to be discussed in America but clearly people are afraid of being misunderstood, afraid of being mistaken as racist, or even accused of reverse racism. But let us first identify the definition of racism, which is; "Hatred or intolerance of another race or other races." Further more, we also need to understand that the term "reverse racism" has an inherent racist disposition. Racism has its own identity and needs no further discerning explanation.
In chapter 10 titled, "Jazz Criticism and its Effect on the Music," Baraka remarks that, "Barbra Streisand is no Aretha Franklin (no one else is either). But that it is Streisand that makes the millions." Within the chapter on Nina Simone, perhaps the foremost chapter in the book, he declares "at the same time, the Streisand's, Shores, Ronstadt's, with less talent, have reaped far more benefits. She (Nina Simone) knows, as does any person really clear about American life, that such injustice is rooted in the racism and class bias of the society's history and development." While this might have been a legitimate argument during the 20th century, I would argue that in the 21st century, color does not determine decisions made within the falling music empire. Does today's music executive care if a rapper is black, anymore than he cares if the female jazz singer is white? Does he care if the musician can play or if the vocalist can sing? Does he really care if the money is black or white? Personal cultural and race prejudices in the 21st century, whatever they might be and they do exist, do not drive a priority over the all-powerful dollar. The more fundamental question should be, why does the public make the choices that they make? What we do know is that the choices are not based upon education since public education on the history of African American culture is nearly non-existent. After all, what is the color make-up of the crowd that attends jazz venues (the few that are left) in the 21st century?
Within this same chapter, Baraka states that Hollywood has produced films on the lives of Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta but not on the man who beat them who also happens to possibly be the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson. Moreover, he goes on to mention that there have been films on Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Janis Joplin, Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Helen Morgan but where are the films on Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and John Coltrane? But the concerns related to this issue are much greater and convoluted than that. The film footage that has been published on African American musicians has routinely focused its attention on drug and alcohol addictions more so than on the creativity produced by the greatest artists in the history of our country and culture. The most recent being the film, Jazz (2001) produced by Ken Burns. Yes addictions are part of that history but do the adverse aspects have to remain the primary focus of these great African American artists?