Poet and author Amiri Baraka just before he spoke to a captive crowd at Frank Talk. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
He slipped slowly out of the back seat of a shiny black Mercedes-Benz with a slight hunch, shuffled into the storefront at 163 Shrewsbury Avenue, immediately took a seat and started thumbing through a book. It was not the entrance one might expect from a man who’s made his life creating, capturing and transferring an often radical and controversial energy.
But it only took a couple minutes and the reading of a poem on the death of Miles Davis from his book, Digging: The Afro American Soul of American Classical Music, for the Amiri Baraka that the crowd knew to break out of that fragile-looking shell and deliver. By the intense looks on the faces of the two dozen or so who waited the 90 minutes for him to arrive at Frank Talk to speak on Sunday, in celebration of the second day of Kwanzaa, the 75-year-old author, activist and former poet laureate of New Jersey could do nothing less even if he tried.
The crowd hung on his words as he reminisced about his halcyon days spent with jazz legends like Thelonius Monk and Nina Simone, or when he offered critical political analysis, some of it lighthearted.
“Somebody told me that the only reason Obama won is because his mother’s white,” Baraka said. “And I said, ‘All the presidents’ mother’s were white.”
Amiri Baraka served up candid thoughts and fond memories during his Kwanzaa celebration appearance at Frank Talk Sunday. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)
Although his political views pulled him off course for a bit, Baraka mainly stayed on the topic of his book, which is a collection of essays on the African American culture’s impact on music. Baraka spoke heavily about jazz.
“This book is sort of compiling my digging in the last 20 years,” he said. And when he recalled growing up in Newark and catching shows from John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Susan Vaughan, you could see his eyes grow wider in reverie. “You could see the greatest figures in the world in one evening, and that has spoiled me in a way.”
But, as one audience member asked, isn’t jazz quite dead?
“I say, ‘Again?’ You mean it’s dead again?” he said. “That’s a commercial statement. That’s someone who wants you to listen to something like Kenny G. That’s just ignorance.”
That’s typical Baraka, shooting from the hip with no fear of consequence. He’s a man who was kicked out of Howard University, the Air Force and, as he said, took “many little vacations to jail.” His long, storied and award-winning career lived for the sake of art, creativity and elevated thought is exactly why Frank Talk owner Gilda Rogers wanted him in her store speaking on the second day of Kwanzaa, the day that recognizes the principle of self determination. That, and the fact that it was Baraka who chiefly inspired her to open up the art bistro and book store more than a year ago.
“Every time I’m in the midst of his words, I’m inspired,” Rogers said. “He’s one of the most authentic people I know. And authenticity cannot be replaced.”