Poet, playwright, activist, and intellectual Amiri Baraka died yesterday at 79. A renaissance man who spent over fifty years fusing art and politics, Baraka was also a brilliant critic whose Blues People: Negro Music in White America has proven an enduring study of black music and its meanings. That work was highlighted in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, where author Scott Saul recounts Baraka’s heralding of John Coltrane as “the heaviest spirit,” exemplar of a black aesthetic. Baraka wrote of Coltrane that he “showed us how to murder the popular song,” an act Baraka rendered emblematic: “New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it.” In the following excerpt from Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, Saul explores Baraka’s location of a new black consciousness in Coltrane’s music.
“Find the self, then kill it”: such was Baraka’s prescription for a more vibrant black music and a more vital black community, and he began with himself. His Blues People was an unprecedented work of cultural criticism that told the history of black America through its musical forms, but it was also a personal act of re-making—an attack on the white jazz critics who had given Baraka a platform for his own writing, and a critique of the black middle-class world that he had grown up in, as the child of a postal supervisor and a social worker and as a student at Rutgers and Howard University. The basic thrust of Blues People was to reclaim the blues as a way of looking at the world, not just a music: “each phase of the Negro’s music,” he wrote, “issued directly from the dictates of his social and psychological environment.” Baraka attacked white critics for pretending that all music was equal, that it could be evaluated in isolation from the cultural needs of the community that created it. “The catalysts and necessity of Coltrane’s music must be understood as they exist even before they are expressed as music,” he wrote. The question for the critic was less “What do I think of Coltrane’s scream?” and more “Why does this man—and so many like him—feel compelled to scream in the first place?” The goal of jazz criticism was understanding, not appreciation.
Understanding contemporary black music for Baraka meant locating it as part of a long and complicated struggle, one between the dominant forces of Western modernity and a black countertradition that had often been derided and suppressed. This struggle was grounded in separate worldviews, separate systems of ethics and aesthetics. While the “‘enlightened’ concepts of the Renaissance,” he wrote, “created a schism between what was art and what was life,” black music refused to separate art from living ritual. While American culture was geared to rationalization, compartmentalization, and “economic-mindedness,” black music filtered mystery, tragedy, and joy into a compelling form of consolation and resistance. Baraka used this overarching theoretical framework to understand the cultural work of specific musical genres, from work songs, shouts, and spirituals to the blues and jazz in all its forms. At its most incisive, Blues People told the history of jazz as the history of a hybrid music, the sound of creative social antagonism. One of Blues People’s most powerful passages, for instance, describes how early New Orleans musicians were riven by the contradictory desire both to connect with the black community and to “make it” in white and Creole society, and then links this inner conflict between “freedman” and “citizen” identities to the music’s synthesis of blues timbre and brass-band orchestration.