Photo Credit: “Several Heroes,” by Thomas Sayers Ellis, 2014

The passing of Imamu Amiri Baraka left a gaping void in the American literary community. In the post-integration age, many prominent ethnic minority writers have learned to avoid confrontation in the hope of achieving broad appeal and readership. As a writer (writing being only one aspect of his influential presence on earth), Baraka proved that one does not silence himself or herself to be loved but, rather, is loved because of the silences one shatters.

With love, a group of writers and musicians, lead by Thomas Sayers Ellis and James Brandon Lewis, have come together as “Heroes Are Gang Leaders.” With a name lifted from one of Amiri Baraka’s stories, the group embarked on a recording session that blended poetry and music to “outishly” echoe and honor his legacy. Below, in a choral interview, some members of the group discuss the project and its significance. Interspersed are three samplings from their future release.
[Read Interview as PDF]

Following Amiri Baraka’s passing in January 2014, at what point did the necessity of this project become clear in your minds and how did you all find each other?

THOMAS SAYERS ELLIS: Immediately. In fact I think that I was carrying this project around inside of me for years. I think of this project or, I should say, of Amiri Baraka’s work as The Good Church You Can’t Keep Down. In the same way that the Dark Room Collective was born out of a trip to James Baldwin’s funeral (and remember we were invited to that funeral by Amiri Baraka), “Heroes Are Gang Leaders” was born, in my mind and body, while sitting in Newark, New Jersey at Amiri’s funeral listening to all of the music and poetry and testimony. Finding each other falls in place when you just let community and tradition, the Tradition guide you. I was already in for the long haul, working with James Brandon Lewis. He and I opened for Amiri at the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church a few years ago. We made that night an homage by beginning our set with a collaboration of Amiri’s poem “Valery as Dictator” from The Dead Lecturer. Imagine that. Amiri sat in the front row and gave us a thumbs up. Something exciting and pre funeral was born that night too.

JAMES BRANDON LEWIS: That was an amazing and nerve wrecking experience because of the vast amount of music Mr. Baraka heard through the years—such as John Coltrane who is a huge influence in my own playing. The necessity of the project was not only to pay tribute to Mr. Baraka and his work but also a responsibility as artists to create work as Mr. Baraka did that challenges and inspires.

LUKE STEWART: Amiri Baraka has been one of the most important and influential figures to me, even as a musician. His example as a community organizer for social/cultural/political justice has inspired me to do what I do in music. Unfortunately, too many creative people throughout the world have never even heard of Amiri Baraka. Still, too many who have heard of him misunderstand and/or misconstrue who he is. I attended Baraka’s funeral last year, and it was there where I was able to sense the oncoming co-opting of his name and legacy. It is important for this group of people, with varying degrees of interaction with Baraka, to have come together. Thomas specifically is one of the most genuine artists I’ve come to know, who indeed spent some formative time with Baraka. This is less important though in this project because from my point of view, we are not attempting to eulogize Baraka or to necessarily “pay tribute” to him. I think of this collective’s relation to Baraka in a similar fashion as the Black Panther Party’s relation to Malcolm X—both groups being highly influenced by, but not a direct outgrowth of, the icons.

Listening to some of the outtakes reaffirmed one of my initial beliefs about the project: that is would have been difficult initially to find “space” for all the voices—verbal, instrumental and otherwise. What was that negotiation like and when or how did it begin to gel?

JAMES BRANDON LEWIS: Creation with a whole sound rather than separate voices, and instruments etc. That was my approach, as well as taking the “I” out of this and thinking about honoring a person who carved paths and opened doors that we have an opportunity to travel on.

AILISH HOPPER: Working with the musicians, it’s not just about joining tempo, meter—like furniture. The instruments, especially working with James and Luke, have their own voices, and that has different voices emerge in the poem. Music is never “background,” whatever that means. My physical body and my lyrical body are moving with and to what they’re doing—and they’re moving with mine. We are alive, in a poem, in our bodies, poem-ing. Together. That happens without instruments too, of course. We call that other kind of co-musician “audience.” But, depending on the setting—and race-class-training—they may have never got past the solfège stage of partici-co-Lab-oration. So, “academic” poetry settings have that autopsy feeling—meaning, the poet is alive, hopefully, but the rest of the room acts like a slab.

The dominant style of publicly reading poetry today—slam, especially as accompanied by music—was greatly influenced, if not originated, by Amiri Baraka and other Black Arts Movement [BAM] generation writers. Do any of you see this project as a means of reestablishing or highlighting the connection to that tradition?

THOMAS SAYERS ELLIS: Certainly, hell yeah! I tried to choose voices (for the project) that resonate from different moments of Afro Black American Literary Art. For instance: I wanted to make a CD that the elders could hear in their style, life, breathing, as well as one that younger writers, the ones just coming of first-book-age might also connect to. I had to consider what the poetic line was capable of when it was surrounded by varying aesthetic sounds. Ekere’s tongue in a poem does not locate the same historical, page behavior as mine does; and Randall’s moment predates both of ours with its hardboiled Noir-ish old old old school cool. Ailish, Lord, Ailish! I bet you never heard a White woman turn a line like a plucked string of signifying insight the way she does. Who wear the mask, Lula or Clay? Who Who Who? This range is meant to reach for a simultaneous choir of-us not so much a spelled out connection. Truthfully I didn’t want to spend any time teaching the listener or explaining the hyphen.

RANDALL HORTON: While the main premise of this project is the celebration of Amiri Baraka, and the “tradition” in its totality, we are definitely trying show generational connections through music and language that doesn’t shy away from demanding social change. Too many young artists stand on the shoulders of BAM, and yet they would die if anyone associated them with the Black Arts Movement for fear of being “too black.”

EKERE TALLIE: Part of the beauty of BAM is that its emphasis was on taking art to the people and making sure the art was useful, medicinal, a battle cry, a dirge, a celebration or all of that–whatever was necessary for the time. Poetry accompanied by music or delivered in a way that is musical invites folks in–opens the door to a dialogue. And music is a powerful conversation in and of itself. Combining music and poetry is ancient so yeah this project highlights that tradition. That tradition Amiri Baraka and BAM poets connected with that started long before we were dragged here (and there). I think it pays homage to some of the ways we have survived.

JANICE LOWE: I love the Baraka quote, “Poetry is music, and nothing but music. Words with musical emphasis.” As writer and vocal performer, Amiri Baraka swims in and through poet/musician categories by embodying the art of both. His body of text as well as his physical body- limbs and voice move and “sound” as he speaks, scat sings, listens, ad libs,  accents and uses dynamics in his work with musicians. Baraka’s musical collaborations are journeys of abstract and concrete storytelling, of exploration and landing.  From The Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes) to Beats and Post-Beats (Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans) to the Black Arts Movement (Jayne Cortez among many) poets have championed and performed with African American music. Yes, this project swims in that pool of defying the “boxing in” of one’s expression.

You can make the argument that there were many waiting for (and possibly pleased) to have Baraka disappear as a living presence in the literary and political realms. Considering this project, why is it particularly important to keep his influence alive in this way right now?

EKERE TALLIE: My goodness, yes. There were folks who seemed mighty pleased to have Baraka disappear. My guess is that they thought they could walk around and not be challenged about the insanity they perpetuate whether that be in poetry, politics, or publishing. Clearly they underestimated his influence. His depth and his reach. They had no clue how many people he and Mrs. Baraka set fire to. The Barakas showed us concrete ways to challenge and change the system. In fact, they keep showing us how to do those things. With our children being murdered and left in the street like rubbish and no one being held accountable, we know this is the time to embody the lessons the Barakas taught us.

JAMES BRANDON LEWIS: I was introduced to Baraka’s work while an undergraduate student at Howard University where his book Blues People was required reading for jazz history class. It’s important to keep his legacy and others’ alive because of the attempts to erase the history and legacy of those who not only created great work but work that asked the tough questions of humanity, work that asked humanity to face its beauty as well as its ugly nature.

LUKE STEWART: Baraka had a powerful message. More dangerously to the establishment, however, he was able to deliver that message in a compelling way to average people. This is how he was able to always have the support of the community. This is how he was able to be propelled by the community into the various high-profile positions he held. The community trusts him. As I mentioned previously, however, too many people are unaware or misinformed about who Baraka is. In this way, we find ourselves being in the position of evangelizing for the spirit of Baraka, though, from my view, that is not our goal or purpose. For me, we have something to present that we feel is important. All we can do is put it out there. A group with this sort of proclivity is highly important in contemporary times where people don’t even know Baraka, where perspectives like his are rapidly being destroyed. This project, for me, is to showcase that this perspective and these feelings are alive and well, and are essential to the evolution of society, specifically the Black diaspora.

JANICE LOWE: Baraka’s multi-genre oeuvre is much too vast, varied groundbreaking and influential to disappear. From his essay “Expressive Language” to the novel The System of Dante’s Hell to his play Dutchman and far beyond, his work is the embodiment of a personal artistic exploration and art as a means to political consciousness raising and liberation. His work is simultaneously timely and timeless. The “Heroes” project is one of many that will highlight and celebrate Baraka.

RANDALL HORTON: With this project, we are saying that Baraka was/is our hero. In this era of post haste to post-racial and the erasure of cultural significance in art, we want to remind artists that you don’t have to sell your political soul for personal gain.

AILISH HOPPER: There is a kind of piety to the American poetry scene, particularly in the publishing and teaching scene—even about “revolution,” even about Amiri Baraka—but it’s fake if it demands disarmament from a poem before it will listen or talk. The kind of vision, and irritation, that Amiri Baraka provided—a productive irritation—still gets batted away, in code, of course; a poem gets called “political,” or “angry,” which is code for “uncrafted.” So the genius and love and fire of an Amiri Baraka can’t even be seen—just his weapons. Hopefully these sessions embody what the Disarmers can’t see—and what we all need, really. A living poetry, that’s willing to be a problem, a loving problem for slabs and categories.

THOMAS SAYERS ELLIS: Some of the books that are being celebrated today for being Race Mouths are also being used to continue the funeral of all Black Arts. This project is, in Gang-Related audio form, a burning of the books that contain no Black Aesthetic practice and no Race Fearlessness. These Gang Leaders don’t fear Race as Racism and can tell the difference between empty Right Ons and Cultural Risk.

What can people anticipate from Heroes Are Gang Leaders in 2015, or what would you like to see happen? How will the complete session be available to the public and will the group be travelling?

LUKE STEWART: We have a gig at the University of Montana at a poetry conference. We will also be performing at MLK Library in D.C. during April.  We’ll be doing many more performances this year, I’m sure. This group is too much fun.

THOMAS SAYERS ELLIS: We are shooting for the Tradition CD presentation with some internet presence. We want Razor Peeps, da folk, to hear how much of Amiri Baraka’s work is always real-a-vent to their minds and to their bodies, to the One of them. He loved to dance and, it is clear, that his listening was also a form of dancing. You will dance to this CD, maybe cry too!  We will tour, literary venues as well as music venues. We finished the project a few weeks before the one-year anniversary of Amiri’s transition. I am proud of that, and I am in love with what we accomplished––the passion and the patience and the Amirika-ness of the effort!