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Amiri Baraka

Poet, playwright, activist and critic

Poet, playwright, activist and critic

Born: October 7 1934; Died January 9 2014

When Amiri Baraka, who has died aged 79, came to Glasgow in 2013 to speak and perform at the Freedom Is A Constant Struggle event, organised by left-field arts promoters Arika, he brought with him a spirit of radicalism which a younger generation of artists and activists was hungry for.

Sharing a platform with fellow poets Fred Moten and Sonia Sanchez and jazz musicians Henry Grimes and Wadada Leo Smith, here was a rare opportunity to witness a living embodiment of the links between black-powered art-forms and revolutionary politics that the event explored.

Baraka had been at the frontline of this all of his life, be it as a young poet and magazine editor in Beat era Greenwich Village when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, as an acclaimed playwright whose play, Dutchman, won an Obie award in 1964, or as a figurehead of the Black Arts Movement calling for "poems that kill".

In later years, he served as Poet Laureate of New Jersey, until his poem, Somebody Blew Up America, which questioned who knew in advance about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre ten months before, caused the post to be abolished. Even that, however, wouldn't silence Baraka, and he published and spoke out unabated until the end.

He was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, where he attended Barringer High School before winning a scholarship to Rutgers University. Already feeling displaced by the dominant culture, he transferred to Howard University, but, as with the other academic institutions that followed, never graduated.

In 1954, he joined the US Air Force, but was dishonourably discharged after Soviet writings were discovered in his possession following an anonymous letter sent to his superiors that accused him of being a communist.

Jones found a more accommodating habitat in Greenwich Village, where he discovered jazz and the Beat generation, and with his first wife, Hettie Cohen, published work by the Beat greats in their literary magazine, Yugen. Jones wrote for and edited Kulchu! with poet Diane di Prima, with whom Jones co-founded the New York Poets Theatre.

His first poetry collection, Preface To A Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961. This was followed in 1962 by Blues People: Negro Music in White America, while his play, Dutchman, in which a white woman accosts a black man on the subway, appeared in 1964. It was filmed three years later.

The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 saw Jones move to Harlem and become immersed in the volatile politics of the era via the Black Arts Movement that saw poetry as a weapon against white oppression. In his poem, Black Art, Jones advocated "poems that kill. /Assassin poems, Poems that shoot /guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys /and take their weapons leaving them dead /with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland".

In 1966, he married his second wife, Sylvia Robinson, and lectured at San Francisco State University. A book of jazz criticism, Black Music, was the last published under his original name, after becoming captivated by the philosophy of Kawaida. Under its influence, Jones first became Imamu Amear Baraka, before modifying it to Amira Baraka.

Baraka later separated from the Black Arts Movement, became a Marxist and lectured extensively in between writing and supporting third-world liberation movements.

While some of his early works had left him open to accusations of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism, the 1980s saw him share a platform with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at a commemoration ceremony for James Baldwin.

Perhaps Baraka's greatest controversy came with Somebody Blew Up America, which he denied was anti-Semitic. In defiant response to the abolishment of the state poet laureate post, Baraka was appointed poet laureate of Newark Public Schools at the end of December 2002. This was one of numerous literary honours bestowed upon him.

Over the course of his life, he wrote 12 volumes of poetry, several collections of plays and 13 prose works, three fiction, ten non-fiction.

Both Baraka's writing and his ­activism were fired by a passion and an anger that grew from an early ~age and were defined by the times he lived through.

He may have tempered some of his views over the years, but he never lost sight of the power of words as weapons to change the world.

"That's the point," Baraka said in an interview with The Herald prior to his 2013 Glasgow appearance. "You have to try and make it that way.

"Poetry and music have to shape it. That's what the Black Arts Movement tried to do with it, to try and make poetry and music relevant to social struggle. That's what the bourgeoisie does with their ideas, they pump it out at people, so you have to pump it right back at them."

Baraka is survived by his wife Sylvia, who changed her name to Amina Baraka, two daughters from his first marriage and four children from his second, including Newark city council member Ras Baraka.

Baraka's daughter Shani was murdered in 2003.

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