October 2001

Amiri Baraka

Goddamn the New Jersey Nets. The struggling NBA franchise’s owners are warming up their bulldozers to clear space in downtown Newark, N.J., for a new arena the team can shoot hoops in, but one die-hard Newarkian stands in the way of slam dunks and game-winning, at-the-buzzer shots: Amiri Baraka.

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Jimmy Katz

Amiri Baraka

Newark is Baraka’s turf and he’ll be damned if any corporate entity is going to mess with his hometown. “[The Nets] are trying to take out the whole middle of town and we’re trying to protect the Lincoln Park/Coast district, the area where the first black community was” says the poet/critic/activist and champion of civil rights whose radical, black-nationalist essays like “Jazz and the White Critic” set fires and challenged standards in the 1960s jazz scene. “This area is very colorful, historically and contemporarily, because those really lovely brownstone buildings, the South Broad Presbyterian church—where Abraham Lincoln spoke— and the old mansions where the abolitionists lived are still around.” Baraka sees the Nets’ plans as a threat to the town he proudly calls home.

Rather than watch corporate America redefine his home, Baraka, still the community-minded, power-to-the-people thinker he was in the ’60s, would like to see his own plans for town development come to fruition. “We’re trying to get [the Nets] to make some accord and allow the Lincoln Park district to be developed by indigenous forces and retain its historic character.” The plans include creating a repertory theater for Newark artists, a civil-rights museum and a cultural museum designed to preserve the history of Newark’s people, right down to the nitty-gritty of who the prettiest girl on Belmont Ave. was in the 1920s. “That kind of museum would always be packed,” Baraka says.

Still a fired-up activist, separating the man from his politics would be like distilling a zebra from its stripes, but when he isn’t fighting city hall or spreading his gospels on public television, Baraka finds himself in his big, brown Newark house, choosing Monk over Mozart and Morrison over Milton. The place is full of books, records and art, a cozy place where he writes poems and essays. He recently finished writing an opera entitled Slaughter in Harlem that Max Roach will put to music for a November premiere in Boston. At 67, Baraka is still considered too radical for most mainstream publications to print. That’s not surprising when you consider that Baraka is a Marxist who reads from Lenin and Mao every day.

He also listens to Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Monk every day. His passion for jazz, especially the avant-garde, hasn’t died. For the last 15 years Baraka has invited the public into his basement for Kimako’s Blues People, a monthly concert series named after his sister who was murdered in 1984. He’s booked Roach, David Murray, John Hicks and Andy Bey, plus some local Newark acts, reggae and salsa groups. “We seat about 60 people in there; we’ve got a grand piano, a little control room, all in need of great repair and restocking,” he says. It’s hard to make renovations when the price of admission is only $7 and sometimes Baraka lets people in for “whatever they can get together.” That’s got to be one of the best entertainment bargains in Newark. You can bet Nets tickets won’t be that cheap.

The Personal Files

Sports: “I’m a Knicks fan, and a Yankees fan, unfortunately.” The Yanks are owned by George Steinbrenner, who also co-owns the Nets.

Music/Stereo: In addition to the Duke, Coltrane and Monk, Baraka has been listening to Cause and Effect (Enja) by Abraham Burton and Eric McPherson and Olu Dara’s In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic) on his vintage stereo system. “It’s a hi-fi system; we have a couple of speakers around the room, but it’s kind of elderly by this time.”

Books: Baraka likes his politics. Recent reads include Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the Soviet Union by Bahman Azad; The Collected Works of Fredrick Douglass; James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985.

Last Movie: Lumumba, Raoul Peck’s film about the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, revolutionary leader of the independent Congo. “It made me very angry.”

Beverage: “I’m a heavy beer drinker. Now, with diabetes, I’ve changed to Miller Lite!”

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