The whole word took notice last week when the passing of famous writer Amiri Baraka was reported. Baraka was a poet, music critic, and professor throughout his lifetime and his work was met with both praise and condemnation. Many within the African-American community respected the outspoken Baraka as one of the finest Black writers of his generation, while others labeled him as a misogynist and racist. As another author/activist of sorts, it is fitting that the New York Times brought on QuestLove of The Roots to write a tribute about the late Baraka.
Questlove examines the critical ramifications of Baraka’s work, which advocated the importance of cultural change and had a profound impact on his readers as well as society in general. The legendary DJ also detailed Baraka’s contribution to the music of The Roots, specifically the album Phrenology on the track “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”:
The Roots recorded with Mr. Baraka once. It was for our “Phrenology” album, in 2002, which was titled for the absurd, discredited science of taking a measure of a man’s character by feeling his head. The album was also about racial profiling, social Darwinism, and hip-hop itself: If you’re a hip-hop head, what can you expect from the world, and what can the world expect from you?
We were at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, and Mr. Baraka came in to add his vocals, which consisted of reading a poem he had written, “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” I listened to the track again Friday, after he died, and I hear so many things hiding in the corners of the poem and his performance of it. There are traces of early poetry mentors like Charles Olson, there’s a little William S. Burroughs, there’s a reminder of how he opened the door for poetry to speech to recording long before the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. There’s a devotion to making language mean something, even if — especially if — that something isn’t safe and preapproved.
The story gives some insight on why the collaboration between the band and Baraka made so much sense. While I am not too familiar with his writing, it is clear through the stories of his work that it was special and fearless creative minds such as Baraka are unfortunately becoming rare these days. Even if Baraka wasn’t perfect, in his passing it is important to appreciate what he offered the world as a literary activist who had a passion for music.
Click here to read the full New York Times article by Questlove and you can listen to “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)” below.