NEWARK, N.J. — A cacophony of bagpipes, African drums and jazz riffs creatively blended— much like the elements of an Amiri Baraka poem — at the Saturday funeral for the activist-writer and a founder of the Black Arts Movement, who died earlier this month.
The service, held at Newark Symphony Hall, featured poetry, music and tributes to a man several speakers hailed as a creative and committed revolutionary who had a profound influence both on American culture and on a generation of artists and activists.
The 79-year-old author died Jan. 9 in his native Newark of an undisclosed illness. Baraka wrote blues-based poetry, essays, plays, and books and operas — or “boperas” as he called them — mixing music, spoken word and rhythm in a signature style that many credit as an important precursor to hip-hop, rap and slam poetry. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995.
Several of the speakers at Saturday’s service read Baraka-style fist-shaking tone poems in tribute to a man, as poet Tony Medina described, who had “rolled a boulder uphill.”
“Great spirits do not die, they are energy … agitating our bones to move,” Medina said, reading a poem he had written in tribute.
Actor Danny Glover, who officiated at the service with producer-director Woodie King, recalled Baraka’s 1967 visit to San Francisco State University when Glover was a student. He said Baraka pushed him into acting, urging him to perform in a school production. He spoke of the profound influence Baraka had on the school founding the first Black Studies program in American higher education.
Baraka also helped found the Black Arts Movement in 1965 and left a legacy of community activism in Newark and elsewhere.
Several community activists spoke at the service, recounting how Baraka had urged them to work for change in their communities — especially in his beloved Newark — and to engage in social activism through art.
Musicians played jazz standards and original pieces written for the service. Tap dancer Savion Glover performed as poet Sonia Sanchez read a poem written by Maya Angelou as a tribute to Baraka.
Amiri Baraka was named New Jersey’s poet laureate in 2002, but the position was eliminated following controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew up America.” The poem, alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, led to widespread outrage and added fuel to critics who had long denounced Baraka as homophobic and anti-Semitic.
Several of the speakers at his service alluded to Baraka’s fiery, controversial public image, while hailing him as a man who had contributed greatly to the civil rights struggle.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke at a wake for Baraka on Friday night in Newark, called Baraka “a curious, creative activist and change agent who never stopped fighting or working for the formula to create social justice.”
Baraka is survived by his wife of 47 years, Amina Baraka, and nine children. One of his sons, Ras Baraka, who is running for mayor of Newark, was to give the eulogy at Saturday’s service.