The University of Wisconsin regularly plays host to numerous distinguished speakers, writers and performers. For a city so historically associated with activism and progressive politics, few are as good a fit as the Amiri Baraka, who spoke on Monday at the Wisconsin Union Theatre. His talk kicked off the Third Annual Spoken Word & Hip Hop Educator's Institute at the university organized by the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI) and Youth Speaks Wisconsin in association with Urban Word NYC.
Running from July 7-11, the institute brings together educators from around the country to collaborate on ways to effectively integrate spoken word and hip hop issues into their curriculums. "We have nearly 40 participants from all over the nation representing the education system from a high school student to professors at the college level," said Katrina Flores, a student in the First Wave Spoken Word and Urban Arts Learning Academy administered by OMAI. "We have participants who teach wealthy neighborhoods, to after school programs to juvenile justice systems."
Institute participants along with hundreds of others gathered at the Union Theatre to listen to Baraka. After brief comments from OMAI executive director Willie Keys, the audience enthusiastically received spoken word performances by First Wave student Cydney Edwards and Madison Poet Laureate Fabu before WORT host Stan Woodward introduced the star of the evening.
Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, is a world renowned speaker, writer, poet, playwright and activist, and is considered the founding father of the Black Arts movement. He addressed the audience on Monday with a brief lecture, along with a reading of several poems and a closing question-and-answer session. Throughout the event, thunderclaps from the storm brewing outside the hall punctuated his strong words.
Early in his talk, Baraka addressed one of the most controversial points of his career. While Poet Laureate of New Jersey, he wrote and publicly recited a poem titled "Somebody Blew up America" that he had written about the 9/11 attacks. It swiftly stirred controversy that led then-governor James McGreevey to ask the poet to offer a public apology and to resign as poet laureate. Baraka did neither, but the position was officially eliminated by the state in 2003, and he noted in his speech that the incident was ironic considering the governors own resignation amidst multiple scandals the following year. The poet subsequently performed the piece to cheers, applause and finger snaps.
Baraka spoke on the origins of rap and hip hop movements as a vehicle for communication, and addressed the ways in which he believes those messages have been compromised by money and corporate ownership. "Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, early Public Enemy," he began, "but was interesting about those people to me is that was before the corporations came in and co-opted everybody and start paying the people to say dumb stuff and obscuring the people that are saying the most progressive stuff."
Knowning one's roots and honoring them are crucial to social and political progress, Baraka explained. Without the perspective of knowing where we come from, he argued, we will never understand how we got here, where we are going, or how to get there. Music and its changing formats, he continued, is one way to gauge changes in people and in history. "African American culture is strong because we have had to be strong to survive," said Baraka, encouraging young people in the audience to read history and listen to music that has evolved around black culture.
"What we need from you artists is a new culture revolution," Baraka said. "We need to capture the minds of our people who have been hostage to filthy lyrics, backward movies, stupid talk shows." He called on a new generation of activists on college campuses to build movements through unity and organizing, though he warned that it has not and will not ever be easy. "We have got to make demands," he declared.
This was one of three Institute events this week that are free and open to the public. Up next is the Rhymes & Reason Summer Jam, at which the NYC-based artists Queen GodIs and MC Kazi of the Hip Hop Project will perform along with Madison's own dumate at the Memorial Union Terrace on Thursday, July 10. The institute closes on Friday at the adjacent Red Gym with the Spit That! Open Mic at the Red featuring artists from the First Wave Program at UW-Madison.