Arika 13: 20 & 21 Apr, Tramway

Review by Bram E. Gieben | 09 May 2013
  • Arika 13: Episode 4 The Experiment Pt. 1 & 2

Arika's second outing in 2013 is themed around the idea that 'freedom is a constant struggle,' examining the black radical tradition in relation to jazz, poetry and history. Fred Moten, the poet and academic with whom Arika's Barry Esson has planned this weekend of performances and discussions, lays out the framework through which we will examine the performances in complex but clear terms. He sees the imagination as a space which is already implicitly racialized, already gendered; and by necessity, policed and suppressed. The construction of black identity is therefore a process of constant creation and improvisation, an attempt to get out from under preconceptions and pre-assigned societal roles.

His argument gives weight and context to the performances that will follow, allowing us to understand some of the radical socialist, anarchist and feminist theory which underpins his reading of poets like Philip, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, who assist him in Saturday's debate. Tellingly, although these 'isms' are examined, discussed and pulled apart, they are rarely mentioned by name. Moten's approach is not to name and categorize, but to explore.

Moten's solo talk, in coversation with Esson, defines what he calls the 'fugitive spaces' in which black identity is constructed. Like Hakim Bey's concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, these spaces subvert and oppose the narrow boundaries of identity, necessarily racialised and gendered, of the societies in which they exist. They are fleeting, improvised – but they recur, flowering in plain sight but remaining hidden. They retain a rigorous set of rules and deeply-held significance for those who inhabit them. 'Blackness' becomes a performance, a putting on of masks.

As Moten sees it, human experience cannot be reduced to mere phenomenology or strict teleology. These fugitive spaces are created in factories, in salons, in jazz clubs, in the secret meeting-spaces of revolutionary organisations; they serve to liberate the black experience from the narrow, exclusive spaces of white history and empire.

These complex notions of identity are at play in the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, whose unique and powerful voice has been much imitated in the performance poetry tradition which has arisen since she started reading her work in public in the 1960s. She draws on several other poetic traditions, too – sound poetry techniques are used in a powerful, repetitious poem about the drive to create peace; while the haiku form is reconfigured as a 'haku' and serves as a structure for a series of elegies and remembrances for the likes of singer Odetta, and jazz legend Max Roach.

Particularly powerful are her poems about direct, lived experience – both a long-form poem reflecting on the nature of age, and a heartfelt ballad for a suicidal student are emotionally devastating, moving both Sanchez and her audience to tears. Her final poem is a punch in the guts, describing a seven-year-old child left at a crack spot to be abused and pimped out. She never flinches, her wisdom and compassion tempered by a righteous fury at the injustices of the world, and the violence and hurt inflicted on her ancestors and contemporaries.

When Amiri Baraka takes to the stage for the culminative reading of the weekend, it is with something approaching relief that we experience his rapier-sharp, sardonic wit (“Rich people eat more than us. Fair to assume they're full of shit,” he reads, a malicious gleam in his eye). Demolishing notions of fariness, equality and justice with a flick of his pen, he takes on the big topics – 9-11 is analysed, chewed over and spat out, and Obama dismissed as a cipher, a distraction meant to “cool out” the black radical movement. Now approaching 80, his wit, intelligence and radicalism are undimmed, his voice and rhythm matched perfectly with the clashing, angular double bass and violin of Henry Grimes. He may seem frail, but this is a man who has never been afraid of mixing it up, whether with words, fists or bricks. Unlike Sanchez, he is not moved to tears, but rather to a studied, poised, 'cool' anger, expressed as humour in devastatingly witty punchlines and stanzas. From his art, the entire recipe for radical, politicised spoken word can be gleaned.

As a whole, the weekend gives us a valuable insight into the experience of life and thought within the black radical tradition. Wadada Leo Smith, legendary jazz player, says: “When I play, I feel like I am surrounded and enveloped by darkness.” His art is difficult to make; each time he plays, he experiences a sliver of the pain his ancestors felt in the belly of slave ships. It's not catharsis, nor is it remembrance, although each play a part – it is a willing submission to the shared pain of history, a re-experiencing of that pain, lest we, the audience, forget.

The lasting impression of the musicians and poets who share their experiences with us this weekend is of their immense bravery in the face of pain; their willingness to stare down history and challenge any attempt to reduce it from raw suffering into a simple, exonerating narrative. Sanchez speaks of herself as “a woman with razorblades between her teeth,” all sharp angles and barbed words, but that anger is borne of compassion. Her self-appointed task is to record it all honestly, engage with it, and “write until the last breath.”

As Moten speaks of the myriad failures of the US education system, sidelining and bowdlerising black history, it is clear that the true representation of the black radical movement is the work of poets and musicians like these, passionately opposed to any idea of normalcy, conformity or prejudice. Their art is their 'fugitive space,' and as Sanchez comments: “This conversation with ourselves is the only home we, as artists, have.” It was both a pleasure and a privilege to share that home, if only for a weekend.  

We also reviewed Arika 13: Episode 4 - 18 and 19th April.
Preview: Arika 13  Episode 5:Hidden in Plain Sight.