I first encountered Amiri Baraka in Fred Moten’s In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. I know this is late in life to learn about such a remarkable figure, but my education up until then was not always broad, and my engagement with American poets up to that point was limited to poets mostly from the Harlem Renaissance. So, to have encountered Baraka then was revelatory for me. And now, we are gifted with this book by James Smethurst: Brick City Vanguard: Amiri Baraka, Black Music, Black Modernity. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that this book is solely about the life of Baraka, rather, this book is also a biography of a place: Brick City. As an aside, I first heard about Brick City through the legendary Redman, so it is safe to say that my initial introductions to the place and the person were through musical referents. It is apt then, that I return to him through Smethurst in this musical way.
Amiri Baraka is undoubtedly one of the most central figures of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S as well as a key literary and cultural figure post World War II. Baraka’s politics and aesthetics, though ever evolving over his career, have solid consistencies throughout. These come in the form of his deep engagement with Black musical practices and formations. This is where James Smethurst’s Brick City Vanguard begins. “The first thing to say is that Amiri Baraka loved “the music”, which was jazz in the first place but also almost all forms of [B]lack music.” What this text asks us to consider is Baraka’s music writing, including writing on liner notes and a serious consideration of the popular Black musical form. To this end, I would situate this text as something that speaks to and against a tradition of anti-popular music writing, though I would argue anti-Black-popular music writing, fronted by the likes of Theodor Adorno who disparaged the work of jazz. Smethurst positions Baraka early on in relation to other thinkers as well, noting, “Unlike Stuart Hall, who famously claimed that he “doesn’t give a damn” about popular music except as a site or arena for political contestation, a place “where socialism might be constituted (a claim that I do not really believe, given Hall’s early fondness for jazz, especially the work of Miles Davis), Baraka would not have advanced such an argument.”
James Smethurst’s Brick City Vanguard is essential reading for anyone engaged in the life of Amiri Baraka or the Black Arts Movement. Further, anyone interested in the various ways in which music is thought and written about would find this text a most useful resource. This text is an attempt to open up, or at the very least, expound on a conversation about the ways in which we read Baraka’s work on art and music (influenced by Amina Baraka), and the changes over his career of his performance and literary writing. Smethurst also wants us to think about what music is, what music does, and how music does it, through Baraka’s writing. I think what is interesting is the site of the funeral as a place to bear witness to the reach and scope of the work Baraka made over his lifetime. It is here where we see the extent of his politics – union members, teachers, socialists, communists, musicians, poets, and artists. This is a testament to what constitutes the range of work Baraka influenced, but more importantly, this speaks to Baraka’s impossibly profound legacy. In the closing stanzas Smethurst notes
Looping back to Symphony Hall and what Amiri Baraka’s funeral might indicate about how to assess that career and contributions, one might recall again Baraka’s declaration that Newark embodied for him “a measure, a set of standards and life influencing principles.” Given his ability to sometimes talk about himself and his past as if he he were standing outside himself, passing judgement on his successes and failures, one could easily imagine him sitting in the audience of his own funeral, joking with the people onstage, looking around at the composition of the crowd, and concluding that his work had connected with the blues people of Newark and helped them survive and potentially even more forward.
This section exemplifies much of what Smethurst attempts to work through here. He explores the range of influences on Amiri Baraka and the absolute mass of people who he influenced as well. This book is as much about the man Amiri Baraka as it is about the place Brick City. It is an astute assessment of the importance of the relationship between Baraka and Newark, showing how and why this place held such a deep significance for Amiri and Amina Baraka. It is an attempt at showing exactly the kind of vitally important work that happens outside of the central art metropoles like Harlem.