The Black Arts Movement brought the advent of a new aesthetics that would forever change the social landscape for Black artists once excluded from the conventional art world. This time period, which spanned close to a decade, between 1965-1975, was when an influx of new ideas led to new cultural norms nationwide and also marked the induction of the early hip-hop expressions that have become common practice in terms of style, vernacular, and music.
There are three frequently referenced architects of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, particularly regarding the creation of rap, and they are Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, and Gil Scott-Heron. Though there were many others, including individuals of other ethnic/cultural/genders who melded the cultural idioms together that would become hip-hop, but the ingredients contributed by these three were some of the most potent and longstanding.
One of the most prolific advocates of the Black Arts Movement (and often credited as its founder), a politically fueled literary force in history that espoused the fervor of Black Power, was Amiri Baraka, who’s infamous poem “Black Art” cemented the term for over a decade long movement under it’s guise. It was Baraka (at that time Leroi Jones) amongst a full community of movers and shakers who identified as artists, storytellers, and revolutionaries that changed the standard for artistic expression nationwide by celebrating Afrocentricity, bringing the voice of the African Diaspora into common practice within the arts.
Baraka’s audacious commentary, artistic contributions, and resounding presence always served as a reminder for the functionality of art in the greater context of society. His most referenced contribution to Black arts, and really to all arts, was his work as a poet. Baraka’s wordplay, the inherent rhythm of his sentence structures, and the play on words and double-entendres, really paved the road for later poets to have a different type of relationship with words—one that exhibited words in a public domain, and intertwined it with movement and rhythm, instead of isolating it on a page in the private realm.
Leading up to the age of hip-hop, especially of what we now reference as “the golden era.” Baraka, along with other literary giants in the Black Arts Movement not only set a precedent in terms of the structure and musicality of spoken word and rap, but also further normalized (to a degree) the use of Black English in the literary world. From Nikki Giovanni to Sonia Sanchez, the usage of certain phrasing and grammatical structures, and the use of everyday language (especially relatable to Black youth) really came to life during this period, but can further be traced all the way back to the popularization of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937.
Perhaps one of his most provocative collection of writings outside of poetry was “Black Music,” a collection of essays published in 1968 about his observations on the evolution of jazz music, viscerally written and a huge departure from most music journalism then and now. His commentary on the musicians of that time focused on magnifying the subtleties of newly conceived expressions, whether from John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, or Sonny Rollins. Not only did Baraka’s unique approach to journalism lean more heavily towards cultural criticism and social theory, but he also studied the musical contributions from these artists based on a spirit merit, and not solely on musical ability. Baraka argued that jazz has a divine and otherworldly purpose, but translates into the human experience as being inherently political. The same could be said later about certain factions of hip-hop, like Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides and Dead Prez’ Let’s Get Free, who’s music had an ethereal and social purpose.
Baraka’s Obie Award winning and highly controversial play, Dutchman, also brought a new dynamic to theater, blurring the lines between the spectator and spectacle, which was similar to how he approached poetry. This would influence generations of performance poets like the Last Poets all the way through to cats in the early 2000s on Def Poetry Jam, and the longstanding slam nights at the Nuyorican, as well as today’s hip-hop theater aesthetic as is present in the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York or the NYC branch of Playback Theater. Not only was Baraka’s writing visceral and evoking of spirit, but as an orator or performer, his tactic of inviting or even demanding that the audience become part of the performance, are all techniques that Baraka helped popularize, and are now deeply entrenched in hip-hop culture.
Baraka’s continuous engagement in the movements of Black music, past and present, is possibly due to his analysis of art being intrinsically tied to the social circumstances of people traced back to Africa. Of course his petri dish of study always stemmed back to his own—the Black community, but always reached to the depths of the general American psyche, which he saw as a law of cause and effect through history that manifests in the music of our society.
Baraka explains how this plays into our relationship to the music(s) of our culture, “…When we say blue now, we think of sadness in history, but also there’s a touch of beauty in that…So that kind of dialectical combination of the blues as beauty and the blues as loss is tied to how ancient as Equiano says “blue is our favorite color.” For somebody to say that as ancient Africans, and have their music called the blues. It’s important. So the Blues is our national consciousness, no matter what kind of music we play. If it’s got any substance to it, the Blues is in it somewhere. Whether its rap, or Duke Ellington or john Coltrane, or Reggae…that strain is in it, that pentatonic scale from Africa is in it…”
The Last Poets:
During this exciting epoch, where artists openly borrowed and sampled works from each other, sharing methods, techniques, styles, and flipping them into their own works, Baraka and the Black Arts Movement’s work was an inspiration for a group of young cats, who called themselves the Last Poets, who celebrated the anniversary of Malcolm’s birth on May 19th 1965 and debuted their new hybrid of Afro-jazz inspired rhythms and performance poetry. David Nelson, Felipe Luciano and Gylan Kain held their first public performance at what is now known as Marcus Garvey Park. Soon after, Umar (Omar Ben) Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole, Jala Mansur Nuriddin, and percussionist Nilaja Obabi joined, and together recorded the self-titled album The Last Poets, as well as other recordings that have now set as the blueprint to modern day rap. The original 3 set off to continue on as The Original Last Poets.
From a musical and rhythm standpoint, the Last Poets were heavily influenced by jazz. Typically using drums, hand percussions, and vocal techniques emulating the effects of additional percussions, playing back and forth polyrhythmically, their use of rhyme was strategic but effortless. The clever use of repetition, literary devices, and tone manipulation are obvious precursors to early day hip-hop. Another important element was that of improvisation. The volleying of sounds, syllables, themes; the layering of choral voices, changes in octave and intonation, were done on the spot and became an important component of this new family of performance art.
Today, The Last Poets have been recognized widely for the contributions that they made as the godfathers’ of rap, though the musical components have been less easy to capture in terms of the complicated rhythms that they ‘rapped’ over. The Last Poets pushed a political narrative bigger than them, and was able to capture the masses because of the relatability of their messages from 125th Street to the academic elite, and asserted themselves the urban street griots, talking politics in public spaces. The storytelling component to their songs touched upon a collective consciousness that is still very much relevant in hip-hop today. Throughout the years, the Last Poets have been sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, Abiodun Oyewole was featured on Common’s 2005 album Be with Kanye West on the track “The Corner”; they were featured in “Freestyle The Art of Rhyme” documentary, and also guested on Nas’ most recent untitled album.
Gil Scott-Heron was another dynamic and commanding orator who utilized the platform of the stage, the aural landscape provided by the live band, and his deep resonating voice to create anecdotes and parables into performance, and consequently became one of the most endearing poets to also set the stage for modern day rappers. His adlibbing, use of interaction with the audience, and vocal delivery, stretching out and giving particular emphasis to certain syllables, became the standard for early rap, and is to this day the standard (and now sometimes sadly clichéd) style for spoken word artists and slam poets.
Gil Scott-Heron released Winter in America in 1974. The famous collaboration with Brian Jackson is still one of the greatest jazz poetry albums of all time. In “H20Gate Blues”, which is one of the first examples that a spoken word poet/rapper utilized a live jazz band, Scott-Heron raps “There are six cardinal colors, and colors have always come to signify more than simply that particular shade…there are 3000 shades, and if you take these 3000 shades, and divide them by 6, you’ll come up with 500, meaning that there are at least 500 shades of the blues…” Again, the concept that the Blues is the collective consciousness—the spirit—and the undercurrent of Black music.
Fast forward to 2010, and the release of Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” features the Gil Scott Heron’s “Comment #1” re-titled “Who Will Survive in America,” which interestingly is the title of a poem by Amiri Baraka. There is no question that there is more than a musical connectedness between the two genres, but one of experience and soul, and what all of these artists have articulated as the Blues.
Gil Scott-Heron, like Baraka and the Last Poets also had this similar relationship to the Blues, as a cultural skeleton informing African diasporic arts, music and life as one in the same. Even in just the case of music, it is an all-encompassing spirit-based signifier that emotively conveys an individual’s story that also speaks to the collective experience of a people. With that said, this generational thread connecting jazz and hip-hop then becomes the basis and reason of the musical likeness.
Like Scott-Heron and Baraka, the Last Poets said this of the blues in their piece entitled “True Blues”:
“True blues aint no news, about who’s being abused/for the blues is as old as my stolen soul/I sang the blues when the missionaries came/passing out bibles in Jesus’ name…I sang the backwater blues, the rhythm and blues, gospel blues, saint louis blues, crosstown blues, Chicago blues, Mississippi goddamn blues, the watts blues, the harlem blues…” Here ‘the Blues’ is used similarly to how our generation has made use of Soul music, as an overarching measure of authenticity.
These trailblazers left a statement of cultural validation that helped breed hip-hop and allow it to thrive. Though the context has changed, consequently changing the popular form (as it does every few decades), the legacy of the Black Arts Movement is in the DNA of hip-hop as an arts culture, and rap as a medium. The ethereal quality and essence of Black music will continue to live on so long as there is music in our country no matter in what form.
Words by Boyuan Gao