The collective improvisations of black America – and their profound impact on poetry and sound – are near impossible to find in the annals of US academe. In fact, their absence is as stark as the control of archiving is white, writes Harmony Holiday.
Since the 1950s, jazz music and the literary imagination have been inextricably linked, producing transcendent recordings and written work and many hybrids of the two – a new sonics, an AntiqueFuturism – From Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth and Duke Ellington to Joseph Jarman to Michael Harper to Mos Def. Yet who takes the time to understand and trace this form? Has there been any attempt to do so cohesively – any attempt that has not been reductive or condescending? The bulk of the work in this idiom is composed by and distributed among black poets and musicians. White academic institutions – those spaces and places that create the archives and anthologies, that dictate which legacies and traditions are acknowledged and which are dismissed, treated as flimsy or as kitsch – have not accounted for this work in any real way. Nor have their students been encouraged to gravitate toward it in their research and writing. Even forums devoted to avant gardes paradoxically nullify work that is not inveterate, published in the traditional formats, or theorised, as such.
To access recordings and writing that unite the philosophy of collective improvisation that galvanizes black music, with the literary tradition – and creates new motifs within both disciplines – one has to practically be a savant, a collector of rare out-of-print records and books, or an archivist in one’s own right. This is evidenced through the annotated list of key recordings in this tradition that follows: Kenneth Rexroth’s famous 1959 recording, Jazz and Poetry Live at the Blackhawk; obscure recordings made in dingy basements by highly respected jazz musicians and poets, whose voices are muted by the literary cannon perhaps because of their very commitment to their craft over the business of their craft; recordings by renowned, iconic artists such as Langston Hughes, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis, Amiri Baraka, David Henderson, and so many others, and others of others. This body of work alerts us to the fact that no major academic institution in the United States has built an archive of this material, or devoted space in its press for its publication and solicitation. It calls into question why no institute has given it attention in a curriculum; why no one has rendered it accessible for new theorising that would generate more access and build momentum toward a legitimate archive and pedagogy of Afrosonics.
At the epicenter of this silent treatment there is a full grown, still growing trend that places some of our most talented musicians and writers in the confines of the academic system, first as students, then as professors. Surely then, works by these artists meet the standards of a strict, inveterate lexicon, agreed upon by the rituals of academia? Yet they remain excluded. This is not to imply a conspiracy or to denounce a patterned mode of existence that society has made necessary for many artists. Rather it is an inquiry into a specific breed of work and thinking that is left by the wayside as a result. It questions risks that are mediated by a very specific kind of bureaucracy, a decorum that is instilled upon many working artists and with which we comply, one by one in order to be heard, in order to hear one another. The order is such that often we do not detect our own compliance, even though it often culminates in us being forced to spend a significant amount of time echoing convictions we did not arrive at on our own, and championing traditions for which we have not been given and for which we have not authentically sought alternatives.
In response to the interplay of these pretty pitiful, rut-inducing, complacency-inspiring conditions, we call first and foremost for a close and extended study of the places where collective improvisation in black music has met with and influenced poetics and oration. We seek not to define unilaterally, but to discuss and reinvigorate this praxis in manifold ways….
Read the rest of Holiday’s manifesto and her “primer for Afrosonics” in the latest print edition of the Chronic.
A reissue/remixed version of Amiri Baraka’s Black Spirits: New Voices in Afro-American Poetry lp featuring extensive updated liner notes; A US release of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun including a CD of readings of the text mixed with the music addressed in the text; a retrospective on the work of filmmaker Bill Gunn; an Anthology of Afrosonics including a CD featuring key recordings in the genre are amongst the works planned for FenceBooks new Astrosonics imprint. Read more on the the imprints plans to make available an all-too-often invisible or grossly underrepresented body of work that lives in the interstices between poetry and poetics, music and sound art, and dance and the moving image here.
Beautiful Voices – a call for AstroandAfrosonics recordings
In the spirit of National Poetry Month in America, Harmony Holiday‘s AstroandAfrosonics project is inaugurating a by-us-for-us iteration of an audio archive of poems and poetry-related material. Get the details on how to participate here.
Holy Are We: The Negro Artist and the Sacred Mountain
1n 1926 Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, an essay that asked black artists to revel in so-called blackness and to be beginning to see the light, to not fall into the traps of legitimation that tempt so many of us awkward/ backwards into chasing after a culture that runs from us. Maybe if we’re lucky we turn that chase around or erotic and our work admits something of our truth that way but often all we do is dilute ourselves looking to dispel the color. Almost 80 years after Langston’s tender admonition and the more things change, the more they stay the same. What I explore here is a caveat in the equation Langston arranged to balance the social with the political, the clandestine and blatant space where the sacred resides for the black artist with what that space delivers. It occurs to me that praise rituals practically govern the black spirit and that the varying systems of faith brought to us by the white power structure’s spiritual-industrial complex and/or god-complex, prey upon this innate hunger we have to enter our own gifts and celebrate the hoodrich way, the main way, the ghettofabulous way and the monastic way chanting in each May there be peace, love, and perfection throughout all creation.
Am I brave enough for this?
Toward the Divine Feminine
You Can Get With This, or You Can Get With That: Thoughts on the Divine Feminine in the Everyday
At the dawn of spring, volta of all that winter hush along the annual sonnet for amnesty repeated again and again in all the ways I’m so green, like soldiers and sprite brand and enticement and mint condition; I’m thinking about the divine feminine, the under and over-hyped spirit we call the so-called Diva from and to, over and under, and when we’re lucky, through ourselves and into and as, the delight of true integration. I’m probing the loophole in terminologies of the sacred that tends to undermine the radiance of worship or even acknowledgement of female archetypes with a grotesque and dulling commitment to patriarchy…How do we reunite the sensual and the alpha, substance and light…
Using musical allusion and metaphor, juxtaposing history, myth and autobiography, poet and choreographer Harmony Holiday, navigates the poetics of identity. The daughter of soul singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday, her work is infused with song, using verse as melody, metaphors as riffs and syllables as notes to improvise a new language.
Holiday’s debut collection of poems, Negro League Baseball (2011), won the Fence Books Motherwell Prize. Described by poet Terrance Hayes as a “bewitching and unabashedly original book”, it includes an accompanying audio CD. Get it direct from Fence Books here. And visit Holiday’s blog here.