All Elders be Eloquence, or One Way to Pay Dem You Owe
On Recording the track "Sad Dictator"
One of the ga-zillion great, regular things Amiri Baraka did long before this project was an idea, was to invite my housemates (Sharan Strange, Noland Walker and Darmone Holland) and I to James Baldwin’s funeral. We were nobodies—just four friends thrown together by rent control, college and the usual cool Black, half-nerd shit. We weren’t a Posse (of any sort, well, not yet) or a Crew at that point, not even “The Collective.” We were still (at least I was) “innocent-ass fans,” which meant that writers, especially writers like James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, were gods to us and, Lord knows, the few poems I had written didn’t have an ounce of critical opinion in them, so whoever we were not-yet-but-about-to-be, he already knew, knew it (the possibility) before we did and could naturally sense it like the “Poppa Stoppa” he was. I’m not saying we looked talented. I am saying Amiri Baraka believed in Black People for no reason, for any reason, for every reason—even as he knew we were surrounded by “ghosts” and “the worst Negroes in this nightmare.” He believed, didn’t make-believed, in Black People. Again, we weren’t (even) a Collective or The Collective yet and never dreamt of being a part of the Motion of History or a jive-ass “Movement,” but in the arrogant way we probably walked into his reading that day at Tufts University in 1987, walking like we knew the way of the world (nod to Haki Madhabuti), it was probably very clear that we needed a lesson in Who We Owed. “Sad Dictator” is the daughter-son wannabe sibling of the recorded versions of “Wailers,” “Nightmare Bush’it Whirl,” and “Something in the Way of Things (In Town);” and every song/poem/groove by Heroes Are Gang Leaders, especially “Sad Dictator,” knows whom we owe. Do you?
The first voice you hear on “Sad Dictator” is that of Prophet Lee Davison. She was ten years old at the time of the recording, but I met her in Cleveland, Ohio, days after she was born. We go way back. Her voice is amazingly kid-like, so at the beginning of the recording, we asked her to recite Amiri Baraka’s short statement poem “Dig” minus, of course, the adult, Black Arts utterance of “mutherfucka.” It seemed like good, audio-drama for me to interrupt her there—mid profanity—to both tease the listener and extend the possibility (perhaps alter it too) for a few moments before the poem actually, fully began. The idea of secret, a best kept one, running into innocence and Obama Era blocked transparency is what I was after. Amiri Baraka’s words in the mouth of as counter to the “I Am Tiger Woods” mentality foisted upon the minds of scores of contemporary youngins’. I wanted to open the track by countering the narrow slogan of commercial mind control.
Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and I have been performing a version of the LeRoi Jones poem “Valery as Dictator” for a few years, most memorably at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, February 2013, when we actually opened for Amiri Baraka. Before the reading I slid a copy of The Dead Lecturer into the back of my pants so Amiri wouldn’t see it. My plan was to open the reading with one of my own poems and then, as an homage to him, whip out The Dead Lecturer (show his face to him) and read “Valery as Dictator” as a sort of bold “oh-no he-didn’t” gesture of thanks—like cross generational dap—right there in front of him.
James Brandon Lewis had recently composed a composition titled “Ware,” written for the late saxophonist David S. Ware, and we had practiced it all week in a low-ceiling café basement in Bed-Stuy. Lewis, here speaking: “The piece leads with the bass playing an ostinato figure that builds intensity with every repetition. The melody floats over it creating a piece of meditation and sorrow as well as a polyrhythmic feel.” Despite our intentions and despite us having received a positive nod from Amiri Baraka, it still felt pretty straight forward to me—as if we were simply copying an interpretation of him and adding music. In other words, I wasn’t satisfied with it at all—mostly with my dull straight-laced podium reading of the Baraka text, something was missing. After his death, we recorded the Amiri Baraka Sessions in three, full work day trips to the studio and mixed it in two sessions. We paid for the project with the money from the publication of “Vernacular Owl” (which appeared in Poetry Magazine) and the Levinson Prize, which was awarded to the poem by the Poetry Foundation. The musicians and poets, out of respect for Mr. Baraka, worked for free. The scene in the studio was something like a chaotic-musical-poetry workshop. In fact I know that we nearly drove our engineer, Paul Wickliffe, cray-crazy. Baraka books everywhere, Black laughter when we should have been quiet during recordings, and so many of us in a small Jazz studio, three and four poets to a mic, a writer on the floor taking notes, cameras, harmonicas, even Tracie Morris’s cat got sick and she had to leave midway through the second session but not before contributing a masterful whisper-like delicate version of Baraka’s “The Rare Birds” to the project. In this way and others we were trying to be unpredictable, so we chose “Valery As Dictator” over, let’s say, the intellectual width and force of “BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS.” Why? It’s simple:
“What is tomorrow / that it cannot come / today?”
Alone, that line contains the re-starting protest point of the tradition and the unconditioned condition of a pure philosophy of all breathing Blackness. Without being sung, the line is born into Sang-dom. It broadens its own voice and you should have seen/heard us in the studio, the first session, getting it all wrong… not knowing (as Baraka once said) how we sound. We recorded “Valery As Dictator” at least four, mediocre times, but before that something wonderfully miraculous happened in Amirika—Ras Baraka was elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey and (to that moment/immediately following “Vernacular Owl”) I wrote a five-section poem titled “This Time: Ras,” a sort of questioning of the position of the history of Black Mayors in America as well as scream at those who gain entrance or think they’ve gained entrance into the realm of the “In The” in In The Tradition without having been allowed in by elders. In the studio we could sing, “What is tomorrow / that it cannot come / today?” but somehow we didn’t mean it yet. Not until George Zimmerman was found Not Guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Then, yes, then, something changed on the way to the studio.
Margaret Morris, a former dancer and native Chicagoan was added to the project when vocalist Chelsea Adewunmi could not make the recording date. One of her favorite Thelonious Monk compositions is “Remember” (Hear Thelonious Alone in San Francisco), so when she automatically—like a natural “feelnician”—began singing lines from “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note” in the melody-rhythm of Monk’s vision, the fixins and healings of our combined creative processes fell right into place. Morris explains her interpretative-embodiment-approach to Baraka’s lines:
“The broad-edged silly music the wind makes is us, us in this incarnation or the last or the next—what’s left of us. Our essences singing on the elemental wind. The joke, of course, is our lying lens, the sight that allows us to be humans and Heroes, the sight of a gradually unfolding time that comes to exist successively. Fools that we are, foolishness the gift. Tomorrow is today and yesterday and Baraka breathes now. Ha ha ha ha. That nobody sings anymore is a lie we swallow like a purgative when we need to expunge sadness. Everyone is always singing. Things have come to that.”
Still the poem needed a shift, something to counter Margaret’s control which breaks down as she approaches the “to” in “Things have come to that.” That’s when we decided to soar into the fifth section of “This Time: Ras.” That’s when I decided to lose it. We had performed the poem in a classroom at the Furious Flower Conference (September 2014). Soon thereafter I received a rather “patterned, wild and free” (Robert Hayden) video of the performance from poet, Metta Sama. Watching it, I recognized the mannerisms of my own inner dictator, the struggle of both losing and gaining control. Margaret, James and I recorded two versions of the new arrangement of “Sad Dictator,” one with James playing mouth-acappela-sax and one with the sax. We liked both versions and decided, in the car on the way to the second mixing session, to add signifying commentary by Randall Horton.
Randall’s contribution of “The Real Illegal Must Be Crazy” is a clinic in Contemporary Black Arts Movement Aesthetic Cool. His calm cry: ”Fuck a law” springs forth like the Baraka of “Fashion This…” redefining (in a new mood of soul-bluesency) the role of hype man. Next to my own wailing tantrum, Randall’s dare and owl-like (on a branch) laidback-ness, hopefully, comes across as a poetic assist and score. Even our usual, silent straight man, James Brandon Lewis, is moved by Horton to respond, “How you get in? Who let you in?” before concluding “I ain’t got no ends,” riffing on getting paid to get in (in the tradition) and not being paid once you get in (in the tradition). Recalling the day we finished the track, poet Randall Horton refuses to hold back when speaking to a slice of the current aesthetic atmosphere among Black poets–
In “Sad Dictator,” I want to be that satirical/vanguard voice of those who came before me. I’m talking about the ones that paved the way for the Black “poet” to have a presence in the current literary landscape. What I am saying is that I can peep through mud and see dry land, and so I ask how can one claim to be in the Black tradition while simultaneously rejecting it? Yet, the poet enjoys the benefits of being associated with the tradition. I’m telling these poets that something in the milk ain’t clean with how your poetry/lines, like you shamed to be in the tradition, so I’m not gonna let you claim the tradition.
Prophet Lee Davison, Voice
James Brandon Lewis, Saxophone, Music-Voice
Thomas Sayers Ellis, Voice
Margaret Morris, Voice Randall Horton, ad libs
Lines from “Preface to A Twenty Volume Suicide Note” sung by Margaret Morris
Excerpt from “Heroes Are Gang Leaders” read by Margaret Morris
Lines from “Valery As Dictator” worried by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Section 5 of “This Time: Ras” written and read by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Vocal Guitar, Rhythm Licks, Cries and Giggle by Margaret Morris
“Dig” by Amiri Baraka read by Prophet Lee Davison and interrupted by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Arranged and composed by Thomas Sayers Ellis and James Brandon Lewis
Produced by Thomas Sayers Ellis