Slam poetry is a new and unique development in modern literature. Activism through poetry, however, has been around for as long as the art form itself has. I’ve never had a cup of coffee and talked shop with any of the Urban Word Masterpoets, but I’d love to. I want to share some of the history and tradition of activism in African-American art and culture. Best of all, books and CDs of all of the artists mentioned here are available at your local NYPL. If a library doesn’t have a copy on the shelf, you can always request materials be sent to your local branch at catalog.nypl.org or nypl.biblicommons.com.
Let’s get in the mood for some poetry and movement with this traditional Maori warrior chant, the Haka.
Langston Hughes is the grandfather of slam poetry. He meshed Harlem and social activism into his poetry in a brave new way in the first half of the twentieth century, which definitely did not make him popular with the establishment. His poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” is partially inscribed on a medallion in the entrance to the auditorium at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Black Culture. He was instrumental in putting forth the view that art was for people of all races, cultures and social classes, and that it should reflect their individual experiences. Among hundreds of holdings at NYPL, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” is available in this beautiful, illustrated 2009 edition at your local branch location.
If you’ve ever watched Def Poetry Jam, listened to Mos Def, Common, or Saul Williams, chances are you’ve heard of Public Enemy, the iconic Long Island hip hop group. They grew up as a musical group right alongside slam poetry. They introduced the Golden Age of hip hop. They made thoughtful, politically aware lyrics an essential part of any hip hop artist’s repertoire. They were even one of the first acts to release an mp3-only album. But, have you ever sat down and given Fear of A Black Planet or It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, a full spin? If you have never listened to these classic albums, NYPL has you covered.
Art and revolutionary thinking were never more closely intertwined than in the case of the next two musicians, Fela Kuti and Sun Ra. Fela Kuti took on the establishment in Nigeria, and his afrobeat band was his army, growing to eighty or more members at its height. His music caused riots against the government and protested the behavior of the Nigerian army. He went as far as to establish a commune for his entire group and community, and declare it a sovereign nation from Nigeria. His political career would culminate with an attempt to run for the presidency of Nigeria in one of their only free elections of the twentieth century. His funeral, in 1997, was attended by over one million of his African brothers and sisters. Check out his iconic album Zombie, at NYPL.
Finally, a musician whose art and activism still invite confusion. Sun Ra believed, as a result of a vision he may or may not have had in the 1930s, that African-Americans had come from Saturn, and to Saturn they would return. In the 1950s and '60s, when activists wanted to carve out a space for African Americans within American society, Sun Ra stated that African Americans were higher beings, cosmic people who belonged to their own planet. He reiterated this belief for fifty years, until his death in 1993. Musically, he was a prodigious jazz musician, and progenitor of the use of electronic keyboards. He dabbled and recorded in everything from free jazz to dixieland and swing. Hundreds of musicians played in his bands. The best place to start to understand his music and philosophy is to listen to the man himself. Check out his 1974 creation myth film, Space is the Place, available on DVD from NYPL.
The NYPL collection is loaded with biographies and further works of all of these artists. Further, this post barely scratches the surface of the history of social activism’s connection to art. NYPL has dozens of works from Sun Ra, Public Enemy, Langston Hughes, and many more just like them. Enjoy!