Amiri Baraka, the militant man of letters and tireless agitator whose blues-based, fist-shaking poems, plays and criticism made him a provocative and groundbreaking force in American culture, has died. He was 79.
His booking agent, Celeste Bateman, said Baraka, who had been in hospital since last month, died on Thursday at Beth Israel Medical Centres in Newark, in the state of New Jersey.
Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and '70s was more radical or polarising than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry. The FBI feared him to the point of flattery, identifying Baraka as "the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the Pan-African movement in the United States".
Baraka transformed from the rare black to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to leader of the Black Arts Movement, an ally of the Black Power movement that rejected the liberal optimism of the early 1960s and intensified a divide over how and whether the black artist should take on social issues. Scorning art for art's sake and the pursuit of black-white unity, Baraka adopted a philosophy that called for the teaching of black art and history and producing works that bluntly called for revolution.
"We want 'poems that kill'," Baraka wrote in his landmark Black Art, a manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. "Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns/Poems that wrestle cops into alleys/and take their weapons leaving them dead/with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland."
He was as eclectic as he was prolific: his influences ranged from Ray Bradbury and Mao Zedong to Ginsberg and John Coltrane. His 1963 book Blues People has been called the first major history of black music written by a black American.
A 2002 poem he wrote alleging that some Israelis had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks in the United States led to widespread outrage.
He was denounced by critics as buffoonish, homophobic, anti-Semitic and a demagogue. He was called by some others a genius, a prophet, the Malcolm X of literature.