Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When Print, Performance & Online Cultures Converge: Amiri Baraka's "Dope"

Over two decades ago when William J. Harris was working with Amiri Baraka to select and organize materials for inclusion in The Amiri Baraka Reader (1991), he was not necessarily that impressed by Baraka's poem "Dope." As the years progressed however, the poem grew on Harris.

Over 10 years ago while serving as one of the co-editors for Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology Of The African American Literary Tradition (1997), Harris had grown far more fond of Baraka's "Dope." He was especially pleased that his co-editors had agreed to include the poem in the anthology along with an audio recording of Baraka reading the poem on the anthology's accompanying CD.

"Dope" is a spectacular, searing, satirical, and humorous piece that has Baraka taking on the persona of a black preacher giving a passionate sermon (really a parody of a sermon) where the speaker works to get his audience (high) believing that it "must a been the devil" responsible for all the problems confronting black people throughout history. "lazy niggers chained theyselves and threw they own black asses in the bottom
of the boats," announces the preacher of Baraka's poem. It's necessary to hear and read the poem in order to fully appreciate Baraka's wonderful talents as a reader, writer, and performer.

It's probably also necessary to see Baraka presenting the poem. The printed versions of "Dope" include performance instructions such as "(screams)" and "(jumps up like a claw stuck him)," and "(shakes like evangelical sanctify shakes tambourine like evangelical sanctify in heat)." It's likely that Baraka was thinking of performance even as he composed the piece.

I heard Baraka's audio version of "Dope" on the Call and Response CD first. Then, I read the print version in the anthology and soon after that, I read the poem in The Amiri Baraka Reader edited by Harris. The poem was initially published in Baraka's volume Poetry for the Advanced (1979).

The audio recording of "Dope" initially appeared on a Smithsonian Folkways record Poets Read Their Contemporary Poetry: Before Columbus Foundation (1980). Baraka read along with a diverse mix of writers, including Jayne Cortez, Victor Hernandez Cruz, David Henderson, Joy Harjo, and several others as part of an event hosted by Ishmael Reed and his Before the Columbus Foundation.

Later, the Smithsonian produced a double CD Every Tone a Testament: An African American Aural History (2001), which included "Dope." The CD for Call and Response was annotated by Robert H. Cataliotti, and he also compiled and annotated Every Tone a Testament.

PennSound, an online archive of poets reading their works, has a recording of Baraka reading "Dope" at the Just Buffalo Literary Center in Buffalo, New York, on December 8, 1978. The PennSound site notes that Baraka was reading at that Buffalo event with Ed Dorn, and the recording was "courtesy" of Robert Creeley.

Yet another audio version of "Dope" appears on New Music-New Poetry (1982), a project where Baraka performs poetry along with jazz drummer Steve McCall and saxophonist David Murray. In some comments that he wrote about the album with McCall and Murray, Baraka noted that "On this record we tried to express some of the joy we had in making the poetry/music. We also wanted to say some things."

Youtube, which was created in 2005, has led to some additional possibilities for the online presentation of audio recordings. Many of Baraka's live readings and several of his recordings appear on youtube, including "Dope,"--the Smithsonian recording version.

In all of the audio recordings of the poem and especially the 1978 reading in Buffalo, the audiences play important roles to the overall sound and production as Baraka is inclined to pause and wait as people respond with loud laughs to some of the jokes in the poem. Baraka's audiences, especially his black audiences, are as crucial as the those audiences offering their vocal responses in speeches by Malcolm X and MLK.  

All in all, it's really something to consider the various movements of Baraka's piece from a written draft to different print formats and contexts to performances to audio recordings to youtube.

A Notebook on Amiri Baraka
Related content on poetry and cultures of print and performance:
Keeping Poetry Alive in Jackson, MS: C. Liegh McInnis
Eugene Redmond and the Ghosts of Dunham, Hurston, & Schomburg
Blogging about Black Verse in June

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