Baraka, who had been in hospital since last month, died on Thursday at Newark Beth Israel Medical Centre, said his agent Celeste Bateman.
Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and 1970s was more radical or polarising than the man formerly known as 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 a 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 first to join the Beat caravan of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and then to lead 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 racial unity, Barak was part of 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 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. Baraka wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, musical and cultural criticism and jazz operas.
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