Amiri Baraka, the controversial poet and activist behind the important music text Blues People, passed away on Thursday at the age of 79, a family spokesperson has confirmed. According to NJ, the official cause of death has not been given, but Baraka had been struggling with diabetes and was hospitalized for unknown reasons last month.
Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones, and hailed from Newark, NJ. After attending NYU and Howard University, Baraka joined the Air Force for two years until he was dishonorably discharged for reading communist texts. He then attended graduate school at Columbia University.
His book Blues People was released in 1963, and is still regarded as one of the most influential texts of jazz criticism. In 1964, he debuted the play Dutchman, which dealt heavily with race and gender relations and earned him a coveted Obie award that year.
In the years after Malcolm X was assassinated, Baraka divorced his first wife, and left their two children to move from the beat poetry scene in Greenwich Village to Harlem. There, he become more involved with the Civil Rights movement, which he critiqued for its pacifism, and became what he called a black cultural nationalist.
He penned the poem "Black Art" in 1965, which inspired the Black Arts movement, the artistic branch of the Black Power movement. In 1967, he changed his name from Jones to the Muslim name Imamu Amear Baraka, before eventually settling on Amiri Baraka.
In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, he penned the poem, "Somebody Blew Up America?" which drew criticisms for its anti-Semitic references when he read it after being named Poet Laureate of New Jersey. When then-Governor Jim McGreevey asked for him to step down after the controversy, Baraka refused—so the position was just eliminated in 2003, effectively stripping Baraka of the title.
Baraka received a number of awards for his work, including a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, a PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, to name but a few.
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