Anne Waldman (Rail): Please talk about the founding of your band, auspiciously named for an Amiri Baraka short story, “Heroes Are Gang Leaders.” When did the idea of forming such a large and talented band of musicians and performers come to you? I know you had been reading your own work yourself with musicians and I had seen you on the same bill as Baraka at the Poetry Project, not long before his death. What was the inspiration to a larger collective project?
Thomas Sayers Ellis: It’s weird how lineage works, all forms of it. As you know I am a person who worries and bothers and has been worried and bothered by poetry, teaching, photography and––in my own way––performance. I’m drawn to the energy of things and I grew up working in bookstores and slightly addicted to used bookstores. In fact, I consider many of my favorite books to be Power Objects. Note, however, that a book can be a Power Object for any number of reasons, real or imagined––content, design, cover, etc. Tales, the original Grove Press edition, is such a book. In 1987, I found my first copy of it and from that moment I have always been drawn to and baffled by the title of one of its short lyric stories, “Heroes Are Gang Leaders.” Over the years I simply have not been able forget it and every time I see a copy of Tales, I check it to make sure the story is there and then I buy it as a gift for someone. I have the small mass paper edition, the beautiful cloth edition (with the amazing photograph of Amiri, then LeRoi Jones, by Bob Adelman) and the edition with the cover that is designed like an African Liberation Flag, Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka. All of these are Power Objects for different reasons. No way I understood the writing in 1987, but I grew and grew toward it and it toward me. I met saxophonist James Brandon Lewis at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and we began working together in 2011. Then, in 2013, I did a short stint as poet/performer with Greg Tate’s band Burnt Sugar. Sugar certainly altered my vision on what the matrimony of page/stage could be. Crazy Props. James and I, as you mentioned, opened for Amiri at St. Marks Church and our preparation for that opened the doors, in us, to all the possibility and ways to speak and have Baraka’s whole branch of the tradition speak through us. Then he transitioned and I had to sit through the whole memorial service and listen to all of the poets get him right and get him wrong, knowing my connection to his vision was genuine, and that I––too––had a head, heart and fist of creative Thanks You for him, so James and I decided to gather a team of musicians to honor Amiri, and while we were preparing, it simply felt bigger than us, larger––I thought––than just my voice. I heard community and tension and traffics of living sound and struggle and loss, invention, the whole Black treasure chest in Amiri. I just didn’t want to ruin it, this rare Thank You, with single-mindedness or selfishness. Amiri Baraka left us with an orchestra of us. All HAGL recordings and performances open to continue that.
Rail: I remember seeing you after Amiri’s extraordinary send-off in Newark. What was your impression of how the world of art and cultural revolution activism would flourish after his demise? I often think of Amiri in the wake of all the radical action around
Black Lives Matter. Any thoughts on this? What we have learned from Amiri’s
Ellis: This is a tough question disguised as an easy one (for many reasons) but I am going to give it to you straight––because a lot of people, since Amiri’s transition, like to say what he would have said about this so-called moment of media-made activism. I think the owl-like Amiri would have seen right through the set-up. I think he would have eventually pulled the wool off of this new leader-less Movement. He was famous for calling out folks if he thought they were compromised, so I think OB, (Owl-Baraka) would have called Black Lives Matter a bunch of Negroes. And he would have come up with a cool as moniker for them; and many poets, especially middle age to younger ones, would have disassociated themselves with him. They did it when he was alive, yep, like it was a part of their craft. Much of the continuance of his and America’s cultural activism has been infiltrated, enemy-funded, and guided by staged events full of controlled opposition. In fact one of Amiri’s gifts was his ability to properly and creatively name the Evil we were up against, and that might not be possible anymore. Our poets just aren’t trained to do anything but look back and make books that read like amputated novels, Series. The Evil, via the use of technology and the imaginations, seems to have outdistanced our imaginations; and, for Black folks––specifically––there might not be a way to counter such unless we accept that many of “the worst Negroes in this nightmare” might just be the most successful ones. Amiri was also a bit tricky. I mean, check it: he fell for Obama.
Rail:Could you say more about Amiri in this instance? I think there is more subtlety to Amiri’s support and the legacy of Obama. Perhaps you know the story of his meeting Obama, then a senator, at a political event. Amiri was seated on some steps and Obama came up put out his hand out and said “Amiri Baraka, the poet?” Maybe it was identifying him as a poet that warmed his revolutionary stance. These Presidents don’t solve all ills, and they can be war criminals, yes, and the office is built on repression. But Amiri still had respect for Obama—for his intellect and his aspiration—in spite of failures and drones. And Amiri’s message was that we all have to get more involved. And we need cultural revolution here at home. That there are cracks in the machine, and some authenticity can shine through. And that’s what we are working on. His son, Ras, is working within the political system—with admirable progress. It ain’t easy.
Ellis: Well, I voted for our current President (who isn’t really our President) twice. We haven’t had a President (or a handler-less one) in at least sixteen years (maybe twenty-four) but we all fell for the Black Fix-it Candidate. My Baraka-esque question for Baraka would be: “WhoooooOOOOooo do you think set it up and knew that we would fall the way we fell, so that we are here, one mo ’gin, in this same old same old position saying We’ve got to participate more, participate again, participate some more, triple-double participate, participate to death, till death do us part, in a participation that has been designed and redesigned to kill and limit participation.”
They flipped Paul Laurence Dunbar. We don’t wear the masks anymore, if ever. I loved Amiri, but I never sat at his feet; and if he had respect for you-know-who, well it was a blind respect, a wrong, media-induced American one, the flim-flam, an uniformed one, just as uninformed as we were when one of us, remember who, called Bill Clinton the first Black President and so many of us––especially poor folks––followed suit. They flipped the politics. We don’t own the masks. They flipped the poetry. They wear us as the masks they wear. They wear us as the masks they wear. They wear us as the masks they wear, and that’s what I think about where we are in America with regards to progress, dissent, publishing, protest, music, civil wrongs and civil rights, all forms of entertainment, all levels of education, etc. They wear us as the mask they wear.
Rail: You’ve been doing a series of pieces—complex compositions—honoring great black writers: Bob Kaufman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Etheridge Knight. I am curious about the ethos, the vision of these unique pieces. You are essentially a poet, and yet one sees, hears, feels, this immense capacity for creative leadership in this larger responsibility of collaboration.
Ellis: Thank you, Anne, for the compliment. I wish I had an answer that could swim, wade or float in exactness. Oddly enough, I think that my creative process was hijacked many years ago by cinema––cinematic behavior, cinematic composition, cinematic outcome––not to mention, I guess, that I’ve always been interested in making one form of literacy leak and pour into another. It also seems senseless to allow the organic toolbox, the body, to be over-powered by all the imitative technical ones––equipment, musical instruments, metaphors, genre, etc.; these things are just the servants of sensibility. And it’s my job to take the risk of knowing what’s available and to what degree. I have to see and hear the full humans who are on this journey with me. I always hear voices when I read literature. I also always hear literature when I am just having a conversation with someone. I can’t turn it off, no, but I am no fool…I also got lucky. I fell in with a bunch of amazing collaborators, all of whom match and exceed my passion for natural invention. Again, all I have to do is make the room possible for risk, and they each take turns sweetening the room…then I think stanza…then I explode it with a sense-eating turn of phrase…until the whole place swells with our own How You Sound. I’ve been called a control freak (I fake am), but I try and share the controls––and doing so, helped us find one of our very original How You Sound(s) pretty quick. For instance we came to Naropa last summer with a single idea, hoping to record a single song “Would You Wear My Eyes” for Bob Kaufman but something happened in the studio and Margaret Morris (vocalist) began to improvise with and against the atmospheric moods of Luke Stewart (bass) and James Brandon Lewis (saxophone), and I got out of the way (I left the room, yep) when the “snakes” came out, and a very important freedom was born, The Avant-Age Garde I AMs of the Gal Luxury. With “WeWeWeWe the Remarkable” (for Gwendolyn Brooks), the task was: How to take a well-known poem, essentially the size of a frame, and reshoot it wider, extend the width of it via groove and patience and “language charged with meaning” to quote Ezra Pound.” By then, HAGL had grown and we were allowed to prepare for the recording at Bob Holman’s apartment and half the band missed the practice but the poets and voices––Janice Lowe, Randall Horton, James Brandon Leiws, da Frontine, Nina Angela, Mercer, Margaret Morris, Ailish Hopper and myself used the time to arrange the lyric possibilities. I am proud of that recording because in addition to weaving, again, our own How You Sound around the scaffolding of “We Real Cool,” we were also lucky to add Avery R Young’s instructional interactions with his students at the beginning of the track as well as the Lit Crit Musings Music of Evie Shockley at the end. We continued to widen the poem-music experience for the listener. “WeWeWeWe…” is our widescreen Jump Bad anthem. We filled it with Normal schooling, church basement, teaching, preaching, and our own slant on what it means to go all Southside Chi Mecca on that literary ass.
Rail: Please talk about the process of these works, how you make the selections. The theme dynamics you want to explore. The texts themselves, the multiple voices of yourself and your primary singer, poets, performers. And also the musicians of course, and their individual talents.
Ellis: I want to do everything, explore everything, explode air, record and make and write everyday but I can’t, so we try and do “the most” (as they say) and do it fully and beyond what we thought we were going to do. Imagine a writer who overwrites but who does so on a stack of eight pages at a time, blue carbon paper between each sheet. Imagine the rescued echoes and ghosts of such a text. Imagine waking up each morning anthology-body-swollen with the duty of noise-inheritance and translating tradition. “Either I am a nation or nobody” (Derek Walcott). I don’t really have a playbook for what we choose but I am constantly reading, remembering and “diggin’.” I love the term Feelnician. I found that in Amiri Baraka. I love the term “Flame Freaks.” I found that in LeRoi Jones.
I try to be everywhere, fully pored. HAGL gets a lot credit for how we handle the multiple voices but I think that the layering of ideas is always there when the composition of the text contains non linear movement. Progression ain’t easy. That’s why it worked so well with Baraka and why a little Bob Kaufman went a long way. Bomkauf drifts above us, leaking sight. Amiri is nitty gritty soul sonic force. A writer like Etheridge Knight, I feel, is meant to be chunk-sprinkled throughout a song but I wanted also to meet the random challenge of making poetry (so-called seated music, the act of reading) meet dance music, and that’s how we arrived at “Flukum,” our new song which includes the Margaret Morris refrain, “Your book sucks.” This new project is “for the readers who don’t dance and the dancers who don’t read.” And wait till you hear the “Feeling Fucked Up” Race Duet (Ailish Hopper and Luke Stewart) we recorded for “Eth.” The theme is courage, creative courage.
Rail: The recording process has been interesting to me, what I’ve gleaned of it. The precise and careful layering. The balance between fastidious scripting and improvisation.
Ellis: Sometimes I think we are simply masters of surrender when it comes to the recording process. I like to know what’s going to happen but the musicians, mostly, don’t. I used to be a drummer, so I drive our drummer, Warren “Trae” Crudup,” crazy but wait till you hear “We Free Singers Be,” the way Trae “gun-totes” as we say, right through it. I think about the live-show-listener too much and expect the band to be able to recreate all of the accidents and aims we stumble upon in the studio. The bassist, Luke Stewart, wants to have “a vibe session.” I don’t blame him; he’s good at it…but I want the listener to become familiar inside the work and be able to return to it as if it were his or her own. James Brandon Lewis wants me to trust the band more and allow the song-experience to be created anew each time. Margaret Morris once said I direct too much and “leave the band alone.” Ryan Frazier aka Heru Shabaka-ra, our trumpet player, is always Ryan but never the same Heru, but I hear something original from him each time and this new project really has his energy all over it. I interrupt our engineer, Ambrose Bye, too much. I’m learning not to cut and paste his flows…but I trust him to know the work as well (or better) than I do, and he has never let me down in that regard. Devin Brahja Waldman, Mr. Synthesizer, is a consistent wild card, the unexpected seasoning in all of our songs, while Janice Lowe (on keyboards) can perform/play any register of emotion we need. Because of her, a HAGL song might sound either playful or mournful, only minutes apart. We even got our own corner man swag in Randall Horton; he’s our legit feelnician. And our own White And, just like in poetry, we aim to surprise ourselves; the Etheridge Knight project contains “The Love Space Demands” (for Ntozake Shange) on which we plan to turn loose new HAGL poet-members Joey De Jesus and Yolanda Wisher. Ask the Carpenters, we’ve only just begun. I am one of Amiri Baraka’s shoes and HAGL is a razor.
How do you see this project as a cultural intervention?
This problem-ject is
ruining the life
I am not
to have yet. And,
for some reason,
I can’t stop
tam bou rines.
Anne Waldman is the author, most recently of Trickster Feminism, Penguin 2018, and Sanctuary, Spuyten Duyvil 2020, and her vinyl album SCIAMACHY was just released by Fast Speaking Music with support from the Levy Gorvy Gallery in NYC.Thomas Sayers Ellis