For reasons I can’t disclose yet, I’ve been going through old jazz albums from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, pulling out projects that speak to the essence of Black Liberation. Though I like many eras of jazz, I prefer this time in the genre, when not just bigger names were expanding the sound, but more niche ones like the Ensemble Al-Salaam and Michael White raised consciousness through their music. Because of this creative endeavor, I’d been listening with a studious ear.
That led me to Amiri Baraka’s It’s Nation Time - African Visionary Music, released in 1972 via Motown’s Black Forum Records. As a music head who’s looked to for all sorts of esoteric work, I’m somewhat ashamed because I hadn’t heard of this album before last week. I knew he was a musician, but I didn’t know about this. Surely I’d heard Baraka on the noted television series, Soul!, and as an older man on the Roots’ magnificent track, “Something In The Way of Things (In Town),” but this album is something else entirely: It’s a manifesto, the strongest, most realized statement of Black pride I’ve heard in a long time. Much like Baraka’s other work, It’s Nation Time is fearless in its critique of racism.
While it might be aggressive to some, you have to acknowledge the era in which the album was released: the Vietnam War brought widespread protests, and Black people — due to the rise of Black consciousness thanks to scholars like Baraka and Stokely Carmichael — moved with a new level of courage. Not that previous leaders weren’t brave, but there was a heightened self-awareness with these trendsetters. Songs like Sly & The Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” epitomized this awakening, and poets like Baraka and Gil Scott-Heron expressed the angst of economically disadvantaged Black folks throughout the country. There was a prevailing feeling that the government didn’t care about the little people. If it didn’t care about protecting middle-class white people, it damn sure didn’t care about anyone else.
But where Scott-Heron crafted a more meditative blend of jazz and soul, Baraka shook shoulders and yelled in faces. His music was a swift punch to the chest, the feeling of an alarm clock going off at full blast. For him, the time for calm was over; it was time to fight back, to center less on whiteness and focus on the god within. Nevermind what whitey had done to Black brothers and sisters; they were who they were and their reckoning would arrive. Instead, his music insisted, you should center on the beauty of your Black skin and take pride in your African lineage. Beneath your chest lies a beating heart just aching for the fellowship of Black Power. The previous decade had seen a tug-of-war in the fight for equal rights — one side prioritized peace and nonviolence along the road to racial nirvana; the other thought retaliation, or self-defense at the very least, was the way to go. Baraka leaned toward the latter; if oppressors chose violence, the oppressed should respond in kind. Yet his retaliation wasn’t physical. Baraka was also a brilliant music journalist and critical thinker who fought The Man with his pen.
Before he converted to Islam and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka in 1968, he was born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey in 1934. In 1963, he wrote the book Blues People: Negro Music in White America, which has become required reading for like-minded scribes and scholars. In 1965, the death of Malcolm X signaled an awakening in Baraka, who divorced his wife, Hettie, and moved to Harlem. By ‘68, he led his own Black Muslim organization and ascended to leadership positions at various groups. While it’s tempting to label Baraka as either a poet or musician, he proved long before It’s Nation Time that he was a whole being, a creative force who couldn’t be boxed in by man-made labels meant to siphon Black music into neat little boxes.
By the time he released It’s Nation Time, he had popularized the phrase as a call for Black people to unite. To him, there was no difference between Black politicians, Black creators, and Black community organizers; they were all part of the same ecosystem that could force a strong Black nation in the United States. He had marveled at how different countries in Africa, despite the division amongst tribes and cultural ideologies, were able to let their differences coexist. In this country, however, differences between Black and white, as well as between dissimilar segments of Black, hampered societal progress. On It’s Nation Time, Baraka sought fusion — a fusion of sounds, genres, thoughts and bandmates. Take the song “Kutoa Umoja” as an example: he denounced “me” mentality for “us” mentality. “We need to hook all them me’s together,” he declared on the track. “All them Muslims and Methodists and Panthers and Nationalists and jitterbugs and pimps and…”
Featuring an all-star assortment of jazz instrumentalists — Gary Bartz on alto saxophone; Idris Muhammad on drums; James Mtume on percussion; Reggie Workman and Herbie Lewis on bass; and Lonnie Liston Smith on piano, It’s Nation Time was a blistering set of frenetic free jazz and funk flourishes that, depending on the listener’s ear, either shocked or excited with no emotions in-between. There was no way to simply feel OK about this music; the edges were so sharp that you could almost feel your body jolt beneath the weight of the band’s break-neck progression. Free jazz is like rock music in the way it titillates or terrifies. When you add Baraka’s forceful yet playful diatribe to the mix, It’s Nation Time is both a warm invite and a nudge to wake the hell up. That it was released on a subsidiary of Motown is surprising, given label owner Berry Gordy’s hesitance to have his artists speak on real issues. That was before Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, now considered the greatest album of all time. Later in the decade, Stevie Wonder, another Motown artist, would cement his legacy with an unparalleled run of albums that touched on race relations, classism, and shady politics alongside various forms of love.
Baraka’s offering was different — very different. On “Who Will Survive America,” he said the remaining tenants would include “two Americans, very few Negroes, and no crackers at all.” Then on “Pull The Covers Off,” he likened the fight for equality to a physical tussle in a boxing ring. “Put some on your devil, ugh,” he declared against surging bass and pounding drum fills. “Put some on your cracker, ugh.” Lines like these made Baraka a lightning rod in the Black intellectual scene; some praised his fearlessness while others abhorred it. But you don’t get writers like Greg Tate and poets like Saul Williams without Baraka, and you don’t get albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Pink Siifu’s NEGRO without It’s Nation Time. A noted work then and now, it’s a stunning LP that deserves endless praise for being years ahead of the curve.