Adupwe: Yoruba for ‘we are grateful to god’
With the death of Jayne Cortez as 2012 comes to an end, I find it my place to bid a fond Adupwe to an impassioned leader in a field of American culture which has not yet gotten its day in the sun as an American art form -- the world of jazz and the spoken word.
Her passing is a big loss.
Cortez (1936-2012), a native of Arizona and LA before becoming a NYC transplant, advanced a singularly authentic aesthetic tradition -- that of the spoken word/musical artist. It was a role that grew naturally from her experiences -- marriage to Ornette Coleman in the 1950s, central place in the Black Arts Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and cultural ambassadorship to her own nation in later years, as a dual resident of New York and Senegal.
Hers was a voice of witness, praise and above all power. Her favorite targets? Racism, inequality, imperialism. Oppression, misogyny, corruption and the waste of human potential.
‘The ruling class’, she wrote in “There It Is,’ ‘will tell you there is no ruling class as they organize their supporters into white supremacist Ku Klux klan gangs/organize their police into killer cops/organize their propaganda into a device to ossify us.’
they don’t care
if you’re an individualist
a leftist a rightist
a shithead or a snake
They will try to exploit you
absorb you confine you
disconnect you isolate you
or kill you
And you will disappear into your own rage
into your own insanity
into your own poverty
into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon
and then ashes
Cortez spoke out against co-optation, and the need for African-Americans to assert ownership of their own culture. In ’Taking the Blues Back Home,” a driving number she recorded with her group ‘The Firespitters,‘ she declared her intent to ‘take out of the mouth of the blues stealers, back to where the blues stealers won‘t go.’
And in ‘There It Is,’ she explained pointedly that enfranchisement in 21rst century America is something a whole lot more than jumping into the homogenized practices of a bland white bourgeoisie -- it also means retaining aspects of one’s own earned culture, forged in chains:
if we don't organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
For all the seeming militancy of her work, Cortez was capable of expressing alarm at the potential for violence on both sides of the racial divide. Both the "bloodthirsty people/ brooding in North Dakota with grenades in their hands" and the disenfranchised impatient for equality, ‘brooding beyond the deadline’ and ready to flare into violence.
One of her strongest and most direct poems is on the subject of rape. ‘What was Inez Garcia supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body? The man who carved a combat zone between her breasts.' Cortez asked in the poem ‘Rape.’ ‘Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass? Kiss every pimple on his butt? Blow hot breath on his big toe? Draw back the corners of her vagina and heehaw like a California burro?'
Instead Inez did what the defense department of any nation would do in time of war-- she fought back. 'She stood with a rifle in her hand … pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of shaking flesh. Sent it flying to the virgin of Guadalupe then celebrated the death of the dead racist punk. And what the fuck else were we supposed to do?”
That's the straight stuff, no punches pulled.
There was plenty for Cortez to praise, too.
Praise for jazz, for example, its rebellious metronome, its infatuation of the ears, its ability to reach to 'the love seat in her bones.'
Praise for African traditions, too. In ‘Make Ifa’ she celebrated the spirituality of transplanted West African music/dance culture. Here she references widely, from more widely known forms like samba and conga to the more esoteric -- soca moca, jumbi, punti, ijubi -- all invoked as a way to connect to the Yoruba-based system of divination known as Ifa.
The dirt-poor matrix of Southern agricultural life was a touchstone to her, despite its failings -- as in this, from ‘In the Morning:’
disguised in my mouth as a swampland
nailed to my teeth like a rising sun
you come out in the middle of fish-scales
you bleed into gourds wrapped with red ants…
you touch brown nipples into knives
and somewhere stripped like a whirlwind
stripped for the shrine room
you sing to me through the side face of a black rooster
The duality of cities, New York City in particular, proved to be consistently fertile ground for Cortez. New York is a place of “blood, police and fried pies,’ “brown spit and soft tomatoes.” There is a resilient glamor to the rundown human denizens of the city, each the possessor of a ‘brain of hot sauce, tobacco teeth (and) mattress of bedbug tongue.’ A rude, bawdy and ingratiating creature, New York City calls seductively out for its people to join in: 'I am New York City,/ my skillet-head friend/my fat-bellied comrade/citizens, break wind with me!'
Harlem, she declares, is beautiful, despite the fact that it is “hidden by ravines of sweet oil/by temples of switch blades”
beautiful in your sound of fertility
beautiful in your turban of funeral crepe
beautiful in your camouflage of grief
in your solitude of bruises in
your arson of alert
And in irrepressibly humorous fashion, she poked fun at the gritty pigeons of Manhattan, which “lounge on ledges and mutter profanity all day, will fight for fucking space in the mating season, shit on air conditioners and wipe their asses on windows while big cockroaches suck soukrats in the dark.”
As her place in the literary world became more firmly established, Cortez proved herself not averse to taking a few shots at the establishment in that world, too, railing
against the anemic poetry of the academic elite -- little more than a stuffed bird in a tropical forest, she delared -- an art that “will not strike
lightning through any convoy of chickens.‘
Whatever the subject of Jayne Cortez’ pen -- and whatever the style -- it was treated with an unflinching directness of language that was more than simply confrontational. It was a language grounded in the authenticity of a people who have knowingly or unknowingly heeded a dictum enunciated by Wm Burroughs, shown in the opening scene of the trailer to the Ornette Coleman bio-pic Made In America:
‘Immortality to the people, every man a god,' says Burroughs. 'But how do you get to be a god? Well to put it applepie country simple, by doing your job and doing it well.‘
Cortez had a knack for putting it applepie country simple -- and that was part of why she did her job and did it well. Her contribution to the use of common, earthy language rivals that of Sandburg in his day -- and as an artist steeped in musical culture, she was an adept practitioner of the musical aesthetics which informed 20th century artists as diverse as Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Hart Benton and Jack Kerouac.
Flow. Contour. Dimensionality. Trajectory. Inflection. Sense of naturally spontaneous expression. Pure joy in the visceral exploration of sound.
Over the course of her productive years, Jayne Cortez spoke out forcefully against racism, injustice, co-optation and misogyny. She also sang out in praise of the great body of culture that has been produced as part of the African diaspora. That she had the ability to do so in a manner that was so down to earth and musically engaging only served to reinforce the validity of her witness. That she had the ability to command wry humor in her poetry served only to further authenticate her praise.
Hers was the power of the connected mind -- at once grounded in the gutteral originality of the language of the common man and woman, and elevated by the clarity of her vision and the fierceness of her heart.
As Mark Statman once noted, Jayne Cortez’s world view was full of complexities -- harsh, bitter, serious and sometimes sardonic descriptions of a broke down existence that, for all its corruptions, disappointments, chaotics and violations, remains beautiful.
“A natural response to what Cortez describes is to look away,” wrote Statman. “But Cortez demands the opposite: she wants us to look and to look hard.”
Sounds like he's talking about a carwreck. And where I come from, the natural response to a carwreck -- whether it is individuals on the highway or societies -- isn’t to look away, it’s to rubberneck.
Statman is nonetheless on point with his comment.
Cortez’ poetry has always called on her listeners to question ourselves -- our tendency to drive past society’s terrible wrecks with the smug detachment of complacent, voyeuristic Americans.
We ought to be looking, and looking hard. We ought to see, to feel and to understand.
Jayne Cortez reminded us of our social duty to do so, through a poetry of fierce honesty, directness of voice, impassioned performance, colorful personality and musical richness.
These few days after her passing I, for one, remain grateful to God -- and Jayne Cortez -- for that reminder.
Adupwe, Jayne Cortez.