Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 2-4)
ACTIVISM AND AFROCENTRISM
The new intersection of politics and the arts that emerged in the 1960s enabled BAG members to engage in projects reflecting some of the political and social tenor of the time. The theater component of BAG, in particular, chose to tackle experimental and highly political material, exploring important social issues of the late '60s and early '70s. BAG's members were influenced especially by the political prose, plays, and poetry of radical writers such as Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Jean Genet, and Frantz Fanon, and Elliott urged BAG members to become "poets of action." Scholar Peter Madden declares, "The awareness of class issues beyond just the [artists'] own advancement, as demonstrated by ... BAG's participation in activism like a rent strike, posit the collectives as progressive entities with an acute understanding of the problems facing their communities."
LeFlore remembers that the musicians did not always set out to address social issues in their music. Nevertheless, LeFlore adds, the music couldn't help but reflect many important trends and issues because of the way in which music and sociopolitical concerns intertwined in the late 1960s. "All different types of music were doing that: acid- rock, rhythm-and-blues, jazz," LeFlore says. Similarly, Oliver Lake in a 1998 interview remarked:
I never really thought of [BAG'S work] as political. ... In the '60s, when the BAG started, there was so much politics, even the way the BAG started, how it was named was political, because of the civil rights movement that was happening. So everything that you did was interpreted as a political move. We had our own building, we were teaching, presenting ourselves, that in itself was a political statement that we were taking control of our musical destinies.
BAG's involvement in local activism led to relationships with other artistic groups with varying political and aesthetic goals. The Human Arts Ensemble (run by BAG drummer Charles "Bobo" Shaw), the Big River Association, and the Solidarity Unit, interracial musical groups that included non-BAG members, were examples of the loose offshoots of BAG often put together for specific benefits, recording projects, or concerts.
The importance of African American artists' collectives went beyond their involvement in activist causes, says Monson: "I think they had an enormous symbolic value ... in the sense that in the early '60s there starts to be a lot of examination of the racial stratification of the economic structure in the jazz business." Indeed, saxophonist Archie Shepp once poignantly referred to jazz clubs as "crude stables where black men are run until they bleed, or else are hacked up outright for Lepage's glue." The movement towards artistic collectives gathered steam from the unfair treatment black artists frequently received at the hands of white record executives and club owners, or the downright exclusion from white theater and dance companies and venues; examples of such collectives included trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon's Jazz Composers' Guild, Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Jazz and People's Movement, the Collective Black Artists, and Amiri Baraka's Harlem-based Black Arts Repertory Theater, as well as, in some ways, Sun Ra's Arkestra. By organizing their own performance venues and recording opportunities, not controlled by white club promoters or record label bosses, Monson contends that "it felt like the musicians were trying to take control of the means of production." The founders of the collectives simultaneously defended themselves from exploitation by organizing their own appearances and took responsibility with other members of the black community by training young artists in various fields.
The Afrocentric consciousness that arose in the black community during the 1960s also was evident in the music and lifestyles of BAG's artists. The group may have been formed to increase exposure and earning power for the members, but a more coherent philosophical direction began to emerge. Oliver Lake remarked that the influence of the Black Power movement had created "energy towards having groups in the community" in St. Louis. It is within BAG's community-oriented framework that we can see what scholar Paul Gilroy has called "the power of music in developing black struggles by communicating information, organising consciousness, and testing out or deploying the forms of subjectivity which are required by political agency"; Gilroy highlights here the nexus of artistic, political, and cultural practices that was central to the group's philosophy.
Musically, BAG embraced many of the sounds being created by better-known free- jazz musicians in New York and their emerging counterparts in Chicago. This new music, itself, carried social implications, such as those of the tempestuous and seemingly unstructured group improvisations. Critic Frank Kofsky in 1970 controversially wrote: