Black berets, bongo drums, Maynard G. Krebs... These are a few images that come to mind when someone utters the word "beatnik." But the term will be reclaimed this weekend when three eminent African-American cultural figures -- Oscar Brown Jr., Amiri Baraka and Melvin Van Peebles -- converge on Auraria's King Center for a session of speech, cinema and unity called "The Rebirth of Beatnik."
"In accordance with the Pan African Arts Society mission, 'The Rebirth of Beatnik' is cultivating the palate of the arts community," says Ashara Ekundayo, the society's founder. The PAAS is organizing the event in conjunction with the Denver Pan African Film Festival, which winds up Sunday at Starz FilmCenter. "With the resurgence of beatnik, specifically the mainstreaming of poetry and spoken word, it's important to honor the veterans," adds Ekundayo. "Melvin, Oscar and Amiri are still putting it down. They are still pissing people off."
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Indeed. Baraka, one of America's most brilliant writers and activists, as well as the poet laureate of the state of New Jersey, is still catching flak from his 2001 poem "Somebody Blew Up America," a provocative piece that scathingly denounced the violence and greed of American society that he contends instigated 9/11. Van Peebles is known primarily for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a seminal, genre-founding work that kick-started his decades-long career as director, actor, composer, painter and novelist. Brown, whose tenure in the entertainment industry stretches back half a century, has labored in just about every media imaginable: radio, television, plays and poetry. Besides creating such celebrated works as the spoken-word piece "Forty Acres and a Mule" and the album Freedom Now Suite with legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, he continues to write, record and perform prolifically.
Brown will recite from his oeuvre while appearing alongside Baraka and Van Peebles in an impromptu question-and-answer session conducted by KUVO's Rodney Franks -- but the auteur has even more of a stake in 'Rebirth.' It's a benefit for Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress, a documentary on Brown's lifetime of adversity and achievements. The project is the brainchild of renowned local filmmaker, storyteller, actor and educator donnie l. betts, who has had his camera trained on his friend on and off for a half-dozen years. As Brown explains, "I always have stuff to add to my story, just in terms of surviving and being alive. Plus, donnie's interviewed many friends of mine, like Amiri Baraka and Abbie Lincoln, and Gene Zimmerman from the Smithsonian Institute. He's been from coast to coast with me; it's been a comprehensive look. I'm no film critic, but I've seen samples of what he's done so far with the project, and it's been put together in a very interesting, cohesive way."
The Rebirth of Beatnik: An Evening With Oscar Brown Jr., Amiri Baraka and Melvin Van Peebles
6 p.m. Saturday, May 1, King Center, Auraria campus, $35, 303-832-3190
"Of course," he adds with a laugh, "it's on one of my favorite subjects."
While very much still a work in progress, Music Is My Life will be previewed in short pieces during Saturday's gathering; a percentage of the day's proceeds will also go to !BLAM, a community youth project created and run by PAAS that focuses on black literature, art and music. Brown, Baraka and Van Peebles will be presented with PAAS awards, and the entire evening will be emceed by Tamara Banks of WB2 News. And although anything can happen on a stage containing three such incendiary icons, one thing's for sure: There won't be any dog-eared Kerouac paperbacks or finger-popping daddy-o's in attendance.