Freedom Loop (Mixtape for Jake, Essay-style)
Jake was cool. Like, take the consonants off the ends of that word, and settle down into the groove between the O’s; then, re-attach the consonants onto that deeper rhythm. Put it into your walk, the way you talk, your prosodic choices. Your address to the world. That kind of cool.
You should play some Dilla joints, like trio style… I think it’d be fresh.
So many can attest to Jake the man—compassionate, witty, wicked smart. I’d like to speak to my friendship with him as artistic kin, and speak the mourning I feel for not only the loss of our amazing friend, but the power and presence of his work, his way with the work, and what a loss we now face. The quotes here are from a talk Jake gave last spring, and from a voicemail by J Dilla, on “JDillatude,” by Jake’s beloved Robert Glasper.
Nobody never really did that
You should, why don’t you do that
Although a lot of us share the writing of poetry, we know there are different kinds of poets. There are shoemaker poets, skywriting poets, bricklayer poets, politician poets. As many know, he originally trained as an architect. A real architect is not just an engineer (though his knowledge of prosody and poetics was encyclopedic), but understands how spaces can draw in—or, suppress—being. Jake’s poems began as simpler structures, and also more narrowly elegaic. But even this earlier work aimed to release this suppressed life, or lives, to intervene on these closed spaces.
Awright, hit me back.
And tell me if you
In the last few years, as he’s really been seeing and understanding the broader outlines of his great project, he’s embodied the more inventive direction that he wanted his work to head in. He has always also been a DJ poet, and his newer direction was a deeper expression of that. How not only past, but future, get trapped in these insufficient structures, insufficient portraits. The amplitude of Jake’s work was growing and growing; these existing books’ complicated gaze only drew into it more—more questions, and more forms to accommodate those questions.
“Race, I want to say, is not a thing, is not a sign, is not a place—race processes, race moves, race lives, and we live within it. Race began long ago—it has always already begun—and whatever conversation we have, we have within its continuing, and we continue it.”
Jake’s poems are ethical poems; they offer an argument not so much against forgetting as for waking up. They are not poems of comfort or requiem, though the spirit—and intent—of elegy still runs deep. The speakers are implicated in a forgetting, a local sense of distraction, while they, themselves, speak for those who can no longer speak. Jake used poetry as a way of asking questions, of holding places and people accountable, of exploring public spaces, the stories that they tell, don’t tell.
“To hold otherwise is to hold a blindness—a comforting blindness, a privilege, the privilege at the center of whiteness…apart from which is the other, is the powerless, is whatever is race or raced.”
Jake “got” white privilege, meaning, the deeper ontological, existential, even spiritual dimensions of race, like precious few white people, let alone white poets, do. This loss, so sudden and Jake so young, feels impossible. I look forward to seeing Abide, his latest manuscript, dedicated to Sarah, in print somehow. And his monograph about memory and the civil rights movement. He was designing quite a building—maybe a city—When it would have all been done, he said, “Inscriptions for Air” would have been ten books in all. I mourn not only the man, but his unfinished city, in which I had hoped for us all to live.
Toni Morrison describes what she calls our “disremembered” past, the past that won’t stay past—and is thus a source of what she calls, describing a character in Beloved, “bottomless longing.” Jake’s speakers ask us to locate ourselves in his poems, ask us whether we are those absent, those there but parading in forgetfulness, or, like the speaker, who are awake inside of history, and pointing the way to that more open space.
“Let’s get closer, get within.
Propose a relation, live relatively. ...
To relate is to tell a story. The relative is the one to whom you are tied. To relation is to talk, to tell, to story, to walk forth with others, to raise the voice in a tone another will recognize as, somehow, her own, his own, to relation is, then, to sing together.”
More and more his vision was about loops of past to present, loops between people, the endless and cycling interconnectedness that, to him, was in fact what we call time. So many of his new poems mention antennae, broadcasting, radio, the way that lives spark from body to body, past, future, present. If they are epistolary, they are cosmically epistolary, letters to his friends, to artists with whose work he felt affinity, or, of course, the civil rights martyrs whose memory he was determined to make, and urge us to keep, present tense.
[piano chords] My man Damion Reid,
on the drums [applause]
As he was to so many, Jake was my brother. In our friendship was real freedom, by which I mean the privilege to change, and be changed by, one another. His own work encouraged me to reconsider, and remain faithful to, elegy. And we had many plans for projects that would lead us all more deeply into a relational notion of race. Not as a debt, a moral obligation. But as a fact, which can either be seen, or ignored. “Let’sdoit,” he’d say, in his cool bass. In fact, we were just working on a project a few days before he died, with Evie Shockley and Thomas Sayers Ellis; we were on a conference call, all of our voices rising to meet in mid-air.
[piano chords] Vicente Archer,
on the bass [applause]
Jake walked the walk, in every way. I mourn not only the man, but the revolution that was emerging in his heart and pen. I keep thinking of Adrienne Rich’s lines, “An honorable human relationship— that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’— is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved…It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.” So few, and now one extraordinary one fewer.