Express Newark Announces 'Blues People' as Annual Theme, With Art and Events Inspired by 60th Anniversary of Book by Leroi Jones, Later Known as Amiri Baraka


Express Newark, the center for socially engaged art and design at Rutgers University—Newark, announces this year's annual theme as “Blues People.'' Highlights include the February 20 opening of five newly commissioned art installations.

Inspired by the 60th anniversary of the acclaimed book "Blues People: Negro Music in White America" by writer, poet, and political activist Leroi Jones, who later renamed himself Amiri Baraka, the programming is made up of concerts and live performances, public lectures, community activations, and master classes that explore race, class, performativity, and social justice movements.

In the spirit of returning to this groundbreaking book, Express Newark will feature the following award-winning writers, musicians, and visual artists revisiting and reimagining a pivotal work of theirs that is in conversation with Jones’s vanguard ideas: Derrick Adams, Adama Delphine Fawundu, Nikky Finney, Adebunmi Gbadebo, Jasmine Mans, Cesar Melgar, Kevin Quashie, Guthrie Ramsey, Evie Shockley, Accra Shepp, and Tracy K. Smith.
"Over sixty years ago, Leroi Jones (who later renamed himself Amiri Baraka) published 'Blues People, the iconic book on Black music and American history," said Professor Salamishah Tillet, the director of Express Newark. "By doing so, he broke new ground and told a sweeping story of migration, class, artistic experimentation, and African-American identity. It has been a true honor and privilege to witness how some of our country’s most celebrated poets, performers, and visual artists have contemplated the legacy of 'Blues People' as inspiration for their own art at Express Newark."

The theme was launched in December with an event featuring musician and musicologist Guthrie Ramsey, Express Newark’s inaugural Free School Fellow, who opened the series with a concert called “Amiri’s Dream and The Blue Futures of Negro Music” that trace the evolution of African American music from slavery to Bebop to hip hop. The event included Ramsey teaching a master music class and a conversation with Rutgers professor and Grammy-nominated jazz musician Stefon Harris.

On February 20, Express Newark will host the opening of five newly commissioned art installations that explore what it means to be “Blues People” in the twenty-first century.

Inside the Paul Robeson Gallery, multidisciplinary artist Derrick Adams reimagines “The Holdout,” a social sculpture with a curated radio station that he initially exhibited at Alijira: A Center for Contemporary Art in Newark in 2015. Experimenting with the format of a pirate radio station and live guest DJ sets, Adams features conversations with renowned artists and local activists about gentrification, economic development, and land ownership.

Surrounding Adams’s sculpture will be street photographer Cesar Melgar’s “Newark Master Plan,” a series of black and white images of homes in Newark from 2019 to 2022 that bear “Notice of Public Hearing on Proposed Development” banners now being shown for the first time. Exhibiting alongside his photos from his 2018 “Street Views” series set in the Ironbound and Downtown Newark, Melgar’s poignant work captures how increased living costs, residential displacement, and rapid redevelopment actively threaten the vitality of Newark today.

Multimedia artist Adebunmi Gbadebo will feature two newly hand-made site-specific paper textiles inspired by her work “At the Bottom of the Atlantic Ocean There is a Railroad Made of Human Bones” in the Window Gallery. Taking its title from a line in Baraka’s poem “Wise, why’s, y’s” and made up of Black hair, cotton, rice paper, and indigo dye, her piece explores labor, land, and familial legacy at “True Blue Plantation,” the rice and indigo plantation where her ancestors were enslaved in Fort Motte, South Carolina.

Across in the Box Gallery, photographer and visual artist Adama Delphine Fawundu’s revisits her experimental short film, “Who We Be”(2017), which explicitly takes up Jones’s emphasis on Black music by exploring hip hop, social language, and activism in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. Fawundu’s wallpaper comprises photographic transfers of Black hand gestures throughout the African diaspora, which will serve as the backdrop to the room.

Exhibited on the first floor of Express Newark are photographer Accra Shepp’s “Occupying Wall Street” and “Covid-19 Journals,” a series of black-and-white portraits of the protestors of New York City’s 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and their counterparts in the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020. Installed on the main floor of the building and incorporating Baraka’s poetry and the music of his father, avant-garde jazz musician, and Baraka’s good friend Archie Shepp, Accra Shepp’s installation dissolves the boundaries between the individual and the collective, reminding us that each person present at these marches plays an essential role in the safeguarding of American democracy and achieving radical forms of justice.

Bridging last year's topic of “Aliveness” and this year's theme is a public conversation by our foremost contemporary Black poets and scholars. On March 7, 2024, Rutgers Professor John Keene will moderate the public conversation “Aliveness and The Black Poem” that features Nikky Finney, Kevin Quashie, Evie Shockley, and Tracy K. Smith on the making and meaning of contemporary African American poetry. Later that spring, Jasmine Mans, the inaugural poet-in-residence at New Arts Justice, will do the public activation “Nana’s Kitchen” based on her book BLACK GIRL, CALL HOME.

Spring programming will culminate with a public conversation about the legacy of “Blues People” today with a public conversation between art historian and curator Kellie Jones and artist, activist, and the City of Newark’s Mayor Ras Baraka that Professor Salamishah Tillet will moderate.

“Blues People” is organized by Alliyah Allen, Express Newark’s associate curator and program coordinator. Additional support is provided by executive director Salamishah Tillet, creative director Nick Kline, Anonda Bell, the Director of the Paul Robeson Galleries, Brooke Finister, the program coordinator of New Arts Justice, and Anthony Alvarez, the assistant director of Shine Portrait Studio and the coordinator of the Free School at Express Newark.

Rutgers University - Newark, the Ford Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation, The HarbourView Equity Foundation, and Duggal Visual Solutions provide generous funding for this exhibition. Additional support is from New Arts Justice, Shine Portrait Studio, Paul Robeson Galleries, and Harmony Lab.

About Express Newark

Express Newark is a center for socially engaged art and design where people can create art together, learn collaboratively, and build coalitions to advocate for change.
Express Newark honors our city’s historical legacy as an epicenter of art and activism by being a third space that bridges the campus and community and supports contemporary artists dedicated to social justice in Newark and beyond.
About Rutgers University - Newark

Rutgers University–Newark is one of three regional campuses of Rutgers University, New Jersey's State University. It is a remarkably diverse, urban, public research university that is not just in Newark but of Newark—an anchor institution of our home city. We think of anchor institutions as place-based organizations that persist in their communities over generations, even in the face of substantial capital flight, serving as social glue, economic engines, or both.