Jayne Cortez was born in 1934 in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and died in 2012 in New York City. In addition to publishing a number of collections, including Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere (1996) and Mouth on Paper (1977), they released several recordings, many of which feature their band, the Firespitters. They have been described as a lyrically innovative and visceral poet, and their work has been presented at universities, festivals, and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Jayne Cortez; poet, performer, activist, musician, publisher, feminist. Their work moves beyond category by virtue of embodying so many voices simultaneously. Within a time where racial difference created a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Cortez had been highly visible. When to question or to speak could have meant pain, their voice and strength empowered them to be one of the central figures of the Black Arts Movement – the artistic outgrowth of the Black Power Movement that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. They had armies of words behind them; fusing African and African-American oral tradition, political protest, American Black culture, jazz and blues.
Starting in the 1960s, Jayne Cortez began performing their work to musical accompaniment. From an early age they developed an interest in jazz and blues through their parents’ Latin and jazz record collections. Their early exposure ranging from Latin American dance bands to field recordings of indigenous American music, shaped their later inspirations and heightened their prophetic voice, where words were usually chanted, and spoken in rhythmic and calibrated repetition almost resembling the sounds of Caribbean drumming. As they talked, words morphed musically. As they performed, poems became music. They were meant for the ear more than for the eye. More than a sheer play on words, rather an amalgamation of revelations and distillations of experience.
Their work is confrontational – the hurtling immediacy in their voice, shifts in tempo and modulations of their vocal tone; finding meaning from the urgencies of American Black culture. Jayne Cortez, who had a political, as much as a musical life, started their life-long ‘poetical’ protest coming of age artistically at the height and centre of the Arts and Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the early 1960s. They reflected conditions of their identity, and politics of the 20th century through their surreal and dynamic innovations in lyricism. As a woman, they dealt with all the realities surrounding their life through their practices and attempted to bridge the gaps in the understanding of the between. In If the drum is a woman; they rigorously dismiss misogynist practices by writing; ‘… then understand your drum / your drum is not docile / your drum is not invisible / your drum is not inferior to you / your drum is a woman / so don’t reject your drum don’t try to dominate your drum…’ As an activist, they employed words in their search and demand for justice within the current atmosphere of American Society. In There It Is, they revolted against destructive and exploitive norms of the ruling class, ‘…The ruling class will tell you that / there is no ruling class / as they organise their liberal supporters into / white supremacist lynch mobs / organise their children into / ku klux klan gangs / organise their police into / killer cops..’
Their prophetic words as direct and surreal as they could be, welded themselves into our imagination, our brain and our ear. Their poetry drew meaning from experiences of the current socio-political conditions yet it seeked to create new meanings by attempting to re-define the community’s self-perception and identity. They used the power of poetry as a means of political, social and individual recreation and defended the rights they deeply believed through unique lyricism. In the world of casualties, Cortez was and always will be a warrior.