Article by Margaret Busby

Margaret Busby describes how the poetry of Langston Hughes, with its close relationship to the music of its time, still resonates strongly with many of today’s issues.

More than half a century has elapsed since Langston Hughes (1902–67) – unofficial poet laureate of Harlem and a major presence in African-American cultural history – composed his epic multimedia suite of poems, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. He had begun writing it with the Newport Jazz Festival of 1960 as a backdrop, and its content explored the struggles for artistic and cultural freedom then taking place. Ask Your Mama was dedicated to Louis Armstrong, ‘the greatest horn player of them all’, and opposite the poetry (all written in capital letters), in the right-hand margin of each page, Hughes gave musical cues about how the work should eventually be performed ‘for the benefit of those who might like to hear the music that I heard in my mind as I wrote’. There were even liner notes provided at the end of the book, as if it were a record.

In his writing, Hughes had always had a close relationship with jazz (he collaborated on albums with the likes of Charles Mingus and Randy Weston). The musical journey he takes in this extraordinary twelve-part work naturally engages with the African-American heritage of blues and gospel, Dixieland and New Orleans, bebop and beyond. Hughes also linked his subject matter with Afro-Cuban music, German lieder, Jewish liturgy, West Indian calypso and African drumming.  

Ask Your Mama is aptly described as a soundtrack to the sixties, yet its powerful social commentary on the struggle for freedom and equality remains ever relevant. While rooted in African-American cultural history, it is a transnational work, connecting the US with Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. Hughes addresses weighty and radical issues including segregation, Pan-Africanist ideology and the cultural fabric of the world, referencing and paying homage to a variety of individuals – Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman – expanding African America’s image of itself (as well as alluding to such homegrown wordplay as the practice of ‘signifying’ and ‘playing the dozens’). 

Ask Your Mama was yet to have its first performance by the time of its author’s death in 1967, but the brilliance of its conception has ensured that it still resonates powerfully with many of today’s issues. The vitality, poignancy and sometimes humour of Hughes’ words, his prescience and the range of world history he connects have now been brought to life in The Langston Hughes Project, through which rapper and actor Ice-T joins musical director/trumpeter Ron McCurdy in a brilliant 21st-century realisation of Langston Hughes’s creative masterpiece. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz recreates a magical moment in a journey from the Harlem Renaissance through the beat poets and the birth of bebop, to the looming explosion of black performance arts in the 1960s.

Using a vivid visual backdrop, this extraordinary multimedia performance evokes themes of unity, cooperation, pride in identity and diverse culture, interpreting and illuminating Hughes’ original vision for his work in a way that resonates as strongly today, ever inspired and ever inspiring.

This article appeared first in the Barbican November 2015 Guide. 

​Ice-T and Ron McCurdy bring the work of Langston Hughes to life on Saturday 21 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.