Soundtrack to Struggle: The Last Poets Are Still Making Music about What Is Happening in the Streets, Using the Language of Streets

By D'ambrosio, Antonino | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Soundtrack to Struggle: The Last Poets Are Still Making Music about What Is Happening in the Streets, Using the Language of Streets


D'ambrosio, Antonino, Colorlines Magazine


By 1968, hopefulness in black communities was fading away. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program was undermined by the high cost of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated, and the country was spiraling into a chaos fueled by racism, poverty, and violence. Eleven cities rioted after King's assassination. The black community felt deeply betrayed by the white political establishment. With its most powerful and prominent leaders cut down in their prime, there seemed to be a political as well as a cultural void in the black community.

Enter The Last Poets, a group of creative activists who, in the eyes of many, are the pioneers of hip-hop. The Last Poets were formed in Marcus Garvey Park on May 19, 1968, when they read poetry at a memorial for Malcolm X. Thirty-five years later, they remain as relevant as ever and have experienced a much-deserved resurgence over the past decade. Still, far too few people know of The Last Poets and their impressive legacy. Their recordings are vital, alive, and fresh and their performances are powerful, emotional, and transcendent. They were the forerunners of today's Afrocentric rappers, opening the door to a jazz/hip-hop union that continues to be experimented with from London to New York.

They began as three poets and a drummer and quickly grew to include seven young black and Hispanic artists: David Nelson, Gylan Kain, Abiodun Oyewole, Felipe Luciano, Umar Bin Hassan, Jalal Nurridin, and Suliamn El Hadi. They took their name from a poem by South African poet Willie Kgositsile, who escaped the apartheid regime and joined Harlem's New York Black Writer's Workshop in 1968. Kgositsile posited the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of looming revolution:

"When the moment hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain.... Therefore we are the Last Poets of the world."

The Last Poets now consist of Abiodun Oyewole (born in Queens, New York) and Umar Bin Hassan (born in Akron, Ohio). I first met The Last Poets while working with them on the film As an Act of Protest, where they serve as political-creative mentor to the lead character, Cairo Medina. They help him deal with the madness brought on by a racist state that denies its people art and culture while using terror and torture against them.

Soon after that, we began work on a series of La Lutta NMC-produced events called This Is a Movement. The title, Bin Hassan says, invokes the basis for longevity. "We have been at this for over 35 years and to do that you must understand that you are part of a movement that is ever changing ... Art and culture is central to this work."

Over the course of the group's history, the members collaborated in various combinations to produce more than a dozen albums and several books.

The Last Poets served up an antidote to the sugary sweet pop music that dominated much of R&B and pop music in the 1960s. They took music to another level with illustrative lyrics detailing the harsh reality of America's social and racial failures, set against a backdrop of jazz inspired by the likes of Charlie Parker. Long before Marvin Gay recorded What's Going On, The Last Poets' records were a powerful balance of brutal honesty and beautiful truthfulness demanding that all who listen challenge themselves, their communities, and society.

It began with The Last Poets' self-titled 1970 debut, which in the words of Chuck D, "is one of the greatest American albums ever produced." Bringing to the forefront the raw vocals that would become the backbone of 1970s funk music, The Last Poets united street poetry and radical politics with sparse instrumentation and tribal beats.

Hip-hop owes a serious debt to The Last Poets and their formula. "All you need to do is just listen," Bin Hassan points out. …

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