The Last Poets

“You got some poets out there talking about fuck this and fuck that. That has nothing to do with poetry; it has nothing to do with refining your situation as a human being in this society or in the world.” – Umar Bin Hassan

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Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan and Babatunde (percussion) – The Last Poets
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

May 19th 1968 is and will always be an inaugural and poignant date in black history. Not only was it the day of Malcolm X’s birthday, but it was also the date on which Abiodun “Dun” Oyewole, Gylan Kain and David Nelson established one of rap music’s most conscious, enduring and politically potent poetry messengers, The Last Poets. Mouthpieces for a socially downtrodden and unheard people, the Last Poets procured their name from a poem by South African poet Willie Kgositsile, who wrote about the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of ensuring revolution. Potent rhyme-master Umar Bin Hassan became an integral team member within the year.

Having honed their rhythms and poetic flow on the streets of Harlem, New York, The Last Poets are renowned for their lyrical outpourings into tracks such as the early ’70s poems ‘Forty Deuce Street’, ‘Niggers Are Scared of Revolution’ and the now seminal album ‘This Is Madness’ – recently voted one of the 20th century’s best albums. Michael J Edwards caught up with rap Colossus’ Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun ‘Dun’ Oyewole during a truly rare live appearance at London’s Jazz Café, to discover what keeps their fires burning with over 40 years since their inception, the lowdown on their ‘Speak Up Newcomer’ gig/tour and if we still have a ways too, given all the recent turbulence in America.

Michael J Edwards: Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun ‘Dun’ Oyewole it’s an honour and a privilege to be sitting down here with you at London’s Jazz Café for this extremely rare appearance. Umar, you recently took some time out to assist with the upbringing of your grandson Jibril. Was that a pact you made with his parents, to help out and give him some guidance?

Umar Bin Hassan: It was a thing whereby my daughter had gotten married and they had bought this big house in Baltimore. I just went down to help out the three of them because I know what goes on in Baltimore and the neighbourhood they had just moved into…I thought they had it together but the bottom line is she didn’t want to be married and so he divorced her. So I ended up being there longer than I was supposed to. But in truth he’s (Jabril) been good for me because I had to give up a lot of stupid dumb shit I was doing in order to be there for him… So it’s been good for me man, it helped me out a whole lot. Sometimes I would give up gigs I would be doing so that she could go off and do other business things. And that was supposed to happen, that was supposed to happen for me; I ain’t mad at that at all. So I’m okay now.

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Umar Bin Hassan
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: What is the thinking behind ‘Speak Up Newcomer’ as the title of your current tour?

Umar Bin Hassan: Well, when I was going through rehabilitation from drugs, there was this organisation and they had meetings that we could go to everyday. And as a newcomer you’re supposed to speak up. So I went to this woman in a place called Cats Corridor in Detroit, Michigan. It was a rough place with a lot of drugs and alcohol and everything, but this is where the meeting was. There was this woman behind me and she kept punching me and saying, “Speak up Newcomer! Speak up Newcomer! Speak up Newcomer!” She said it three times and every time she would hit me in my side. She was beating me up, and I was getting ready to swing on her! Then this white boy next to me who was an addict said, “D’on’t do that because then their going to say that it’s your addiction causing you to react like that.” So instead of hitting out I left the meeting.

I was over here in London about two years ago and I was talking to Lisa Meade (UK Aide) about that term and she said, “Ok, when we bring young kids up on stage during your gig we’ll call it ‘Speak up Newcomer.’

Michael J Edwards: Your now back in it seems with your current solo project ‘Shoe Shine Boy Part 2’ which is a homage to your first-ever rhyme ‘Shoe Shine Boy’:
“Shoeshine shoeshine can’t be beat,
Shoeshine shoe shine, give your soul a treat!”
Please expand on the contents and vibe of the album and the book of poems and artwork that accompanies it?

Umar Bin Hassan: My stepson named the album that; he’s Brooklyn born and got his little studio. We got together and did the album and there was no money involved and no contracts. I just told him do what you got to do… But it’s based on my history as a shoe shine boy back then.

Michael J Edwards: I also understand that a dance production or Play featuring songs from the album is in the offing?

Umar Bin Hassan: That has nothing to do with me, it was all Brooklyn boys who done that. At first I wasn’t going to do the album, and then my son said it would be a good thing to do; so that’s how that came about. As I said there’s no money involved in no contracts. I barely had enough money to get up to Brooklyn, New York to do it. I got caught up in a snowstorm on one day trying to get it done. But it was a thing of love, because it was family man. So that’s how that came about.

Michael J Edwards: Obviously in recent months the Last Poets name has been deservedly in the ascendancy with you both featuring alongside Jalal in Mike Todd’s recent ‘Hustlers Convention’ documentary. And now Abiodun is to be featured in his own documentary directed by Vagabond Beaumont. What are your thoughts on the new generation of hip-hop artists getting enlightened?

Abiodun Oyewole: I stay in touch with young people, I work with them regularly on a consistent basis. I have been doing an ‘open house’ in my house for over thirty-five years; which actually invites young artists every Sunday to my apartment, and I cook food for them. And my mother says they’re not coming for poetry, they’re coming to eat your food! I have a crew of young people that I have been nurturing for some time, and out of that crew has come some special talent, some special poets. Umar also at one point had a workshop where he was having young folks like Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore and Asha Bandele come through for example…These are people who have got names of their own now having been nurtured by us; and it feels good because they’ve taken it seriously.

There are quite a few young spoken word artists who we really feel good about, because they had something to say, they’re not desecrating the language, they’re trying to raise your consciousness level. So I have faith, but I have faith because I’m working with them and I know that we have some good young folks that are writing. A lot of people have demonised them and come down on them, but I don’t because I see the youth as an extension of my life, and so I look forward to celebrating a long time, and I’m passing it on to you.

Michael J Edwards: In the documentary you make mention of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), the Father of The Black Arts Movement and the huge part he played in instigating your toasting/hip-hop poetry pathway via his conscious writings. You viewed him as your mentor and I believe visited him in his home in Newark. Please enlighten us further?

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Abiodun Oyewole
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Abiodun Oyewole: Amiri was like a father; he was our official mentor. He was the person whose feet we sat at and got information in the beginning, and he became a real good friend of ours. A lot of people don’t realise that as serious as he was and all the books that he wrote, and all the poetry he did he, had a real nice sense of humour. He was a wonderful person to be around, and we learned a great deal from him. We’ll miss him because he was definitely somebody who was always there for us, to give you a kind of capsule of what was going on.

I’m sure you are aware that your ex-group member and wordsmith collaborator Jalal Mansur Nurridin was in town recently in support of the Hustlers Convention documentary film release. No doubt the mutual appreciation of each other’s work still remains, but do you foresee the Last Poets reuniting and collaborating on projects at any time in the near future, or even performing on stage?

Umar Bin Hassan: We’ve been trying to do that with Jalal for the last twenty years, but every time he comes out it’s all about, “These brothers are not Muslim and I’m Muslim so I can’t work with them.” But the thing is he was the first one to bring everything back, he was the first one to put the old Last Poets name back out in the spotlight. I mean Abiodun is cool with it.

Babatunde: He had an opportunity when we were in Paris a great opportunity.

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Babatunde (Percussion)
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Umar bin Hassan: But the thing you’ve got to remember is that Jalal’s got something going on, I’ve got something going on, Abiodun got something going on with his documentary coming out soon – so whether it’s all individual acts, it’s still The Last Poets… For nine years I wasn’t doing anything, I almost lost my livelihood looking out for my grandchild. Everybody else had something going on and they said to me, “Well you better start doing something for yourself.” So stuff is definitely happening. I don’t know if it’s going to ascend into us all getting together again, but The Last Poets are out here, we’re still around and we’re still doing things man.

Babatunde: In fact it was in 2009 that we made a documentary called ‘Made In Amerikkka’ which was a collaboration of all the (Last) Poets and musicians who are part of the Last Poets. It was a beautiful event, everybody was good, and everybody was cool. It would have been nice to continue. So there is no issue here regarding that happening.

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Babatunde (percussion)
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Abiodun Oyewole: By the way Babatunde is our percussionist, the heartbeat of the Last Poets. He plays the drums, but he is a lot more than just a drummer, he is in many ways the glue that holds us together. He keeps us balanced in many ways, and I think every group needs to have a sensible person to be with them because things can get crazy sometimes. That documentary (Made in Amerikkka) is without question the best documentary that we’ve done to date. Ironically, it was done by a Cuban; then the man who did it checked out about two or three years ago I guess – and his name was Claude Santiago.

He was a beautiful guy, oh my goodness! And I’ve always felt this, that he kind of died of a broken heart, because the booking agency that hired him to do the documentary paid him, but he also wanted to travel with us, because we were still performing, and he felt that the documentary wasn’t complete. So he was looking forward to travelling with us and taking more pictures, doing more shows and lectures. Then all of a sudden he contracted something and checked out.

Michael J Edwards: Abiodun, you expressed in previous interviews about your disillusionment regarding modern rappers regurgitating your tracks but in a non-conscious way. Point in case being ‘Party and Bullshit’ utilised by both Biggie Smalls and Busta Rhymes. Given the fact that your poem promoted conscious awareness using language that challenged your audience and also that the original message of ‘Party and Bullshit’ was to inspire people to get off their backsides, this must have been mightily perturbing for you?

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Abiodun Oyewole
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Abiodun Oyewole: Well, it was, at the same time it was partially predicted in that particular poem that that’s what we were going to be doing. Instead of having a revolution we were going to party and bullshit. So in a way, yes I’m perturbed, but in another way all I know is that poets seem to be prophets also because that became the mantle for the kids. when they were dancing. I mean Umar and I went to a club in downtown Manhattan one time, and a lot of people were there such as Quincy Jones, Valerie Simpson…The place was packed!

Umar Bin Hassan: I remember, I called Abiodun and said that they’re playing your song upstairs.

Abiodun Oyewole: It was the craziest thing because there were about five hundred kids upstairs, and the music was going and they were all singing, “Party and Bullshit!” And I told the guys, “I’ve got to get out of here! I’m going to go crazy! They are using that line to do exactly what we said was going to stop a revolution from taking place!” So it was weird, but right now to be perfectly honest, just to update you, I have a lawyer and I’m suing everybody who’s used it.

Michael J Edwards: How far have we come as a people since the civil rights, and revolutionary years of the 1960s, spearheaded by Brother Malcolm X and Brother Martin Luther King, given the overtly racist incidents that have occurred in various US cities in recent months/years; many perpetrated by ‘so-called’ law enforcement officers?

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Abiodun Oyewole, Babatunde (percussion) and Umar Bin Hassan – The Last Poets
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Abiodun Oyewole: Progress has been made, but much more needs to be done. That’s as simple as I can say it. We’ve made some progress; there are certain things that were here twenty or thirty years ago, but there’s so much more that can be done. And what you have to understand is that having Barack Obama as president of America right now; it is because of that that there is a great backlash, there are a lot of white folks who really hate the idea that a black man not only won for four years, but he ran a second time and won again… They were so displeased with Jimmy Carter when he was the president, because Jimmy Carter always had a beautiful relationship with black people. They called him the peanut farmer and all that stuff. But the fact is that he put black people in place to make a difference in black people’s lives.

For example, he made Ernie Green, who was one of the Little Rock Nine, the head of the Labor Department – there were jobs available for black men! They were going to prison as much during Jimmy Carter’s administration; because if I’m a young man without a high school diploma and I don’t have a skill, then I need the skill in carpentry, plumbing, electrical work or something, so I can earn a living. Jimmy Carter made it possible by having Ernie Green run the Labor Department, and he in turn started a program called the Recruitment Training Program. So all across the country black men were getting skills – I mean how much does it cost to hire a plumber? They come and look at your pipes and it’s seventy-five dollars right there; he hasn’t done nothing, he’s just ‘looked’ at your pipes!

And we had friends who capitalised on that and they’re doing fine, so I was very disappointed in the fact that Barack Obama had not put people in place to help the hood; and we looked at him like he was Jesus Christ! We thought everything was going to change because a black guy was in office, but he’s just a maintenance man. I know what he’s about, he’s just there to maintain the system and that’s never worked in our favour.

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Abiodun Oyewole
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Given all your wordly-wise knowledge and experience garnered over the years, what advice would you give the new generation of spoken word poets, toasters, and rappers who have a dream and a message to be heard?

Abiodum Oyewole: I’ll just say one concise thing and of course Umar will have something to say and so will Bubba (Babatunde). I’d say be true to yourself, be honest with yourself, but recognise the situation that your people are in; and having a voice is powerful – use it wisely! Don’t just be in the circus continuously staying in the clown zone. Say something to try to uplift your people.

Umar Bin Hassan: You know we poets have been put in a position of healers you know; organic healers, natural healers. Because I made a statement about two weeks up at Dun’s (Abiodun) house – You know some people have to go to doctors to sign a release, some people have to go to the attorneys to get their permission. But here we are, we’re a bunch of poets who get up on stage every day and people just naturally open themselves up to us. They let us get inside their hearts and their minds and souls, and that is an honour, that is a privilege for some of us to understand that we have. Once you understand that privilege that somebody is opening their whole essence to you, you’ve got to respect that and you’ve got to respect that by using your words as clearly, as significantly, as honestly and constructively as possible. This is no game – you’ve got that little space up there, that’s a lovely little space you have at that moment. And it’s not yours; it’s been entrusted to you by the ancestors and almighty. So it’s not your space, it’s been entrusted to you to see how wise and intelligent you’re going to be with that space. You got some poets out there talking about fuck this and fuck that, that has nothing to do with poetry; it’s has nothing to do with refining your situation as a human being in this society or in the world. So you’ve got to be honest, and just like the poets, actors and musicians want respect from the audience, the poets, actors and musicians must give respect to the audience also by trying to be as wise and as honest as possible.

Babatunde: Words should be used to uplift, words should be used to encourage, and you can still make money doing that in the process. You don’t have to use negative, degrading, self-hating narcissism to make money. Keep it real!

Michael J Edwards: Thank you for taking time out to express your thoughts and feelings with uk vibe this evening.

Michael J Edwards

Big Mike and UK Vibe thanks to Malik Al Nasir for arranging access to the gig and Lisa Meade for allowing access to The Last Poets.

Essential Websites:
http://www.umarbinhassan.com/legend.html

Essential Documentary:
Harlem’s Last Poet – Abiodun Oyewole (Coming soon) – A Film by Vagabond Beaumont

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

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