“This is important because people don’t know where hip-hop begins. And where does hip-hop begin? Hip-hop begins here with The Last Poets. They are the seed, the kernel from which everything grows. They are the roots. They are the foundation.” – Vagabond Beaumont
Vagabond Beaumont, remember the name. Vagabond is an artist, writer and filmmaker as well as being a very enigmatic individual. His credentials are very impressive indeed. A graduate from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & the Arts Vagabond began his career in film early on, working on independent black films such as Spikes Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”, quickly learning all aspects of filmmaking and forging his own artistic and ideological goals. His first film MACHETERO was about the violent aspects of the Puerto Rican independence movement garnering awards in England, Thailand, Ireland, Wales, New York and South Africa (Best First Film at the International Film Festival South Africa). He also produced the documentary “RICANSTRUCTING VIEQUES working in conjunction with NYC based Puerto Rican punk band Ricanstruction.
Beaumont’s latest project to be released via his ‘Audio/Visual Terrorism’ media company is truly a labour of love. A documentary film entitled ‘Harlem’s Last Poet’ – a detailed Exposé on Abiodun Oyewole, co-founder of the Last Poets, one of the most important groups in music/spoken word history. Michael J Edwards sat down with Mr Beaumont prior to The Last Poets performance at London’s Jazz Café. The evening was being filmed by Vagabond’s film crew as part of the aforementioned documentary.
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
Michael J Edwards: Greetings Mr Vagabond Beaumont, first off, please give us some background on and purpose of your film production/media company?
Vagabond Beaumont: My producers, Joe Carraha, Omar Villegas, Tonxti Vasquez and myself specialise in omissions in history, and the name of the company is ‘Audio/Visual Terrorism’. So what we’re trying to do is highlight or tell Abiodun’s story; he’s got a very interesting life, and he’s an amazing artist who has inspired people all over the world. He’s been living in Harlem for more than forty years and he’s been talking about the issues that affect African-Americans primarily. Those issues are not issues that are exclusive to the United States and exclusive to African-Americans; hence why we’re in London.
Abiodun has said that he’s travelled all over the world and that people have come to him talking about what they’ve done with the Last Poets music. The IRA have used it to inspire people to join their ranks. He’s told me stories about people coming from all over the world and talking to him and saying to him what The Last Poets did. So the funny thing for me is that The Last Poets were doing something that is specific to the United States; they were dealing with issues that they were confronted with on a daily basis within their time. They understood about the issues in Africa, colonialism and neo-colonialism and that kind of anything; but, not realising that these same sort of issues were happening in Brixton, Lewisham and Deptford etc.
Michael J Edwards: Yes, the same issues but a different country?
Vagabond Beaumont: Right! And so for me a few months ago, Abiodun and I got hooked up when his publisher Gabrielle David of 2Leaf Press needed some publicity photos, so I got to meet him. We went out and shot some photos, and there were just supposed to be publicity photos, but they wound up becoming the cover shots for his book, which is ‘Branches of the Tree of Life.’ I photographed and designed cover. I have been shooting book videos for authors, and what I’ve been doing is taking the authors and having them give me a little bit of background of who they are, and then taking that and having them do a poem or something to give a sample of what it is these people are trying to achieve with the art and with themselves.
Abiodun enjoyed that experience so much that he said, “I only want you shooting me from here on out.” So I said, “Well I have to do a documentary on you because your life has been so amazing and almost like stranger than fiction!” you read the Prelude in his book, ‘Branches of the Tree of Life,’ he talk about his whole life, and it’s an amazing story, and that’s just the highlight reel do you know what I mean… It’s four or five pages; it’s a two-minute trailer to the two-hour movie. And so my thing was this would be a great documentary, not to mention the fact that we’re living in a time in which in United States – I don’t know about the issues here in the UK – but we’re living in a time in the United States where we’re having a lot of black people being shot by the police.
I was in Harlem a few weeks ago (hanging out with The Last Poets; I took a young and very talented London drummer Moses Boyd to meet Abiodun Oyewole and The Last Poets were having a meeting. The night before The Last Poets played The Stone, a club in New York City.) The musician Bill Laswell was there at the club, and he said, “You guys need to come back. I have a recording space, you need to come and record.” Then he said something I felt was profound – He said, “We need The Last Poets again; look at what’s going on in the world, we need The Last Poets. The world needs to hear from The Last Poets!” And that had a profound effect on me when they told me that story, because yeah it’s true. What’s changed from 1968, 1970? What’s changed? It’s almost like so much has changed, but on the other side nothing has changed. Do we live in a different time? Do we live under different conditions? Are the situations different? Yes, but for some reason the outcomes are the same, so how is this not working out. So I think this is a perfect time for The Last Poets to come back.
No one lives forever, so if I don’t do this documentary right now with Abiodun, and talk about him and his work, and what it means, and what he’s done – and he’s done it all, and for all the right reasons; it’s all come from all the right places – so why not let people know where that’s coming from. So that’s the reason and the documentary is called, ‘Harlem’s Last Poet.’ He always says that Harlem’s had a huge impact on his life, and he lives there and he’s part of The Last Poets.
Michael J Edwards: Having interviewed Jalal Mansur Nuriddin in 2014, getting Abiodun’s and Umar’s story brings everything to a 360° completion.
Vagabond Beaumont: The other thing is I worked with punk band for about twelve years, so I know about the inner workings of band politics and managing, and so forth; and the thing that bothers me is that they don’t have a manager or a go to person.
Michael J Edwards: So what is Lisa Meade’s role?
Vagabond Beaumont: Lisa is someone in the UK who loves The Last Poets and is doing it out of love! Do you understand the impact that an artist or artists can have on people who they’re willing to go out and put their life on hold for a week or two weeks or whatever, to make sure that these people are being taken care of.
Michael J Edwards: I find what you just said quite profound, because to me The Last Poets are an essential and indelible foot-note in musical history, yet other than UK Vibe there are no major radio stations or press publications covering this historic event?
Vagabond Beaumont: But if you ask people who The Last Poets, they say that sounds kind of familiar blah, blah, blah; and then you play something for them and they’re like, “Oh, I’ve heard that!” But they haven’t, sometimes they heard the track from a sample somewhere else.
Michael J Edwards: And not necessarily sampled in the same consciousness as Abiodun.
Vagabond Beaumont: Exactly! So that’s important. The other day Steve Wonder gave a speech at the BET awards, and he was telling artist not the so boastful, so prideful, so egotistical. And his thing was, it’s an honour to be in that place, it’s a special thin and you need to realise it’s a special thing. You must realise that you are only there because of those people; those people are supporting you. You’re not where you are solely because of who you are, but because people have supported you and put you in that place. That’s a privilege, it’s a privilege, it’s not a given. There are a lot of talented people who never get the shine. And he said, “It’s rare, if you do.”
But the most important thing he said to artists who have been boastful, and prideful, and egotistical – running wild with their ego – is that they are not the beginning of anything and they are not the end of anything. What they’re doing doesn’t begin with them or end with them, that they are part of a continuation of something that started from their grandfather’s, grandfather’s, grandfather’s, grandfather’s, grandfather, and that you’re a continuation, you’re not the beginning and you’re not the end. This is important because people don’t know where hip-hop begins. And where does hip-hop begin? Hip-hop begins here with the Last Poets. They are the seed, the kernel from which everything grows. They are the roots. They are the foundation. So people don’t know that, how do we move forward if you don’t know where you’re from.
Michael J Edwards: As Ziggy Marley sang in ‘Tomorrow People’, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future!”’
Vagabond Beaumont: Yeah, exactly! So for me it’s important to have their story told.
Michael J Edwards: How did your musical education begin in your formative years?
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
Vagabond Beaumont: Listening to the radio as a kid – My father was a jazz head. When I was born he had to stop buying jazz records; it was either the kid all the jazz records right! (Laughs) Back then they had a thing with the Colombian record club, you would buy one record and you’d get one free, and my father would buy five or six or seven. So then my mother said, “No! No! No! You’ve got to stop that!”
Michael J Edwards: Rent and mortgage go out the window, right?
Vagabond Beaumont: Right, Right! So I grew up listening to jazz, not understanding it completely, because I think with certain music you have to be mature enough. But it gave me the knowledge to say one day I’ll understand what’s happening, I understand this music. I remember listening to John Coltrane when I was like eighteen years old, and I had an epiphany and I stopped it, and I said, “I’m too young to listen to this music; I haven’t had enough life experience to listen to this music. I’m not going to not listen to it, I’m going to approach it over time. And as I get older I’ll understand the music more and more.”
So for me searching for music, and searching for art, and searching for things that nobody was paying attention to was important to me. I was a seeker; I could go into record store and be gone for four hours. Just going through records looking for music, trying to remember what it is that I heard six months ago, or somebody told me the name of the band and I can’t remember. And I’m just standing there waiting to access that memory somehow, so that I can look for that record.
Michael J Edwards: When did you first discover The Last Poets music and message?
Vagabond Beaumont: The first time i heard The Last Poets was on the radio; on BLS i think, it was in 1981/82. Not understanding it completely but knowing there was something there. Actually, it wasn’t the radio, I went to High School with guys who were trying to be DJs, and back in those days you would go to somebody’s house and listen to a record. I had a friend in High School; we went to his house and listen to this record. It starts the imagination rolling, do you know what I mean – it’s important! You have to leave something behind for somebody else to come back and find. Just like when I was eighteen years old and tripping over John Coltrane, there’s some sixteen year old who’s looking for The Last Poets; he doesn’t know he’s looking for The Last Poets; she doesn’t know she’s looking for The Last Poets! And then you and I and them leave something behind, they somehow find it and it opens up a whole new world for them.
Michael J Edwards: It’s akin to. When Giles Petersen, Jez Nelson and Chris Phillips would play tracks from groups like A Tribe Called Quest, which utilised a loop from Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man; then immediately afterwards they would play Hancock’s original jazz version.
Vagabond Beaumont: Exactly! They would educate the audience. It’s important, it’s very important! It’s like breadcrumbs; there’s another poet from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; he’s one of the original members Nuyorican Poets – his name is Jesús Papoleto Meléndez. I interviewed him and he said something that was interesting, he said, “The problem with Americans is that they have a Hansel and Gretel memory; someone ate all the breadcrumbs and now they don’t know their history.” I thought that was a beautiful image, do you know what I mean? So I think that we need to leave these little markers for people, not for them to find a way, but to find their own way. In the same way that you found them, in the same way that I found them.
When I went to pick up my camera gear, there was a twenty-three year-old kid sitting behind the counter and they said to me, “What are you doing? I said, “I’m doing a documentary on The Last Poets/Abiodun Oyewole. He said to me, “Who are they? And I said, “Well, they’re the foundation of hip-hop; they were here hip-hop before hip-hop was hip-hop! He was like, “Really, I’m a hip-hop head, how come I don’t know that! I said to him, “How old are you?” He said, “I’m twenty-three.” I said, “That’s why you don’t know, it’s not your fault, you’re twenty-three! Nobody came and said anything, nobody told you anything, it’s not common knowledge.” That’s what I’m combating, that’s what I’m up against. I want to leave something behind that can bring people into something. Not just The Last Poets, but everything that’s come out of that.
Michael J Edwards: So what would your final message be regarding Abiodun and the forthcoming documentary to the youth and people in general who will check out it?
Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw
Vagabond Beaumont: There are two things that I’m trying to do:- The one important thing I’m trying to do is get people to understand The Last Poets; where they came from, what their struggle was, and what they were talking about. The second thing I want them to realise is that there are other things besides what’s on the radio, what’s being fed to you. There’s a whole world of things that are mind-blowing; and you need to get in those circles, you need to surround yourself with those people. You have to surround yourself with what I call seekers, people who are always seeking; they’re always seeking new music, they’re always seeking new cinema, they’re always seeking new books. You run into people and they’re always like, “You have to go read this book, you have to listen to this album, you’ve got to go check out this movie, you need to see this play and you need to check out this writer.” That’s important, that’s really important. I think those are the two things, and I think subconsciously that will work. I think that will help subconsciously; and if my film helps them to learn to be seekers because they sought this, it will be good; it would be a complete success, despite what anybody else says.
Michael J Edwards
Branches of the Tree of Life – The Collected Works of Abiodun Oyewole 1969-2013 (Photos by Vagabond Beaumont)