The Last Poets
Black Arc/Ryko through Festival
Reviewed by Sujatha Fernandes "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"
In their new album the Last Poets — Umar Bin Hassan and Adiodun Oyewole — return with the same burning intensity and hardcore political comment as in their classic albums made over a decade ago. "Invocation", the opening track, situates the birth of the Last Poets at the height of the black liberation movement at a birthday celebration in memory of Malcolm X in 1968.
"Invocation" is performed as spoken word with no backing, returning to the origins of hip hop in the oratory tradition of street poets. Practices of toasting and signifying from this tradition, ranging from telling a simple joke to the narration of fully developed epics, were made popular by the Last Poets as well as artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Watts Prophets.
The Last Poets use Malcolm X as a symbol to locate the birth of their music in the era of the black power movement. The Last Poets were defined by the political needs of the black community and the movement at that time. Yet they were never confined to this movement; their interests were always broader.
They sought to make links with their brothers and sisters in the Third World, particularly in songs such as "Ho Chi Minh", seeing the Vietnamese as another victim of the ruthless US war machine. The Last Poets rapped about everything from slavery and black soldiers in the Vietnam war, to the power and control of big corporations over the lives of the masses. Their popularity even brought them to the attention of the FBI.
Years later, as many artists who were radicalised during the '60s have left aside important political themes to discuss money, cars and relationships, the Last Poets are still rapping about revolution. In their 1985 album, The Last Poets, they were saying "when the revolution comes guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays".
Today, when they talk about revolution they are not posing; they are deadly serious. Adiodun says, "It is not gonna be a powder-puff situation where we're gonna sit around and eat cheese and pass out crackers and stuff". Poems are artillery in the hands of a revolutionary.
The Last Poets were on a mission to tell the truth. Their mission is still the same because nothing has changed. However, there is a new generation of rappers who they have to relate to, so this time, they say, "We got to be sassy and funky and sincere about it". There is no better way of describing the album.
The Last Poets are sassy and irreverent. They mock the great farce of US democracy and freedom — "the land of the free and the home of the Indian brave and the plantation for a 20th century slave" — and tongue in cheek they challenge the cult of money worship, of people "handcuffed to the mercy of dollar signs".
Holy Terror is a celebration of funk, and being among the inventors of funk the Last Poets are at liberty to redefine its meaning and breadth and depth, from the "funk of the slave ships" to the "life itself" of Otis Redding, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Holy Terror unites of the pioneers of '70s and '80s P-funk — Funkadelic/Parliament's George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrel — with hip hop legend Grandmaster Melle Mel on three tracks.
One of the great strengths of the album is its sincerity. There is a profound sense of sadness as these keepers of radical political history look upon the new generation, at the young men who are "diamonds treated like worthless stones", and "rivers with nowhere to run". Compared with the euphoric battle call issued in earlier songs like "Wake up niggers" and "Blessed are those who struggle", in this album there is more of a sombre recognition of the setbacks suffered by the movement and a reaffirmation of the need to continue the struggle.
The Last Poets are not just old men with dreams that were never realised. They have a political vision that is relevant now more than ever before. The issues they address are also directly concerned with the state of the African American community, with the scourge of drugs and alcohol that is turning people in on themselves, rather than toward the real enemy.
Hip hop is also gaining a wider audience with young people around the world who both listen to it and write it as a way of expressing themselves in a society that continually devalues their opinions.
Mainstream culture and its obsession with retro ignore the present, yet for the majority of people there is no escaping from the present. Hip hop and rap are music of the present, based in the reality of experience and people's lives. A lot of hip hop music is concerned with the cycles of violence, poverty and despair, with the reality of guns and cocaine.
The Last Poets talk about this reality, but they also have a vision of people climbing out of their bottles and clouds and vapours to a future where "[We] will unite as one, Then our voice will be more powerful than a gun, and as we speak we'll get things done".
Return of the Last Poets
If you like our work, become a supporter
Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.
For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.
Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.