Happy 50th Birthday To The Last Poets!
In about two weeks on May 19, it’ll be exactly 50 years since The Last Poets were founded in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They chose that date in 1968 because it was the birthday of Malcolm X (born in 1925).
Throughout their 50 year career, they informed, inspired, and inflamed Black-conscious revolutionaries everywhere with classics like “Ns Are Scared of Revolution,” “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle,” “On The Subway,” “The Courtroom,” “True Blues,” “Mean Machine,” “This Is Madness,” and many more uncompromisingly pro-Black poems and songs.
The Last Poets selected their name after meeting Keorapetse (better known as Willie or Bra Willie) Kgositsile, a prominent exiled South African anti-apartheid poet and activist who once wrote, “This is the last age of essays and poems. Guns and rifles will take their place. Therefore, we are the last poets of this age.”
The original three members were Gylan Kain, David Nelson, and Abiodun Oyowele. Other members from 1968 through 1997 when the group recorded its eleven studio albums were Umar Bin Hassan, Suliaman El-Hadi (deceased), Felipe Luciano (who later co-founded the revolutionary Young Lords), Abu Mustafa (deceased), Jalaludin Mansur Nuriddin, Nilaja Obabi (deceased), and Jamal Abdus Sabur.
Umar Bin Hassan, during much of The Last Poets’ career, has been and remains the group’s front-man. He joined in 1969 after seeing the original trio perform in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
When Umar wasn’t at the helm, Jalaludin (formerly known as Alafia Pudim) led the group with his remarkable talent. Before becoming an early member, he honed his literary and oratory skills after converting to Islam in prison where he had been sentenced for refusing to follow orders to bomb and kill yellow people as an Army paratrooper in Viet Nam. His “Hustlers’ Convention” album, released in 1973 under his Lightnin’ Rod moniker, is a rhythmically riveting cautionary tale of how the smooth and profitable gangsterism of far too many Black men ultimately results in tragic and deadly consequences for them and others.
I recently interviewed Umar, the group’s front man and spokesman, to get his comments about the upcoming 50th anniversary. Here’s what he said:
“First and foremost, I’m ecstatic that I and most of the other past and present members are still here individually as elders with at least some wisdom despite our youthful and even middle-aged human shortcomings, recklessness, and bad decision-making. People assumed that because we were “woke” that we were perfect and superhuman. But we weren’t. Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t. Huey Newton wasn’t. Nobody wasn’t. And nobody isn’t. We all do the best we can. And hopefully, we do more that’s constructive and less that’s destructive. And The Last Poets certainly did a lotta constructive stuff. As very young men in the 1960s, we began realizing that we- and no one else- had to make a difference by changing America’s racist system. We had to make white people aware that Blacks built this country and were not just a stock market commodity to make others rich. Today, we have to make Black people aware that they must stop their own victimization. In other words, we must look to ourselves for solutions. We have the power to do that. We must believe in ourselves. We must ‘do for self.’”
It’s a wonderful thing that The Last Poets started out constructively and ultimately got back on a constructive track. But it wasn’t always like that.
Unfortunately, there was dissension amongst the various members at various times regarding who could use The Last Poets name, who could perform in the group, who could receive performance compensation as part of the group, and so on. In fact, it was worse than dissension; it was actual street fights at least a few times. During one notorious battle in Harlem, the great then-elder, now-ancestor Queen Mother Moore happened to be walking by and begged them to stop punching, pushing, and grabbing each other. And a young fan who witnessed the violence began screaming, “Stop this madness! Stop this madness!” That fan was obviously familiar with the group’s 1971 album entitled, “This Is Madness.”
As an aside, I should mention that it was that great album, “This Is Madness”- with such provocative hits as “White Man’s Got A God Complex,” “Black People What Y’All Gon’ Do,” “Mean Machine,” and “True Blues”- that got The Last Poets placed on the FBI’s official COINTELPRO list.
At the conclusion of the interview, I asked Umar if he would come to my Hip Hop 101 class and give another Last Poets lecture/performance like he did for me twice before but this time on May 19, which is the 50th anniversary. He said he’d love to but can’t because the group will be performing several concerts in London from May 15 through May 28. However, he said he was willing to do something for me here in Philly on a date that’s convenient for him and me before leaving for London. We selected May 7.
Therefore, check out the message and the music of The Last Poets featuring Umar Bin Hassan. This celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of this revolutionary poetic powerhouse group will take place on Monday, May 7 at 7:00 pm at Temple University, Gladfelter Hall, room 107, Eleventh and Berks. It’s open to the public and admission is free.