The Last Poets - Understand What Black Is
Understand What Black Is was released to coincide with the Last Poets' 50th anniversary. It was co-producer Prince Fatty who first played me tracks from it and from I heard the lines, "America is a terrorist," I was completely hooked. Thanks to Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan for sharing their time, thoughts and memories, and to Tony Thorpe, Lisa Meads and Rich Elson for their input in making these liner notes happen. I owe you.
This is the Last Poets’ 50th anniversary year, and they’ve celebrated it with an album that matters - not just musically, but as a record of the times we’re living in. The Last Poets are weather vanes, warning of the future and past sins in poems that are indivisible from the rhythms they’re voiced on. Think warriors reporting from the battlefield but their work is also a test of our own courage, because are you ready to receive what they’re saying? And is your heart clean and strong enough to withstand the truth?
These ten tracks speak of their own journey and that of a revolutionary struggle largely defined by race when the Last Poets first came together at an event commemorating Malcolm X in East Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park during the spring of 1968. That initial line-up comprised of Dahveed Nelson, Gylan Kain and Felipe Luciano proved short-lived and it was a trio of different voices that would secure their legacy with a debut album, 1970’s Last Poets, that sounds just as radical and challenging today as it did nearly fifty years ago. Two of their members from that time, Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole, still wear the mantle of Last Poets.
“Back then, I wanted to see everything burned and people hanged. I wanted to see riots,” says Abiodun, who’s from Queens in New York, and took over from Nelson in 1969. He was missing from their follow-up album This Is Madness, after being jailed in North Carolina for armed robbery. “Each of the Last Poets has their own stories about problems with the law,” he reflects. Umar, who wrote the title track of This Is Madness, was next to leave. He was living in Brooklyn by then, and struggling with substance abuse. Speaking on the phone from his home in Baltimore, he makes the point that their poetry wouldn’t have the same impact had their resolve not been tested along the way, and there’s an unassailable truth to this.
He was replaced by Suliaman El-Hadi, who went on to record a series of albums with Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, also known as Lightnin’ Rod, as the Last Poets. The last of them was Freedom Express in 1988. Two years later and Bill Laswell invited Umar to record a solo album called Bebop Or Be Dead, with backing from musicians like Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins. In Umar’s own words, “There would be no second coming of the Last Poets” without this album, on which he’d revisited This Is Madness and Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution. He and Abiodun, soon to record his own solo album 25 Years, revived the name Last Poets for the nineties’ albums Holy Terror and Time Has Come, again produced by Laswell. Such releases were well received but then little was heard of the Last Poets for another twenty years aside from Claude Santiago’s film Made In Amerikkka, which documented a one-off reunion concert in France, commemorating their fortieth anniversary. That’s how it is with the Last Poets - unseen forces govern their actions, and it wasn’t until Donald Trump was elected US President and a renewed struggle for America’s soul began that they stirred once more.
After Abiodun and Umar had resurrected the group and they’d started doing shows together, UK producer Ben Lamdin contacted them about doing some recording and sent them a few rhythm tracks that he’d got from Prince Fatty, whom he knew from their time in Brighton. Fatty’s speciality is old school reggae and dub, which he records using seasoned UK session players such as Horseman and Dub Judah, who play drums and bass respectively. That’s how the foundations were laid, at Fatty’s Brighton studio on Blackman Street. Ben then added horns arrangements with help from his band Nostalgia 77 and set off for New York where he, Umar and Abiodun met for the first of two recording sessions.
“When they listened to the tracks they were really blown away,” says Ben. “I think they were surprised to hear themselves in that context basically, because everything they’ve done before is resolutely American in terms of the sound and what they’ve been talking about. What we ended up with was a mixture of American poetry and jazz, Jamaican rhythms and African drums. It was as if Mingus and Duke Ellington had got together and stopped over in Jamaica...”
Umar confirms that it was the first time the Poets ever voiced on reggae rhythms.
“It’s amazing how the music has opened up new avenues and taken us somewhere else,” he says. “Reggae is such a deep music because it envelops your words; it closes around them and gives them a whole new meaning.”
The first track they worked on was a statement voiced with absolute certainty by Abiodun, who’d previewed the same lyrics at that fortieth anniversary show in Paris ten years earlier.
“America’s a terrorist, killing the natives of the land,” he intones. “Killing and stealing has always been a part of America’s master plan to control the earth and everything on it. To divide and conquer is all they want.”
It’s a vivid expose of America’s collective psyche and if his words cause hearts to flutter, it’s in recognition of the truth although the real danger would be to disregard what he’s saying, and not act whilst we can still make a difference. The other tracks voiced at that first session - held at the studio of a friend in lower Manhattan - include How Many Bullets? which bridles with defiance as Umar works through a litany of injustices suffered by black people in the US. “You tried to blow my brains out with bigotry. You chopped off my wings so I couldn’t fly free. You took away my drum, broke my hand, yanked my boots right out of the land and duped my soul with Jesus.” A repetitive chant of, “You can’t kill me. Can’t you see?” mocks his oppressor, but with no loss of dignity. Tracks like this go beyond social commentary, just as the opening Black transcends ethnicity. “Understand what black is,” Abiodun urges. “It’s the source from which all things comes.” He explains that it’s not a colour, but the basis of all colour, and it’s nothing to do with complexion either. “Black is a hero, not a villain. Black is the essence, sealed with a kiss.”
Abiodun also wrote No Locks, which describes a utopia - a refuge from hurt and those who’d make “our vision blurred, and our fate obscure.” As the music builds in intensity, horns and chanted harmonies arrive together, “No locks, no keys, no prisons...”
“I know the music I want to hear,” he continues. “I know the air I want to breathe. I know the love I want to feel.” He uses imagery like that found in old time spirituals for The Bridge - a song of transition that he wrote for the Poets’ second recording session with Ben. Label boss Tony Thorpe, who’d previously worked with KLF, joined them on that occasion.
For the most part, the Poets voiced over readymade rhythm tracks although this wasn’t always the case. Umar’s North East South West happened the other way round because he voiced it first, and then the horns were painted in afterwards. A little-known album of Prince instrumentals called News inspired the words and prompted Umar to draw parallels between their respective childhood experiences.
“That poem took me about a year to write,” he says. “I just kept writing and writing but not getting too far and then I heard that album and the musicianship was amazing. I was left wondering if it was jazz, classical, rock or maybe something new but all those images that I write about came to me from listening to that album. I loved Prince in that movie Purple Rain because my father was a talented musician but he was into brutalising Mama at times and in the movie there’s a Jerome and my name is Jerome, so it was like he was telling my life story as well.”
Umar was raised in North Akron, in the Elizabeth Park projects. His father spent time in jail, leaving him and his seven brothers and sisters in the care of their mother and grandparents. Umar dedicated Bebop Or Be Dead to his father, who he says was born in “the wrong family, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
“My father and I were constantly arguing. As a matter of fact one time I nearly killed him when he was taking his anger out on my mother. I went and got this hatchet and I was going to take him down but I knew that if I did that, I’d surely kill him. My mother saw me and stopped me because she was scared that I’d do it for real but Prince also had issues with his father because his mother was white and in the movie, his father was always blaming her for not believing in him. He’d beat her and one day Prince got in the middle of it, just like I did except I’ve come to realise that I am my father the musician, and I am those sounds that he never got to bring to the world.”
Umar’s father played trumpet, and he’d often sit in with visiting musicians whenever they came to town. His quartet played local clubs such as Roxy’s Café in North Howard Street, where his son also worked. Umar used to shine shoes there from the age of eight and he’d be out until midnight, hustling small change from the patrons at Roxy’s, the Tropicana, the Hi-Hat and Joy’s Lounge... It was after leaving the projects at fourteen that he became an avid reader, which then led to him meeting Fred Ahmed Evans and joining the Black United Front. He first met the Last Poets in 1968 at the Black Arts Festival in Yellow Springs, Ohio, whereupon he underwent an epiphany of sorts. Several months later and he arrived in New York “with just twenty-two cents, a book of poetry and a pair of jeans in a brown paper bag.”
The three original members had left by then. Abiodun found him a place to stay and invited him to become a Last Poet, along with Jalal. Their aim was to politicise the black community, and raise people’s revolutionary consciousness. “Wake up niggers or you’re all dead,” they warned. Abiodun, speaking in Claude Santiago’s film, says that the Poets set out to “de-nigger” black people, and free them of their slavish mentality. “We were raw. We didn’t give a damn. We just came at you raw!”
When Umar joined them, they used to meet at a place in Harlem on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue called East Wind. A Black Arts movement had formed in New York made up of activists, musicians, artists, fashion designers and writers like Amiri Baraka, who Abiodun describes as “a major influence and a true mentor of the Last Poets.”
It was 1969 and jazz, like poetry, was an integral part of the struggle. The Last Poets hosted workshops and events at East Wind featuring jazz musicians such as Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, who shared the same cultural and political aims. Umar and Abiodun have continued to celebrate music in their poems ever since. It’s a love that’s deepened with age and encompasses every stage of black music’s development, from ragtime, jazz and blues to artists like Prince and Jimi Hendrix - music that “gives credit to who we are and where we come from.”
She Is traces the development of that music from its inception in New Orleans’ Congo Square, which is renowned as the birthplace of jazz.
“It’s a place where the slaves could go and enjoy a free day,” Umar explains. “They’d come together, play music and dance... The music then spread to places like Chicago and Detroit and took on different forms as people went from being slaves to sharecroppers and then factory workers. Music has been part of our lives as black people from the beginning and it’s played a vital role in our survival as well.”
His story begins with “the rage of the overseer, ripping and shredding” before the music emerges as a healing force, and spawns “secret songs of the Mississippi delta.” The rhythm’s based on Don Redman’s thirties’ jazz tune, Chant Of The Weeds, complete with shifting textures and colourful harmonies. It’s an unlikely candidate for a reggae treatment, but then few rules apply at a Last Poets’ session.
Abiodun, who grew up listening to his parents’ gospel and jazz collection and has a good singing voice, also writes powerfully about music. Take the lyrics of The Music for instance, in which he refers to the drum as his “heartbeat.”
“I started out with the blues, because I had been abused so I created medicine to ease the pain, so I wouldn’t go insane. I found a way to heal my soul, in spite of what I was being told. I created a new world of sound, to pick me up when I was down.”
Abiodun, formerly known as Charles Davis, attended a Yoruba temple in Harlem from the age of fifteen, and forged a deep, spiritual connection to its teachings that have continued to serve him ever since. Umar has studied Islam and urges us to rediscover our capacity for love in Certain Images, despite warning how “the stink of conspiracy fills the air.” He wants us to believe this simple act of faith can save humanity, and talks about “a resurrection of our minds” in We Must Be, promising “that a phoenix will come from the flames of this time.”
“We can’t change without love,” he insists. “Love is the most important thing in the world but first of all we must understand how to make love a fact, because it’s not there to play with. Love is everlasting, and you have to hold it and protect it and keep it strong because you can’t quit. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and try and make the world a better place because when I was a little boy, I’d see the bar room brawlers, the pimps and the prostitutes... Basically, what I learned is that people just want to be appreciated and that’s what I try and hit upon in my poetry. I try and see what they’re searching for and then I have to hope that whatever comes out of my mouth helps them to feel good, and I’m giving them the respect they deserve.”