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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.

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