By JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information
For the last 50 years, “The Last Poets” have been instrumental in politically educating Black Amerikkka, as well as the world, to our uphill battle against genocide and for liberation and self-determination in the land of the so-called free. The group was literally born from the political rubble, ashes, and void left by the assassination of Malcolm X, in New York City, after becoming a group at a Malcolm X memorial event. The name of the group, “The Last Poets” comes from a poem by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, where he believed that he was in the last era of poetry, before armed struggle. “The Last Poets” are often quoted as being the forefathers of Rap and Hip Hop culture, right alongside the likes of Gil Scott Heron, Brian Jackson, the Watts Prophets, H.Rap Brown, Imamu Amiri Baraka, James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. “The Last Poets” were also known as the Black Panthers of Rhyme during the time of the un-completed Black Revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, after having volunteered their talent and revolutionary culture to attract attention to some of the very important community and social campaigns that the Black Panther Party and other Black revolutionary groups were engaged in.
Abiodun Oyewole is one of the founding and longest lasting members of the group, which has had a number of revolving members throughout the years. I wanted to ask this elder statesman of Black revolutionary culture, his thoughts on the current status of our Black Movement for self-determination in the United States. And here is what he had to say.
JR Valrey: Up until the 2000’s, the Movement slogans were a lot stronger. There was “piggy, wiggy, ooh wee, I say you gotta go now, oink, oink, bang, bang, dead pig” now that has been reduced to “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” or “I Can’t Breathe” today. There was the “Black Liberation Movement”, people today are instead identifying the movement as “Black Lives Matter”. Public Enemy was calling for people to “Fight the Power” now P.E. is telling people to “vote for Bernie and dump Trump”. What is the importance of having strong slogans?
Abiodun Oyewole: Words are important. We are moved by words. When James Brown said “Say it loud I’m Black and I’m proud” It uplifted the entire race. We must recognize that Black is not a color. It is the state of our existence. Black is the source from which all things come. We are Black, therefore we are the parents of humanity. Black Lives Matter is a feeble attempt at having a movement, but if this is to be the rallying call, so be it. The actions behind it must be the objective. Those of us who are concerned for us, need to concentrate on what we can do for each other. Trump was a distraction.
JR Valrey: In what other ways, would you compare the 60’s and 70’s movements to today?
Abiodun Oyewole: Everything comes in cycles. It’s like we’re on a merry go-round but this is more of a scary go-round. There are many similarities with the sixties and seventies and now. We should learn from the sixties to be more effective today.
JR Valrey: It’s been 50 years since The Last Poets put out y’alls first album, looking back what is the significance of that particular album to Black revolutionary culture in the United States?
Abiodun Oyewole: The first album of The Last Poets set the tone, and laid the blueprint, for what’s happening now. It was the first of its kind, and it caught on like wildfire. The most significant thing it did was eradicate a lot of bullshit. The intellectual conversations about the state of Black folks was quashed by The Last Poets. We were straight, with no chaser.
JR Valrey: How was the album received then, for those of us who were too young to know? What do people say about it now, looking back?
Abiodun Oyewole: Our first album sold over a million copies by word of mouth. We had no radio play and there was no social media back then. I still feel like it’s one of the greatest blessings I have ever received, to sell that many albums tells me we tapped on the pulse of Black folks, and they endorsed it.
JR Valrey: As rap music’s elder, what is the state of the rhyme today?
Abiodun Oyewole: There are some rappers speaking out, but I haven’t heard anything that has made an impact. With all that’s going on, there is a lot of material. All the word warriors should be busy trying to teach, heal, and motivate the people.
JR Valrey: Who do you listen to to get lyrical inspiration?
Abiodun Oyewole: I listen to artists from the past: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Pharoah Sanders, Leon Thomas, Herbie Hancock, Rahsan, Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner, Jon Lucien, Al Jeareau.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the influence of the Watts Prophets, Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson also on the early rap/spoken word scene preceding Hip Hop?
Abiodun Oyewole: We have performed with the Watts Prophets and I am proud of their efforts. Gil was a personal friend of mine. I have also performed with Brian Jackson. Gil and I have always been compared because we both sing and recite. Plus people get our poems confused because he and I have two very well known poems that deal with television and revolution.
JR Valrey: What are your thoughts on the COVID Pandemic and the national rebellions against police executions that have taken place in 2020?
Abiodun Oyewole: This is a perfect time for planning. This time should not be wasted. We should be putting our ideas down on paper, and making efforts to communicate with those who are willing to build. We need to start with projects that will lead to institutions. We need to have in place a way of retaliating against those who bring us harm, and that includes those in our own race who still suffer from self-hatred.
JR Valrey: What is the role of an artist in the movement for human rights and self determination? How should they view themselves?
Abiodun Oyewole: The artist must be responsible for the well being of his people.Our art must reflect their condition and a possible answer to the problem. People learn more easily when it comes in an artistic form. Now is the time for all artists to step up.
JR Valrey: What are the Last Poets up to today?
Abiodun Oyewole: The Last Poets are still working. We’ve done a few Zoom performances and we’ve got a calendar that is filling up, live and virtual. There’s also some efforts being made to do a major movie about the group as we speak.