Abiodun Oyewole and Umar bin Hassan, two of the founding members of Afrocentric jazz collective The Last Poets, weren’t prepared to be in the spotlight again. Since announcing plans to release Understand What Black Is (Studio Rockers), their first album of new material in more than two decades, the pair has been spending a lot of time contemplating their past triumphs and their hiatus. The rekindled recognition has been exciting, but wearying.
“Listen, we talk for a living,” said Oyewole, calling from what sounds like a bustling New York cafe. “Sometimes, it’s a little bit much. I think that poets like the idea of silence, when that can happen.”
The attention being afforded the two men and their long-running project is not without reason. The mark that The Last Poets made on music when they arrived in the late ’60s has been enduring. Early albums, like 1970’s self-titled debut and 1973’s At Last, were entirely unique, setting spoken-word entreaties and sharp rebukes of the political establishment against a backdrop of caustic percussion and ragged funk.
Even as their commercial prospects waned, the Poets were hailed as precursors to the rise of hip-hop, a perception amplified by the group’s albums being sampled by A Tribe Called Quest and N.W.A., and being invited to appear on albums by Public Enemy and Dead Prez. That interest inspired The Last Poets to record new work during the ’90s. But as the group slowly dissipated and its members pursued their own projects, it all dropped away following the release of 1997’s Time Has Come.
This latest resurrection of The Last Poets comes at just the right time in American history, though. Oyewole and bin Hassan are clear that they were inspired to reunite and record a new album following the election of President Donald Trump. And their unblinking view of modern life and messages of empowerment are the perfect soundtrack to increasing social engagement, activism and the raging debates about issues like police brutality and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.
To some degree, Oyewole understands why people would make the connection between current political debates and protests that he and his bandmates took part in 40 years ago. But he insists that the folks fighting for change today have a long way to go.
“Umar and I grew up in a movement. The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t cut it. We had a bona fide Black Power movement. We had powerful, credible people that we could relate to. We had books to read in order for us to navigate our way through the minefield,” he said. “There was a whole serious concentrated Black Power movement, and we were governed by it. These movements today pale to what we had. But the kids are serious; they will figure it out. They’re not gonna take no shit. They may be a lot less patient than we were.”
As furious as the poetry can be on the new album, Understand doesn’t feel like an angry record. Oyewole, bin Hassan and their musical collaborators, producers Ben Lamdin and Prince Fatty, couch the language in the smoothed-out pulse of reggae and dub. The bitter truths of “How Many Bullets” and “Rain Of Terror”—which includes the lyric “America’s a terrorist/ With a slave system in place/ To take away the humanity of a darker race”—go down a little easier with the honeyed rhythms and loping energy of Jamaican-indebted music.
The album also features a song that finds The Last Poets connecting directly with the African-American artists who came up before them and followed in their wake. On “North East West South,” bin Hassan runs through a quick and dirty history that includes Jimi Hendrix, Motown, Chicago jazz, Broadway and more, with particular emphasis on the legacy of Prince.
“There’s a line in one of my poems that says, ‘The poet peels off a piece of his soul and shares his naked self with the world,’” Oyewole said. “Prince did that on the regular. In order to really do that, you’ve got to be unafraid. You have to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable means you’re going to be a target. And Prince was. You see what happened with his record company. They were messing with him so much he said, ‘You know what? Take my f-cking name. I’ll be the Artist Formerly Known As.’ And he never missed a day going to the bank.”
The Last Poets haven’t lost a step. Gigs in Europe are lined up, and plans are on the horizon for some U.S. tour dates. For these shows, Oyewole and bin Hassan will be concentrating on material from the new album, but also will dip into their back catalog. The potentially dismaying aspect of the group performing 40-year-old material is that the messages of songs like “This Is Madness” and “When The Revolution Comes” are still relevant to modern audiences.
“But that’s why we wrote them,” bin Hassan said. “They’re universal. We put so much into them, we knew those poems would last. We knew they would be around.” DB