Hip hop progenitors The Last Poets commemorated their 55th anniversary on May 19th. Artistically inspired by several Black Arts Movement alumni like Amiri Baraka and Nina Simone, and socially motivated by iconic activists Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they created the template for a generation of urban artists who emerged in the succeeding decades.
Following Dr. King’s April 4, 1968, assassination, teen poets David Nelson, Gylan Kain and Abiodun Oyewole gathered at Central Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park on Malcolm X’s 44th bornday anniversary, May 19, 1968, to recite some revolutionary poems which reflected their anger. Although original people have been rhythmically reciting stories over hypnotic percussion patterns since time immemorial, these ghetto griots did so in a formal song format with bars and hooks. Thus, they set a blueprint which many artists soon emulated.
“I always refer to David as the father of the group because it was his idea,” Abiodun explains. “I always give Kain credit for giving us our aesthetic. He knew what poetry was supposed to sound like.”
Infused with Black Power and Civil Rights rhetoric, as well as imbued by the cultural, social & spiritual consciousness prevalent in Harlem then, their tracks served as a soundtrack for that era. They also bought books from Harlem spots like Liberation Books to nourish their minds.
Throughout the years, for various reasons, some members changed. Felipe Luciano, Umar bin Hasan, and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin eventually joined. Gil Scott Heron also became an honorary member.
“We kept our schedule of performing and touring different places,” Dun recalled.
“I felt like I was a fake revolutionary because all I was doing was writing poetry, going on stage and performing and didn’t feel like I had made a real revolutionary contribution,” he states. “I wanted to get physically involved, and poetry wasn’t getting it. I didn’t recognize the value of my poetry at the time and how it was moving people’s mindsets. To me it was just a skill, a gift, that I had that I was sharing. I felt like I needed to do more.”
Their self-titled album was released in 1970, and they’ve collaborated with, or been referenced and/or sampled by, countless hip hop artists including dead prez, Erykah Badu, and Common.
For his weekly open-house poetry readings contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch Abiodun speak at https://youtu.be/nUzP_mJmb9Q