Last Poets at Antioch

By Alex Mette

This Saturday night Antioch hosted the ‘Godfathers of Hip Hop,’ The Last Poets.  The group’s name is a reference to a poem by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who believed that the era of poetry was at an end, soon to be replaced by that of guns.  The group, originally Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson, was born on Malcolm X’s birthday (May 19) at Marcus Garvey Park, East Harlem, 1969.  Today The Last Poets are: Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan, and Don Babatunde Eaton.  Like Malcolm X himself, the Last Poets have changed their political ideologies over time, and today denounce much of modern Hip Hop music.  An article by DuEwa M. Frazier entitled, “The Last Poets: Still on a Mission,” quotes Abiodun Oyewole as saying that “Hip Hop has become a circus. The vehicle is still the same, but the artists, the drivers are silly. We know they’re doing this because niggas are trying to get paid, but see a lot of people are on the line to be niggas and they’re being paid to be sleazy and greasy.”  On Saturday, Oyewole spoke of the importance, or lack thereof, of rhyme in poetry.  While their use of rhythm and rhyme probably had a significant impact on what would become Hip Hop music, Oyewole stated that rhyme should come second to substance and that “You can’t just talk because your mouth runs.”  In terms of political philosophy, when asked in an interview done in 1997 how his ideas about revolution had changed, Abiodun Oyewole stated that “back then, I wanted to see everything burned and people hanged.  I wanted to see riots. The one thing that stopped me in my tracks was this guy speaking at one of our forums.  [He said] ‘You can’t really be a revolutionary until you know the kind of world that you want your kid to live in.’” Going on to say, “Now, my whole thing is, we have to see how we can be the greatest part of us, which is the healing part of us.  This self-empowerment mode is where I’m at. I’d rather that folks learn how to save themselves before they kill themselves. That’s what I’m trying to do.”      
The performance at Antioch was a layering of sounds and words.  It wove poetic verse with rhythmic music.  This combination was most powerful when all the elements were present.  There was the drum beat, a constant but also in flux, responding to changes of rhythm and mood but also persisting throughout the performance.  Don Babatunde Eaton, remained largely silent throughout the night, at times singing harmony, but his drumming provided a backdrop that was continually present and significant.  The Last Poets described the importance of drumming, relating it to the heart and an inner-sense of rhythm, encouraging that everyone have a drum, serving as a form of expression as well as communication.  While the drumbeat remained constant, the role of the two poets changed from piece to piece.  When Oyewole was at the forefront he was accompanied by Bin Hassan, who provided emphasis as well as a sense of rhythm and dissonance.  His style was less musical than Oyewole’s, who would sing lyrics at constant intervals that enhanced the sense of chaos and complexity.  The piece, “This is Madness” also the title of the group’s second album, released in 1971, was a perfect example of how the use of all three components, percussion, backing vocals, and poet, could intertwine to create a soundscape that buzzed with discordance and gave a sense of madness.  In their piece, “Rain of Terror” the function of the background vocals, in this case provided by Bin Hassan served more as emphasis, continually repeating ‘terrorists,’ sometimes shouting it fearfully as if calling for help.  Some of the pieces featured a cellist who complimented the rhythmic as well melodic qualities of the piece.  This was further enhanced with the addition of a trumpeter who both responded to the tonal and rhythmic lyrics, as well as improvised along with the verses.  This turn to a jazz-influenced musical arrangement finds its basis in the historical evolution of the group’s character as well as its modern technique.  “Jazzoetry,” originally released on LP in 1975 characterizes the use of jazz instrumentation along with spoken-word that continues today, as the group generally tours with Robert Irving III (keys), Jamaaladeen Tacuma (bass) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums.)  This trio is a common formula within Jazz music and remains a dimension of the Last Poet’s work today.
Overall the performance at Antioch was an excellent opportunity to experience a form of resistance that found its basis in informal musical poetic performances but continues to influence generations.  The impact the Last Poets had on the political Hip Hop of the 1990’s, especially Public Enemy is a testament to their significance not only in and of themselves but also in their ability to impact innovation in a way that seeks to heighten awareness of social issues.  The resurgence of interest in the Last Poets is timely.  Mainstream Hip Hop today has strayed far from its political roots, and what may have once served as a vehicle of social information, organization, and change, has been co-opted and today represents not only white exploitation but presents a hollow representation of the world and promotes complacency.  While early Hip Hop was not purely political, nor is modern Hip Hop purely apolitical.  Rather, the mainstream of Hip Hop music takes little from revolutionaries such as the Last Poets.  One of the most significant elements of Last Poets, in terms of records, was their success in record sales despite being produced by non-mainstream record labels.  Today they remain a potent force in expressing the oppression of their communities and as the “Godfathers of Hip Hop music”, continuing to exert influence on generations of artists as well as those fighting for social justice.