Published May 17, 2018Long before "woke" became a buzzword and Twitter hashtivism was a trend, there were the Last Poets. The group formed in Harlem in 1968, an especially turbulent time in America's history; the country was fraught with war, riots and racial tension — particularly after the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Panther Bobby Hutton two days later. America was enraged. And so were the Poets.
"When they killed Dr. King, I thought it was an insult to every black person in America," Last Poets founding member Abiodun Oyewole tells Exclaim! "I felt horrible. I wanted to retaliate. I was so angry, I wanted to get a gun and start killing. [But we] went and got the Last Poets together. I made my mouth a gun and my words the bullets. That was the way we attacked the system. And that's what we're still doing."
Fifty years after their inception, the systemic oppression the Poets fought against in their verses has yet to dull. Even though the world has evolved in many ways, the racism, brutality and inequality that incensed the Poets in the '60s still endures in 2018. It's why they're releasing Understand What Black Is, a compilation of poems chronicling the ongoing struggle for equality, set to steady, reggae-tinged rhythms.
On the poignant and timely Understand, the Poets still hold their fiery candour, but add to it a seasoned wisdom birthed from hindsight. They are just as passionate for a revolution as they once were and are just as frank and speak with just as much conviction. But they're less combative, and their field of vision is broader. They recognize injustices outside of their own lived experience, and have a sharper eye for what unites people.
"Our whole thing is to try to get to every consciousness, to every gender, to every colour of people and try to make them understand that they have a right to be here," says co-founder Umar Bin Hassan. "They have a duty to express themselves as human beings."
That push for unity motivated the album's titular track. Oyewole explains: "Black is not even a colour. We refer to ourselves as black people, but black is the basis of all colour, white included. There's only one race on the planet, and it's the human race. Some of us just have different complexions. We better understand what that's about."
Both now 70, the Poets say that age and experience has helped broaden their perspective. "From growing older, we realized we can't just zero in on one community. Our world is our community. Our poetry addresses that," says Oyewole. "We're not just writing for the hood. We're writing for people everywhere."
Since their beginning, the Poets' unique blend of politically charged rhymes over urgent, aggressive beats has served as a foundation for hip-hop music. Although they don't consider themselves to be hip-hop artists, the genre bears their fingerprints, from Common's soothing, poetic lilt to Kendrick Lamar's bold, unbridled fury. They graciously acknowledge their influence on the genre, but take issue with how some artists have chosen to use their platforms. They did not bite tongues when discussing Kanye West, with whom they collaborated on Common's "The Corner."
"I'm doing a seance to bring his momma back," Oyewole deadpans. "He's lost his mind. He's sipped the Kool-Aid!"
Bin Hassan echoes the sentiment: "Sipped it? He done drank it, sipped it, snorted it and done every other thing. Kanye's on another level, he's obsessed with himself. The fact that he made that statement about slavery being a choice? He ain't gonna bring no revolution as far as black people are concerned."
Like West, the Poets are known for being controversial and outspoken. But on Understand What Black Is, they've learned to temper their outrage with humility, to recognize themselves as mouthpieces for the oppressed. They have embraced their role as vessels for the marginalized and want to pass that lesson on to the hip-hop generation.
"Hip-hop is like the bible for these kids on the streets. They're not going to church. So you gotta recognize your responsibility. You can't be sloppy! Sloppy ain't never worked, no matter what era you're in," says Oyewole. "Umar and I are servants. We're not sitting on top of a throne dishing out commandments! We're listening to the people and trying to echo their sentiments, we're trying to speak what's in their hearts and souls. We're soldiers for humanity."
Understand What Black Is comes out May 18 on Studio Rockers.