The Last Poets

The Last Poets

Event: The Last Poets

Venue: Foyles

Report by Lucas Cumiskey

On Black Friday there was a power cut in central London: shoppers, drinkers,  journalists and The Last Poets were all dazzled by the unexpected darkness. The lights went out and the effect it had on the people in the city was uncanny, or unheimlich as Freud would have it. There was a strange anarchic current on the air, that near palpable buzz of a crowd conducted by confusion. Police officers by flashing neon signs shouted at people for running across a red light but the Londoners paid little heed. The everyday routine was alien, with sleeping streetlights and shut eyed shops.

The Last Poets loyalists arrived at Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road but the event had been relocated due to the power cut. Everyone traipsed through the lightless streets, arriving at the Waterstones in Trafalgar Square, where we had kindly been offered refuge.

The spoken word poets were old and tired, having performed at several events already that day, however they carried themselves with the confidence and charisma of much younger men. Delivering jokes like freestyles, the poets had everyone laughing to the punchlines of their lives. They each had a presence and you could immediately detect that we were in the company of important people. Pioneers of positive rap through negative introspection (‘Niggers are scared of revolution’ 1970) , accredited by many as the forefathers of hip-hop these men spread the art of creativity and the creed of revolution. Rather than focusing on fast cars and expensive chains, they put their bodies and lyrics on the frontline during America’s 1960’s civil rights push. The recent surge in far-right populism, coupled with the mass incarceration of coloured citizens and widespread police brutality, goes to show their poetry is more poignant than ever.

Intimate

Everyone was hunkered down in Waterstones and some impromptu chairs had been produced, the gathering was sizeable, however the majority of guests were standing up. Umar Bin Hassan (pictured), Abiodun Oyewole and Baba Donn Babatunde were at front and centre, sitting with the author Christine Otten, who biographed ‘The Last Poets’. The back and forth exchanges between the poets and the author was indicative of their long standing rapport. Christine Otten tried to steer the evening however, she was often interrupted by the anecdotes of Umar and Abiodun. After she read an excerpt, detailing Umar’s realization that he must join the Last Poets, he joked: “I’ve gotta read this book”.

The evening was intimate as promised and Abiodun had the audience in tears before his own eyes began to well up. Umar too found himself moved by the topic of deceased or absent fathers and Baba rubbed his back tenderly. It was evident that these men have become something of a family to one another and what’s more, they spoke as if we were their family too. There was a current of catharsis amongst the assembled, as the audience pondered their own loves and losses, our hopes and disappointments.

Revolution

The group was formed on Malcolm X’s birthday, three years after he was assassinated and their campaign for change, calling for a revolution through music, resulted in them being spied on by the FBI during Nixon’s presidency. These men have used their music to support the Black Panther movement and indeed ex-group member Felipe Luciano held a position in the Puerto-Rican Black Panthers. However, the goal has always been a revolution for equality and the group consider themselves to be vanguards of ‘hope and change’, rallying against the fear based politics, which is so commonplace in today’s world.

It was distressing to hear first hand the story of men who had been through decades of oppression and progress, only to live to see the ‘super nigger’ Trump, succeed Obama as the President. To hear about America in the 50’s, with a KKK membership of 50,000 weak and public processions of its white hoods though Ohio, there must have been a devastating sense of deja vu when that swing state helped deliver Donald onto the world.

‘Godfathers of Hip-Hop’

At the end of the evening, the supporters were treated to two live performances: as Baba set the beat on his drum both Abiodun and Umar delivered raps as effortless as the unwrapping of an early Christmas present, reminding us of their epitaph: ‘godfathers of Hip-Hop’ . They sought to galvanise solidarity amongst the group, inciting everyone to join in on the chorus of ‘when the revolution comes’, the chant reverberated off the bookshelves. Umar dazzled us with metaphor and wordplay, one notable punchline was that we all need to step out of the darkness of Trump, Brexit and the power cut, we must step out into ‘the light’.

We ended by echoing the Last Poets lyrics, Abiodun and Umar implored us to discover an evolution within ourselves. Everyone was on their feet, repeating in union: ‘If we only knew what we could do, if we only knew what we could do, if we only knew what we could do’. Although, to some, ‘if we only knew what we have done’ might have seemed more apt. Nonetheless, supporters left the bookshop buzzing with a renewed hope: a torch had been handed from the poets to the people.

Report by Lucas Cumiskey

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