Abiodun Oyewole

2004 EP. NO. 8
ABIODUN OYEWOLE is perhaps best-known as the member of the infamous poetry group, THE LAST POETS.

Shortly after the death of Martin Luther King, THE LAST POETS were born on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday May 19, 1968 in Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem, New York City. A product of the sixties’ Black Arts and Civil Rights movements, poets David Nelson, Gylan Kain and Oyewole combined revolutionary politics, street language, and percussion in an artistic form that would inspire countless Black Americans. They grew from three poets and a drummer to seven young black and Latino artists: David Nelson, Gylan Kain, Abiodun Oyewole, Felipe Luciano, Umar Bin Hassan, Jalal Nurridin, and Suliamn El Hadi. They took their name from a poem by South African poet Willie Kgositsile, who posited the necessity of putting aside poetry in the face of looming revolution:

    “When the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk,” he wrote. “The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain . . . . Therefore we are the last poets of the world.”

THE LAST POETS cemented themselves as rappers of the civil rights era, using outrageous verse to chide a nation whose inclination was to maintain the colonial yoke around the neck of the disenfranchised. They produced two albums during this period: “Last Poets” (1970) and “This Is Madness” (1971).

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, members of THE LAST POETS connected with the violent factions of the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and the Black Panther party. They had confrontations with the FBI and police, and were arrested for robbing the Ku Klux Klan and various other ventures with Revolution in mind. Oyewole received a 12-to-20-year jail sentence (but served less than four years). Remaining members fought among themselves and eventually split into two groups, hitting each other with legal as well as personal disputes. In the end, only Oyewole and Hassan, two of the group’s original and most consistent and integral members, obtained the right to call themselves THE LAST POETS.

In recent years, THE LAST POETS have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. They participated in the 1994 Lollapalooza tour; performed in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice,” and released a CD “Holy Terror,” inspiring a new generation of performance poets. In a front-page article, The New York Times called THE LAST POETS “the village elders of rap and a living bridge to the new poetry.” The article traces the rise of the “spoken word” movement, a return to “gritty yet sophisticated” street poetry that reflects a conscious departure from the glorified violence of mainstream rap.

In response to this resurgence, Oyewole and Hassan shared their accounts of the group’s genesis and evolution in the book, On A Mission: Selected Poems and A History of the Last Poets (Owlet, 1996), written with music journalist Kim Green. The personal statements that comprise the first half of the book are vivid, personal, revealing, and as hopeful as they are painful. The two men describe their childhoods and accomplishments, their mistakes and regrets. They reminisce about street life, drug abuse, jail terms, family relationships, and their affiliation with groups like the Harlem Committee for Self-Defense and the Black United Front. What emerges are two very powerful portraits of growing up Black in America.

Perhaps the best way to comprehend THE LAST POETS’ phenomenon is through the poetry itself. On A Mission includes thirty thematically-grouped poems, each introduced by one of the authors, explaining the work’s origin, context, history, and intent. Though wide-ranging in subject and tone, the poems all share an earnestness, a raw emotional power, and an attention to craft that make them as relevant and vital today as they were when THE LAST POETS emerged. For more than a quarter of a century, these now middle-aged gentlemen have inspired and influenced such prominent figures of African-American culture as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Amiri Baraka, “Public Enemy” and Ice Cube. While other black artists have strived to achieve commercial success with contracts with mainstream record companies, this group has made black consiousness and pride their top priority, while laying the groundwork for the continuing popularity of hip-hop. Not without reason, they are referred to as ‘the forefathers of rap.’ But there is a world of difference between these living legends and gangsta rappers, which so often dominates the hip-hop scene.

Oyewole has also had a number of projects not under THE LAST POETS name, such as the release of his, CD, “25 Years” (Rykodisc, 1996). Having spent 15 years teaching in the New York school system and at Columbia University, then as now, Oyewole uses his poetry as his political weapon and has no fear of becoming a guiding light for bringing about change in the black community. His lyrics still call for revolution, while warning his brothers and sisters that it will not come by itself. Oyewole stresses that black people must take responsibility and feel pride in who they are to make it come about. In spite of the bloody history of slavery and unsatisfying social conditions, African-Americans must remember and draw strength from their African heritage, stand tall with dignity, and develop self esteem.

artistic statement
Every poet knows or should know that when you rhyme, you’re creating a picket fence. Now you are a slave to the rhythm you created. With a poet, if you feel like flying, you fly. You’re not encased to the ground. There’s a contrived thing happening when everything rhymes. When you deal with poetry, there’s a freedom of responsibility of being able to fly away and still be contained. That’s the beauty of poetry. You can leave the nest. You can go far away. But somehow the nest is always there – you never lose sight. The rapper, he stays at the nest and makes a mess of it. He’s stuck there. There’s been some very slick things said in rhyme. There’s no question. I rhyme things myself and I’d be the last person to say that you can’t make a PROFOUND statement in rhyme. There are some great poets who do rhyme.

But with THE LAST POETS, we were angry and we had something to say. We addressed the language. We just put it right in front of your face. We parented the hip-hop generation. I can’t deny that. I worked with a lot of them and they have the same rage and I understand that. There was a movement back then with the Panthers and other organizations, trying to secure human rights for the community. We had these guidelines and guard rails. These kids don’t have these guard rails. The rage is going every which way. It’s self-destructive. The whole second coming of THE LAST POETS is to re-establish those guard rails. Otherwise, you’ll all fly off the cliff and be dead and there’s no real significance here. I love these kids.

Look at Tupac – he was a genius. His writing skills were good. His delivery was good. He had a look. Just like James Dean, he’s gone. Rebel without a cause. There is a cause and we know that. The cause is a place that will allow us to grow without this rage eating us up inside. It’s been dominating our existence as opposed to us being able to direct it. I’ve been able to control my frenzy so I can teach and I can write poetry. I can work with it like a blacksmith. But a lot of young people don’t know about that. They haven’t traveled this far. They may not be able to understand what I’m saying yet, but I’m there to give them an idea. If they’re willing to listen, then we can make some progress.

Last updated 2009.

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