When the Revolution Comes: An Interview with the Last Poets

Jayson Buford speaks to the group's last surviving members about hip-hop, their friend Gil-Scott Heron and Keorapetese Kgositsile, and the social climate in American in 2019.
By    June 13, 2019

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Since their inception, The Last Poets have been a constant in black nationalist spoken word and poetry. If Gil-Scott Heron is the most popular artist in the spoken word genre, the Last Poets are the originators. They brought listeners and readers to church every time a new poem came out. It makes Harlem — a mecca of black art, righteous black indignation, and a pillar of black worship — the ideal neighborhood to birth The Last Poets. It might not be known as the birthplace of Hip-Hop like The Bronx, but seeds were actually planted there first. On Malcolm X’s birthday, May 19th 1968 at Marcus Garvey Park, The Last Poets found their calling.

The Last Poets got their name from a Keorapetese Kgositsile poem that states that ‘’this is the last age of poems, and essays, guns, and rifles will take the place of poems and essays, therefore we are the last of poems of this age.’’ Ever since, The Last Poets, led by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, who died last year, Abiodun Oyewole and later joined by Umar Bin Hassan, have lived up to that name and line. Starting with their debut self-titled album and ending with their upcoming new album, Transcending Toxic Times, The Last Poets are one of the more captivating spoken word Hip-Hop groups we’ll ever see.

They aren’t done yet also. As late as their 2018 record, Understanding What Black Is, the critiques of America are as filled with fire as the streets that burn in a riot. ‘’Rain Of Terror’’ is a truth sermon come to life in the form of reggae and drums. Starting a poem with the word ‘’America is a terrorist’’ and then riffing on everyone from Jack Johnson, Trayvon Martin, the Black Panthers, and the government approved groups that killed those individuals and groups. With their influence on seminal groups and artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and Common, the Last Poets’ name will ring out until the end of time. They know that too. They know their influence on the art of Harlem and the classic hip-hop groups that they work with. I caught up with Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, the remaining living members, to discuss Trump, the lack of love and transcending toxic times. — Jayson Buford

You guys have got a new album coming out.

Abiodun: Yes, sir. Transcending Toxic Times.

Yep. What I want to know is America has changed, but it’s also exactly the same in many ways.

Abiodun: Right.

How does this metamorphosis into Donald Trump change your outlook on your music?

Abiodun: Donald Trump is an orange clown. He should never have been the president of anything. He shouldn’t be a president of a boys’ club in any community in this country. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. His ego is in the front of him. He’s basking in vanity. That’s not the way any president of a country should act. I have no respect for him because he has no respect for the people.

Umar: Well, we’re a little more older now, both us. Coming down with some insights about ourselves, our communities in America, so we’re a little bit more on top of it now, trying to be a little bit more rational and understanding why other human beings act the way that they do. We’re talking about all human beings, black, white, Asian, whatever. We’re talking about all human beings. All of us have some faults and some defaults, some things that we should not be using in our acquaintances or our engagements with other people. So that’s what we come up with. I just came through a whole drug thing, basically understanding that there’s only three things every human being wants, whether you’re black, white, gay, or whatever. It’s that you want to be loved, you want to be respected, and you want to be appreciated. So we’re older now, we’re much wiser now. But we’re still throwing down messages about why, and why can’t other human beings be able to know each other, to relate to each other, to help each other because of race, religion, color, or whatever.

How does that change … Do you go into a recording booth thinking differently about these things now that–

Abiodun: No, I don’t. My impetus in recording is always the same as it was years ago. I want to see black people get themselves together. I believe that we’re magnificent, I believe that we’re beautiful. Unfortunately, many of us don’t know that so we don’t act from that side. We don’t act like we understand our magnificence. We don’t seem to recognize our beauty so consequently we have a lot of negative things and we do not see each other as sacred. My whole point of writing poetry and doing everything I do is for us to see ourselves as sacred to each other.

I wonder in terms of the black community, there is a kind of structural and also personal vendetta against us in terms of America. Do you think more in terms of the structural side or the interpersonal side?

Abiodun: I think more in terms of the profitable side. America profits off of black people spiritually, physically and socially.


Abiodun: We are the profit of this country. It’s very interesting, whenever we talk about black, black is demonized. If a black cat crosses your path, that’s bad luck. If you are blacklisted, you can’t get a job. Anything black. The only time black is positive is if you work on Wall Street and your numbers in black. That’s profit, and I think that’s very significant because we were the very first profitable stock in America and we still are. We entertain them, basketball, football, baseball, soccer, whatever, you name it. We’re the spice that makes America get attention in many ways when it shouldn’t. We’re a loving people but we’re treated like we’re not and the only real problem that I have with us is the fact, as I said before, we don’t show the love that we need to for each other and America capitalizes on that. We always say that the white man divides and conquerors. He does not do anything of the sort. He conquers the divided and we are still divided and because of that he plays on both of us. He plays on both sides and consequently the divisions don’t get any better.

I do have a circle and I try to also provide that as an example for people around me to do what they can do in the field that you feel confident in and surround yourself with people who are committed that you can trust. I’ve been able to do that, fortunately. Black people, especially here in Harlem, have shown me unconditional love. I just did a thing about two or three months ago, Felipe Luciano at The Apollo. It was not a performance, I wasn’t singing, I wasn’t performing poetry, I was simply having a conversation. And in having this conversation, I didn’t know who was going to show up. The place was packed to the gills, the mezzanine, the balcony, everything. It was unbelievable. All I could do was thank my ancestors and thank God because black people have shown me without question, we love you, we care what you’re saying and we want to exalt you as much as we possibly can. I know it’s in us but I want it to be, and it’s not just for me but for everybody that looks like me.

The group was born on Malcolm X’s birthday, is that right?

Abiodun: That’s right.

I was wondering about your thoughts or feelings of that day and why The Last Poets came to be and things of that nature.

Abiodun: I was 19 years old, first of all, so I was learning about Malcolm, I was learning about black power. I was spurred on to do what I did to force the hand, well actually David Nelson who I consider to be the father of the group because he and Gylan Kain, the other two original members were older than me, but when they killed Dr. King I was ready to go to war because I felt that was such an injustice done to black people in this country because we know that the platform Dr. King was non-violence, he was about peace and love. He didn’t have any hidden agenda. He wanted to see this country function as one human race, not a bunch of scattered people hating and burning crosses and trying to hurt each other.

When they killed him, I lost it. I stopped coming. I no longer saw any rational possibility for change. I saw that we needed a radical possibility and I wanted to be a part of something radical. When David Nelson told me about The Last Poets, and he put my name because we weren’t call The Last Poets, but he put my name, Gylan’s name down and his name on a piece of paper and then we went up on stage reading poetry together on May 19th. I was excited but I was also very intimidated, just basically what you said earlier. Harlem’s a family and Harlem doesn’t play and you can’t just come on stage and say anything out of your mouth and expect people in Harlem to cheer you. You’ve got to have substance. You’ve got to say something that’s going to touch the pulse of black folks. Because I was happy I had an opportunity to be a part of the Vanguard in terms of the poetry movement here but at the same time, as I said, I was intimidated. I came to Harlem and I walked around and I listened. If you’re really a poet, if you’re really an artist, your art and your poetry, all of that, comes from the people. You don’t sit in an ivory tower and create stuff. Black folks are poetic and all we have to do is people who are artistically reflections of their poetry is to take the poetry that we’ve already produced and capture it in whatever form of art that we use and give it right back to the folks and give them their stand. If we had certain songs that always resonate our particular situation, our politics, our social status and so forth.

The song of the day was “It’s Your Thing, Do What You Want to Do,” a song by The Isley Brothers. I heard black folks walking up to other black folks saying, “What’s your thing, brother?” Brothers would say, “Oh I’m a member of the Nation of Islam” or, “I’m a member of the Black Panther Party.” But I just said right away that when you said, “What’s Your Thing?,” you’re talking about what’s your affiliation with the black power movement. My very first poem was entitled What is Your Thing? Is it a Black Thing? Save black women and children, we’ll build a black nation. Poetically speaking I wouldn’t give it any points of A or B or nothing. It was not a great poem, but I did hit all of the very important points that were trying to be made back in the day. I remember the day vividly, I remember the moment vividly. Thank God I have a very good memory to begin with, but that was a very impacting moment for me.

Umar: I saw him in Detroit, man. That’s why I came into it with him. Between Malcolm and Motown, they’re the ones who made me jump out there and want to do something about being black and help black people. Between those two, Motown and Malcolm. Because a lot of people don’t realize, the time that black people were coming up through the 40s and 50s to working in factories in Detroit and in Minneapolis and in Chicago, a lot of white people were coming up there too. And a lot of those white people were in the Ku Klux Klan. They were in white society. So there was a lot of racism in the Midwest, a lot of racism.

Yeah. I think as people grow… see, I’m really young guy, I’m 23. So I feel like–

Umar: Oh, you’re only 23?

Yeah. And the thing about it is I feel a lot enraged, right? I feel that way.

Umar: Well, we did too, man. We were enraged too. That’s why we became The Last Poets, because we was enraged at what was happening, at the death of Martin Luther King, at the beatings of black people marching through the South trying to get some legal rights and understanding of who they are as human beings. We were outraged too, man.

Did you know the South African poet, Keorapetse Kgositsile? Because he passed away last year.

Abiodun: Yes, I knew him. He was a very good friend of mine. People had trouble saying his name, he was having trouble, and so everybody called him Bra Willie. He was a beautiful person. He died a couple of years ago. A very dear friend. I knew him, I knew his wife and I knew his daughter, yes.

Umar: Yeah, we’ve met him. I think it was when left. Finally got to meet him when we was in South Africa. About 15… was it 15? I don’t know, 10 or 15 years ago.

Do you have any stories that you would like to share, personal anecdotes about him, about his visit to South Africa?

Abiodun: We went to South Africa to perform over ten years ago and the thing that was most, just heartwarming to me was when we walked on that stage in Johannesburg, there were about two thousand students in the audience and they all did the lines that I just shared with you from his poem called Toward a Walk in the Sun. I was almost drew into tears.

Umar: When I met him, he really influenced me. He was just such a wonderful human being. He impressed us as not just a fellow African but as fellow poets and fellow artists. He showed real honorable and good intentions to us and just made me feel real good that I finally got to meet him. It was like boom, it hit me when he died. There just couldn’t be another human being who had some of the same moments to think about what was going on with our people in the world.

A lot of people seem to associate black nationalism and spoken word hip-hop with Gil Scott-Heron. Did you have any stories about him?

Abiodun: Gil Scott and I were very, very good friends. In 1968 we went to perform at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He was a student body representative. He brought us on stage and we performed. I had just written When the Revolution Comes. After the performance, Gil Scott came to our dressing room and he said, “I want to do a group just like you guys.” I said, “Gil, go for it. We want Last Poets all over the world.” Gil took me for my word and he went for it. Over the years we stayed in touch. We weren’t buddies but we spoke every month or every other month. But when we did see each other we admired and appreciated each other primarily because of all the members of the group I sing and I do poetry. Gil Scott also sang and he did poetry, so we had that in common.

To make it even more ironic, people started confusing both of our poems. They would confuse my poem with his poem. I wrote, “When the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV with chicken hanging from our mouths.” Gil heard that and he took it to another level and he said, “The revolution will not be televised.” People would walk up to me, matter of fact there happened to be one time in the Black Arts Movement Festival down in Atlanta, Georgia where a young man came up and said, “Oh wow, Abiodun, I love you guys, The Last Poets. Oh, you all changed my life. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, brother.” I said, “Yeah. Right on, brother.” Gil and I just looked at each other and kind of like chuckled. We kept on going for maybe half an hour later somebody said, “Gil Scott-Heron. Oh man. They should play this for you, brother. When the Revolution Comes, brother.” We just laughed because folks, they’re the only two known poems that deal with television and revolution.

A little bit more than a year before he died we had a gig together at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Washington, DC and it was the last performance of Gil Scott-Heron. Fantastic concert, Gil did a hell of a show. The paparazzi was onstage interviewing us and he says, “Well now Gil I’ve got you on stage with Abiodun, one of the founding members of The Last Poets. Tell us, are you a Last Poet?” Gil said, “Yes I am a Last Poet.” Then he looked at me and I said, “Yes, he’s a Last Poet.” I said, “But he’s not a traveling member of the group, but his philosophy is the same as mine and we express in poetry and in song.” He says, “What about him biting off of your poem?” I said, “What poem did he bite off of?” “Well, Revolution. Your poem, When The Revolution Comes.”

I said, “I don’t know why you guys are always trying to create conflict. Gil did not bite off of my poem. We stand on the shoulders of each other. I wrote a poem that said when the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV with a chicken hanging from our mouths. You’ll know it’s a revolution because there won’t be no commercials. Gil heard that and he was impressed by it but he graduated that poem. He took that poem out of high school and put it in college by simply saying, “It won’t be televised.”

Umar: Brother, I really don’t want to go to deep with it because you know… I mean the way Gil Scott died… because you know I was on that stuff too, I was on crack man, I was on crack too. That guy was on crack at the same time but one thing I never did, I never went into a spot with somebody telling me you know your boy’s down there, Gil down there, I said well I ain’t going down, I never went into a spot where Gil was at, because what would that look like? I mean… somebody said yeah man,  and Gil Scott gonna do this and gonna go crack houses on so and so and so and so. So I never did any… a lot of times Gil would invite me and I say no, I gotta Gil, I gotta move on. Last time… yeah. Yeah. Gil was… it was like he quit, it was like he just quit, gave into this and he couldn’t, he gave into this. Not just him but a whole lot of others too.

I think we sometimes, in our community, we feel powerless. You know?

Umar: Yeah, there’s times when, no matter how much power you have, as a Last Poet or as Gil Scott there’s some things that can come and make you powerless.

You have a lot of influence on the hip-hop culture, in particular in the next generation. Are you aware of said influence? Do you like where the game is at right now? Are you–

Abiodun: There are some things that I … No, I don’t like where it’s at right now. We have issues that need to be addressed. Hip-hop is the perfect vehicle to not only address issues but to also offer solutions. Unfortunately a lot of our young people don’t study, they don’t do research so they don’t know. But I have a great deal of respect for many of them because I’m in touch with them.

Every Sunday for 40 years I have been doing an open house right here in Harlem in my apartment. I cook food, I tell people to come to my house on Sunday from three in the afternoon until midnight, just come with an empty stomach and an open mind. I do take credit under the group as laying foundation for hip-hop. I do not take credit for being a hip-hop artist or setting hip-hop off. What we did was unique and it truly had a great impression on people like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, who are the two young men I consider to be the architects of hip-hop. We’re very close. Kool Herc and I have done conferences together, at Trinity College most recently about two years ago. Afrika Bambaataa I know as well and I’ve been a part of his Zulu Nation and all that stuff. But the fact is that the person that I consider to be the greatest influence from The Last Poets in hip-hop passed away last spring and his name was Jalal Mansur Nuriddin. If you listen to our earlier work, every single poem that he did rhymed and he had some very great rhymes. They weren’t corny, they were on point and very impacting, but he always had something to say. Unfortunately he’s no longer with us but his work will be here forever and I will always give him credit.

From the stage I mention all seven members who have graced the stage as Last Poets and I always give him credit for being the biggest influence on hip-hop because I’ve never heard a hip-hop artist do a poem that did not rhyme. I rhyme sometimes and sometimes I don’t if it’s a part of the flow and I’m feeling at that moment. Jalal rhymed all the time, but he was excellent at it and I appreciated his work, I appreciated his genius and I do appreciate some of the work of some of the other hip-hop … J. Cole is good. Kendrick Lamar is good.

But there’s so much more that we need to say to bring about change. We have this whole platform, this whole vocabulary of things to say to our people and why should we minimize that? Study, research, learn how beautiful we really are, how magnificent we are, how we have survived in situations that simply seemed impossible and express that in our work. It will make a difference in the way we act.

Umar: We love… what’s his name… he makes a lot of noise what’s his name, I forgot his name. He’s out now.

Kendrick Lamar?

Umar: Yeah, yeah. His album, I listened to some of his stuff, he is significant. He is trying to have some points and make some ideas and sense of how to become better people, you know better community… he advises and helps, I appreciate him.

The way Harlem has changed in terms of its demographics, in terms of its gentrification and the hypercapitalism that you see in Harlem now. Does that affect you? How do you feel about that?

Abiodun: They’re going to follow us to our graves. They know we carry with us a treasure that they want part of, so we’ll never be able to shake these people. They will always be on our trail, no matter where we go. I travel around the world and what’s happening in Harlem is happening in Brixton, it’s happening in Paris, it’s happening in Detroit, it’s happening all over the world.

Man, I don’t even like going to Harlem now. Back the 70s, there was drugs all over the place and there was dirt all over the place and there was radicalism all over the place. But when you came out of the staircase on 8th Avenue, you could feel that spirit. You could feel that spirit. There was so much going on in this special black community that you could feel it and you wanted to be part of. Now you come over that and you come out of that extension on 8th Avenue and you don’t feel that no more. You don’t feel that anymore. And so that’s… I go when I got to go, when I got to do something there, but just to go up there, I don’t go up there no more like I used to, man. That feeling’s now different, you know?

People are following black people everywhere, right? They love our art, they love our culture, they love the way we dress, they love the advancements that we make, but they don’t love us. It’s always been that way.

Abiodun: They do love us, they just don’t understand how to love us.

Right. Yeah.

Abiodun: The foundation for their lives is not based on love. The foundation for white folks’ love for the most part is based on death and destruction, that’s why we get an overwrought of that type of energy when you’re watching a movie. You get that … That becomes adventure, that becomes exciting to see people kill each other. They don’t know how to live when it comes … If they’re a team in hockey or basketball and win something, they don’t know how to celebrate. They’ll tear up stuff, they’ll burn cars and call that celebration. They don’t know how to be festive and not be destructive. This is a part of their DNA. They’ve had more wars on the planet than any other ethnic group has ever had. They live by that. They call peace a dream and war is reality.

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