Unbound 2017: The Last Poets

Some call them the true Godfathers of Hip-Hop and whether you've heard of them or not, you've definitely heard 'em. The Last Poets come to Unbound to see if "y'all are the gangsters that everybody says you are."

Article by Ross McIndoe | 04 Jul 2017

As the 1960s neared their close in the United States of America, the air was boiling over with racial tension. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King rose to prominence only to be gunned down. Each gunshot tore away an icon of the civil rights movement and struck another blow against the idea that this conflict would ever be resolved in a language other than bullets and blood. The Black Panthers moved to the forefront of the fight for equality as the divide between the black and white citizens of America gaped wider than ever before and its borders became increasingly fortified. It was from this atmosphere of rage, fear and defiance that The Last Poets were born. 

Recording and performing since the end of the 60s as a fluid kind of collective with an often changing line-up, they sold millions of records with no commercial promotion, gave voice to a silenced Black American experience and crafted a branch of aggressive, rhythmic spoken word poetry from which modern hip-hop has grown. Even if you’ve never heard of them, you’ve probably heard them – they’ve worked with Kanye, Common and the Wu-Tang Clan, and been sampled by everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to NWA and The Notorious B.I.G. As the ghost of hip-hop’s past, so ubiquitous is their influence that their presence is felt today even by those who’ve never heard their name.

Last year their story was re-told in the form of Christine Otten’s novel The Last Poetsthe success of which, on top of bringing their incredible tale to a whole new audience, will see the author appearing at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017 alongside those very poets; Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole and Baba Donn Babatunde. Having performed as a Last Poet since 1969 and led the group’s most renowned and revered incarnations, Umar Bin Hassan sat down with The Skinny to tell us a little about poetry, music and America.

The group’s name comes from a Keorapetse Kgositsile line that claimed, like Adorno asking how there could ever be poetry after Auschwitz, that his was to be the last generation of poets before warfare and violence claimed the world. While his work has never shied from representing the full harshness of reality, Umar is not so cynical about poetry’s capacity to endure: “Why not? It has survived a thousand year wars. A hundred year wars. Slavery. The Holocaust. Populist Movements. And some of your greatest poets have flourished under these horrible and inhuman conditions. Thank you very much!”

As Darwinism dictates, you’ve got to adapt to survive and, again, Umar is more than confident that the work he and his fellow compatriots have inspired will be able to alter its form to stay alive, arguing that “It already has. If there had been no Last Poets there would have been no Public Enemy. No Public Enemy, No Beastie Boys. No Proof from Detroit. No Eminem. No Kendrick Lamar. Get my drift?”

The evolution of poetry into rap often gets kind of bastardised by ‘cool’ English teacher types trying to get their class to read Shakespeare by explaining how he was really the Tupac Shakur of Elizabethan England. In spite of that, the link between poetry and rap is legit and, as a man who found room for a musical revolution in the space between the two, Umar sees the separation as entirely meaningless: “What difference? Anytime you stand to express an emotion... a thought... an image from your heart and mind to another heart and mind it is poetry. Call it what you may. Whether it is commercialised or sanctified. When one human soul seeks the attention of another it is poetry. Pure and simple!”

Its role in the fight back against oppression has been at the heart of rap music since Umar and his friends more or less invented it and, in a time where Black Lives Matter is regarded by some as a controversial statement, The Last Poets’ work remains depressingly relevant. In Umar’s eyes, this consciousness raising is the true role of the poet, whether the person with the pen identifies as an emcee or a scribe: “We want the audience to go away thinking about the state of the world’s condition and what they can do to make a contribution in making it better and liveable for all.” Asked whether he feels the country has changed much since he began, Umar is a little less diplomatic than usual: “YES EMPHATICALLY! DONALD TRUMP IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!” Hard to deny, the man’s got a point.

As the pioneers of an art form so deeply rooted in a particular life experience, it seems odd at a glance that someone as removed from that life as Christine Otten would be the one to tell their tale. Umar makes it clear that this was never a concern, thanks largely to the legwork the Dutch author put in to capturing the truth of their experiences, explaining “Christine came to America and interviewed family. Friends. Enemies. The boys in the hood. The girls on the corner. The police. Old contacts. New contacts. And people we didn't know but who knew of us. I'm amazed she didn't get the Pope to speak on us.” Any concerns of appropriation can be put to rest as there’s no doubting the Poets’ pride in the work Otten has done to tell their story or the respect that exists between them: “Christine is a real... Whitegirl. A SERIOUS DUTCH WHITEGIRL! But she's our Whitegirl!”

As the group’s first ever visit to Scotland approaches, he’s equally enthusiastic about the prospect of checking out the land of Loch Ness monsters, misty hillsides and roving haggis, though his image of it is a little more Irvine Welsh than Walter Scott: “I can't wait to get to Scotland. I wish I was leaving tomorrow. Throughout the years I've read and seen movies about you. Can't wait to see if y'all are the gangsters that everybody says you are. Ha ha ha ha!”

Even without Otten’s own contribution, The Last Poets’ place in history would already be well cemented. They formed one of the most powerful voices in one of the most challenging times in American history, made music out of chaos and birthed a genre that would come to be one of the most innovative and powerful art forms to be found anywhere today. Asked how he himself wants to be remembered though, Umar has an almost sage clarity and humility to his self-image, asking only that people think of him “As someone who was real... and honest. And wasn't afraid to be that.” Asked about who on the current scene he sees as his successor, he’s equally assured: “My successor is my granddaughter... That's it! She's only six months old and she's driving me CRAZY!”

The Edinburgh International Book Festival at large is an amazing event, drawing together some of the most renowned writers on the planet to sit alongside the yet unheralded newcomers who might one day join their ranks. It’s nice. Very nice. Almost too nice some might think. Where some believe the main festival offers a tea-and-cakes, quiet conversation kind of family-friendly day, Unbound thrives on its role as the darker underbelly, the place where things can get a little looser, a little less polite, a little more real. And they don’t come much more real than The Last Poets.

They’ve grown their art out of the most unforgiving soil and created beautiful things at a time and place where cruelty and ignorance seemed destined to dominate. They’ve walked through fire for their art, lived the words they spoke and suffered heavily for their daring. For the first time ever they’ll be in Edinburgh. You should be too.

Meet The Last Poets, presented by Apples and Snakes, Tue 22 Aug, 9pm, Free https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/themes/unbound