Last Poets

The Last Poets were poet-musicians whose music mirrored the social climate of the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. Best known for their provocative and politically charged messages that sometimes reflected the rhetoric of the Black Panthers, the Last Poets exhorted their listeners to become social and political activists by heeding the words in their music. Although members of the group continued to record through the late 1990s, the importance of the Last Poets lies primarily with their first recording, the landmark Last Poets (1970).
The group was born in May of 1968 at a fete held in Marcus Garvey Park in honor of the birthday of the late Malcolm X. Their name, the Last Poets, was taken from a poem by a South African poet. Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson, Gylan Kain, and Felipe Luciano were among the founders; other original Last Poets were Umar Bin Hassan, Suliaman El Hadi, and Jalal Nurridin. Of the seven, Oyewole and Bin Hassan have sustained careers in the spirit of their first recordings.
From Last Poets (1970) to Time Has Come (1997), the Last Poets embodied the spirit of the griot, or African storyteller. In fact, their early music is modeled after West African practices, with its minimalist drumming and half-spoken, half-sung vocal delivery intended to accentuate the importance of the words. The group's harsh texts were meant to inform, anger, and incite and are themselves a triptych of black issues in the late 1960s: the class distinctions that divided all Americans but ostracized black Americans in particular, the racism that continued to enslave black Americans, and a burgeoning black nationalism.
The music of the Last Poets was a clarion call to those mired in complacency. It echoed the ethos of 1960s and 1970s social activists—particularly those, like the Black Panthers and the radical faction of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, who advocated self-sufficiency—and challenged black people to shun resignation and to think seriously about social revolution as an ideological construct.
The use of language to provoke is a hallmark of the Last Poets. The word nigger, which is ubiquitous in the group's music, appears as neither an egregious nor an empty gesture; rather, it is calculated to address black people's self-perceptions. In “Run Nigger,” written at the height of the civil rights movement, the Last Poets ridiculed the passive tactics of the movement's leaders—“time is running out of talks, marches, tunes, chants, and prayers,” as they berated black people for the meaninglessness of their lives— “run, Nigger; run like you run when the liquor store is closing and it's Saturday night.” “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” is a message to those whose words are grander than their actions, as well as a poem about self-love and social responsibility: “Niggers are lovers. Niggers love to hear Malcolm but they didn't love Malcolm. Niggers love everything but themselves…. I love niggers because niggers are me. And I should only love that which is part of me.”
“When the Revolution Comes” parodies the lifestyle in which blacks would rather eat chicken and watch TV than acknowledge a social revolution in full swing. It applauds the actions of those committed to aggressive resistance as it denounces the acquiescence of those who prefer peaceful dialogue—“guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays.” “Two Little Boys” is a poignant tale in two parts: lost youth and black love. In this poem, we witness a day in the life of two young drug addicts who steal, get high, and eat ravenously at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem. The concluding lines “oh beautiful black minds create a world where children can play with life, not death” and “oh beautiful black brothers and sisters come together to create life, to create love, to create, and to create” underscore the urgency of their desire for something better.
Given their uncompromising style, it is not surprising that the Last Poets inspired younger musicians. The messages espoused and the traditions embraced by this maverick prerap group were adopted by a host of rappers and adapted to the issues of the 1980s, 1990s, and 21st century. Many rappers—from KRS-One and Dead Prez to Ice-T and Tupac—are drawn especially to the teaching aspect of the Last Poets and have infused their music with similarly bold social and political statements meant to be heard and heeded.



Further Reading

  • Last Poets. (1992). Vibes from the Scribes: Selected Poems. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This was one of the first works to present the Last Poets to a wide continental African audience.
  • Oyewole, Abiodun, and Hassan, Umar Bin, with Kim, Green. (1996). On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of the Last Poets. New York: Henry Holt. This is a very useful work on the Last Poets.