“Time is running out on lifeless serpents reigning over a living Kingdom”. One of the opening lines of The Last Poets’ debut album accurately articulates the zeitgeist felt by radicals on both ends of the political spectrum circa 1970 in America. Reports of police brutality, race riots and assassinations were flooding the news. Long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared that “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”. The number of protests and marches increased as much of the general public (especially in urban Black America) was becoming more and more politicized. To many it seemed as though revolution was imminent. The signs of these times were captured in the musical poetry of artists like the Watts Prophets, Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. Theirs was the soundtrack of a revolution that never materialized.
The anecdote of how The Last Poets came into being is a fitting illustration of the poets’ political aspirations. Initially dubbed The Original Last Poets, the group was formed in 1968 by Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain and David Nelson on what would have been Malcolm X’s 43rd birthday in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. With Black Nationalism’s two most important figures embedded in their history, The Last Poets were destined to have a significant impact on the movement. Not only did their lyrics mirror the credos of the Black Panther Party at the height of it popularity, their rapid-fire delivery also anticipated socially conscious rap music, ten years before Brother D asked “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?” From the beginning, The Last Poets were more of a collective of likeminded political poets than a music group. The original trio featured on the Herbert Danska poetry film Right On!, which was recorded in 1968 and officially released in 1970, as well as the subsequent 1971 soundtrack. Via the Harlem’s writers’ workshop “East Wind”, Luciano, Kain and Nelson came across likeminded and equally talented fellow lyricists, who shared their passion for radical poetry and sparse instrumentation. Among them were Abiodun Oyewole, Alafia Pudim (also known as Jalal Mansur Nuriddin) and Omar Ben Hassen. Enlisting the help of percussionist Nilaja Obabi, they recorded the first official Last Poets record in 1970. The production is credited to “East Wind Associates” – a testament to the movement’s spirit of collectivity.
The lyrics on The Last Poets’ eponymous debut album were very much indebted to the radical Black Nationalist ideology that had its roots in the teachings of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, and which was being pursued by the Black Panther Party and activist artists like Amiri Baraka. They were the signs of a Civil Rights Movement split in two – split between pacifists and agitators, integrationists and separatists, Martins and Malcolms. Following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, the voices calling for a resolute upheaval of the system rose to a crescendo. Songs like “Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution” were both an indictment and an incitement, passionate rants against passivity and calls for activism. With their high-octane mixture of immaculate wit, fierce imagery and damning verdicts, The Last Poets became the spokespeople of a widespread sentiment – and enemies of the State. “We were on President Nixon’s list, the defence department list, the national security list. It kind of blew my mind,” recollects Umar Ben Hassen in an interview with The Guadian’s Dorian Lynskey. And yet, their album reached the US Top Ten album charts. Turbulent times indeed….
Read more and listen here