The Last Poets have been railing against American politics and discrimination since their emergence from the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Proving the pen is mightier than the sword, they have inspired for decades with their fearless poetry set to hypnotic beats and are frequently credited as the forefathers of hip hop. Their recent gig, at Jazz Cafe, included a showcase of the group’s collaborative project with new, young London-based poets (for the Apples and Snakes: Speak Up Newcomers Tour), highlighting both their relevance to and interest in the next generation of spoken word artists. Before the show, Umar Bin Hassan took some time to speak to me about the group’s ethos, history and legacy. Despite the serious topics and concerns of the group’s lyrics, he revealed an inspiring optimism for poetry, politics and the next generation.
You’re performing at a great mix of European venues and festivals – how do you find European audiences react to your work, compared those in the States?
I think European audiences are much more cerebral than American. They catch every little word, every nuance. That’s why we like coming here, because of the responses we get – truthful and authentic. We know they’re listening to us.
Has this dynamic changed over the years?
No, it’s still the same. America is in this process of being dumbed down anyway, all the reality shows…it’s kind of sad, it’s kind of tragic, but that’s the way it is in that country. A lot of mediocrity is going on. Look who’s running for president – Donald Trump! And doing pretty well at it too, so you see what I’m talking about.
You’ve always had a very strong message at the heart of your work – do you think that message has changed?
Well, we still talk about certain things that are going on now, like the racism amongst a lot of people in America and racism shown to other people who are coming into America. We still deal with that because as you can see, even though we have a black president and everybody’s talking about post-racial America, there’s more in depth, entrenched racism since he’s been in. He beat the Republican party of white men two times and nobody liked that, especially the white Republican base. The good thing about America is the young people, the white ones, the black ones. Especially after that killing in Staten Island, you saw all these young kids coming out marching in the streets and realising we can’t just keep listening to hip hop or going to the clubs, we got to start doing something that’s profoundly necessary, because this shit has to stop.
The Last Poets evolved from a very political musical/art scene – do you think these mediums create as much impact these days?
It’s not happening the way it was then but I think there might be a renaissance because of the situations with killings, like I was just telling you, how the young kids are getting more involved now and they’re realising we got to start a whole new movement. So something like that might be coming around again – poetry with words and dance and stuff, but this time it might be a little more inclusive. It might be all the young people against the old stupid dumb people who are getting in their way. So, I’m hopeful. The young children, my grandchildren’s age, don’t want to be black or white they just want be human beings. Change is coming, one way or another, and those in power will try to stop it but will have to get out of their way – it’s inevitable, change is inevitable. There might be some more deaths, unnecessary deaths, but change is coming.
I first came across the Last Poets when I saw the British 1960s film Performance, which used one of your tracks. What did you think of the film and what memories do you have of that time?
It was cool, we liked the way it was used and, in fact, we found out that Mick Jagger was a big fan. So was Bowie – he was doing a show, in Detroit, and somebody said ‘David Bowie wants you to come down to his show’. What does he want with Umar Bin Hassan? [Laughs] So, I went down to the show and it was nice and we spent a nice evening together. We’ve come to understand that there were a lot of white people that were listening to us under the covers and down in basements. We just did a gig about a month ago in the village and it was 99% white people. All the people who were listening to us, who can say ‘it’s OK now, we can come out in the open’. We never realised the impact we made in Europe either until we got to Europe in the 90s. We’re going into the Smithsonian [respected American institution for preserving heritage and promoting research] sometime in the Fall. Everybody talks to me about ‘when you going into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’.? Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that’s OK, but the Simthsonian? That’s another level. So, I’m happy. Not only did we change spoken word, but we made it possible for spoken word to be viable and capitalised on to make money. That first album sold 400,000 copies by word of mouth alone. We have our place in history. I’m satisfied. I know what we did, I know what we contributed.
What would you like people to take away from your show tonight?
To be able to think. That’s all any poet wants you do, is think. They just want you to open your mind because a poet’s job, basically, is to redefine things. If you think what’s going on is not supposed to be going on, if a poet knows it, then they are going to try to tell you about it – how to fix it, how to deal with it or how to get past it. That’s what we do. We redefine things. That’s our job.
Umar’s final word on the purpose of poetry is a fitting end to our conversation and I leave him to prepare for the show. The Last Poets have not only changed the course of spoken word in its more musical form, but seem keen to support others taking on the mantle. Hopefully The Last Poets are not the last of their kind…
Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk. Imelda is also known as Rebeladelica and has her own great site right here: www.rebeladelica.com
Apples and Snakes have their own website right here: www.applesandsnakes.org