[Marxism] Rap pioneer

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Tue Dec 21 13:18:38 MST 2004

Rap pioneer 

A Last Poet's lasting relevance 


by Jonathan Cunningham <	

Step back, all ye wannabe rappers, and check out one of the originals who
made hip hop possible. Before Africa Bambaata was throwing parties in the
Bronx - before Prince Whipper Whip was rocking with the Fantastic 5 - and
before the Rock Steady Crew ever attempted their first windmills, Umar Bin
Hassan and the Last Poets were making rhythm and poetry live on the streets
of Harlem.

More than 30 years later, Bin Hassan still speaks with a hurried urgency, as
if every word could be his last. His voice still resonates with the fervor
of the Last Poets' seminal This Is Madness (recently named one of the 20th
century's best albums by Vibe magazine).

But tell him that early '70s poems "Forty Deuce Street" and "Niggers Are
Scared of Revolution" are jewels from a bygone era, or that he's an icon to
younger street poets, and he tries to change the subject.

Optik Birmingham

"Being an icon is not for me," Bin Hassan, 56, says by phone. "Shit, I'm
still used to sleeping on the floor, hustling just to get by, and battling
my own demons. Plus I don't take myself too serious like that. I'm just as
wild and crazy as the next person."

In some ways, however, Bin Hassan has slowed. After years of drug and
alcohol abuse, he says he's just grateful to still be alive. He's currently
clean and living in Flint with his younger sister. He still tours under the
banner of the Last Poets and also makes solo engagements.

"When I speak about victory in my poems, the real victory is to become
content with yourself," Bin Hassan says. "I'm not ashamed of that part of my
life. The drugs and crack and all of that. That's me. You have to stand up
and face yourself, face the inner demons that lurk within your soul. You
can't hide and pretend. If I hadn't faced myself and hit the bottom the way
I did, I might not be alive today."

The Last Poets first spoke out against poverty and racial injustice at a
time when artists and revolutionaries were hanging out on the same urban
street corners; the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and the Watts Prophets were
picking up microphones and djembe drums while the Black Panthers and the
Young Lords were picking up guns.

The Last Poets officially started May 19, 1968, at a Malcolm X birthday
celebration in Harlem. The group's originators - Abiodun "Dun" Oyewole,
Gylan Kain and David Nelson - took their name from a poem by South African
poet Willie Kgositsile, who wrote about the necessity of putting aside
poetry in the face of looming revolution. Bin Hassan joined a year later.

In all, there've been seven poets, and, in addition to jousting with the
establishment, they've spent a good deal of time fighting each other in
various groupings and regroupings. In one altercation, former Last Poet
Jalal Nurridin stabbed Bin Hassan in the neck. And for a while, there were
two competing groups claiming the name. 

Bin Hassan says that the group now consists of himself, Oyewole and
percussionist Don "Babatunde" Eaton. Bin Hassan owns the name to the group,
he says.

"I had the common sense to trademark the name back in 1995, and I don't care
how upset anybody else is that I did that shit. None of those dumb niggas
were smart enough to do it. Out of all the poets, I'm the crazy nigga,
wild-ass Umar, that's got the name. And if I didn't own the rights to it,
some white boy probably would and then we'd really be in trouble."

While Bin Hassan and Oyewole (who spoke to Metro Times in a separate phone
interview from New York) are pleased that many of today's rap and hip-hop
artists cite the Last Poets as pioneers, both poets are critical of some
aspects of today's scene.

"When we rapped, it was all about raising consciousness and using language
to challenge people," Oyewole says. "When I wrote [about] 'party and
bullshit' it was to make people get off their ass. But now 'party and
bullshit' was used by Biggie, used by Busta Rhymes, but in a nonconscious
way. That's difficult for us to deal with."

Nonetheless, a number of the more socially and politically conscious emcees
are planning a tribute album to the Last Poets. When We Come Together is to
feature Common, Bilal, Dead Prez, Chuck D, Keith Murray, Buckshot, Kanye
West, Erykah Badu and others. It's slated for release on West's new label
next year.

"I'm glad the project is coming out, but I'm a little pissed off about the
way it's being done," Bin Hassan says, complaining that his poems are being
shortened for airplay. "Fuck the radio."

Asked about his partner in rhyme, Oyewole says he's most proud of Bin
Hassan's recent turn to writing love poems.

"Umar has been able to take all of the anger that stems from living in this
society and the difficulties of his addictions and turn them into love
poems," Oyewole says. "Our society needs to hear love poems right now,
especially from a brother that's been through what Umar has been through."

Bin Hassan says, "I'm getting close to that victory, man - of not being
afraid to express who I really am. Some days it's hard, but, slowly and
surely, I'm getting there."


Umar Bin Hassan performs with the backing of Soul Clique
<http://www.metrotimes.com/guide/musicians/artistprofile.asp?id=5551>  at
Revival '04 black music and poetry festival. Also on the bill are Third Eye
Open, 5ELA, Versiz
<http://www.metrotimes.com/guide/musicians/artistprofile.asp?id=10659> ,
Kahn Davison and DJ Slo-Poke on Thursday, Dec. 16, at Fifth Avenue
<http://www.metrotimes.com/guide/nightspots/place.asp?id=8032>  Downtown
(2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313 471-2555). 


Jonathan Cunningham is an editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to
letters at metrotimes.com.

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