Transcription by Christabel Smith with additions from Talia Randall
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“Poetry before us was kind of quiet. You might have had tea and crumpets, you know, sat round and maybe whispered to each other, not talk too loud. We put brass knuckles on it, punch you in the face with poetry, we gave it that rowdy sound, we turned up the volume and it became a war cry in many ways, for a lot of people”
Welcome to Cassette Tape Radio, I’m your host Talia Randall. The voice you just heard belongs to the legendary poet Abiodun Oyewole. Now I don’t use the word legendary lightly. Abiodun is one of the founding members of The Last Poets, a group who laid the foundations for Hip Hop.
They’ve influenced the likes of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Eryka Badu, Common, countless others. Chuck D refers to The Last Poets as “the birthplace of rap”. Even if you’ve not heard of The Last Poets before you will definitely be aware of their legacy. The Last Poets were born on May 19th 1968 – a date which is also known as Malcolm X’s Birthday – and Abiodun often refers The Last Poets as poetic disciples of Malcolm X.
The Last Poets are pioneers. They’ve been sharing their “war cry” as Abiodun calls it for decades. From parks in Harlem, to hit records in the 1970s, to becoming scholars, touring the world. They’ve been putting out albums for decades. The most recent release was Transcending Toxic Times in 2019.
The year before that – 2018 – is when I met Abiodun and recorded this interview. I was in New York was put in touch with him. I went along to one of his open houses that he does every week in his apartment in Harlem. Big thanks Lisa from Apples and Snakes for the connection.
We talk about Civil Rights, The Black Power movement, how useless language can be at expressing our inner most thoughts and of course the legacy of The Last Poets and their influence on today’s poetry and Hip Hop.
The interview was recorded in May 2018 and there’s some light background noise here and there – a phone ringing, basketball on the TV – I think its was the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. The Boston Celtics – you can hear a few people arriving to the open house. Enjoy it.
Interview: Talia Randall/Abiodun Oyewole
Can you tell us about where we are and a bit about your work?
Well we’re in Harlem, even though many of the good white people don’t want to name this area Harlem, they want to call it Morningside Heights. But this is Harlem. I look at the Valley of Harlem from my window and I deliberately picked this apartment because I face Harlem and also, the trees, because that’s great oxygen I’m getting every morning, you know?
This is my apartment, I’ve been here for 42 years. I started teaching at Columbia University when I was in my 20s and it’s been a real thrill to be here, to be able to still be at this spot, because this is a very lovely area. The whole neighbourhood is very nice. It’s quiet, there’s no problems, we don’t have any gunshots and crazy stuff happening like you have in the hood for the most part sometimes and the cops don’t be racing through here, acting silly.
It’s kind of sane and sober and on Sundays, I have an open house. I do an open house and I’ve been doing that for about 39 years, at least. I have people come because I play basketball and then some of the guys knew I was a poet and they wanted to share their poetry. One thing led to another and I started cooking food and having people come over on Sunday.
It just kind of happened naturally and it’s become a thing. People know about it everywhere, a lot of folks. I try to make it a real homely feel, I don’t even like to buy paper plates, I want people to have real utensils and stuff. I wash the dishes and make sure everything’s put away and it’s kept clean because I’m a clean freak, I want things to be done right.
But this is my place. If you just look around, you see all the masks from Africa and pictures from all over the world. I’m a traveller. My lady who passed away a couple of years ago, she was a super travel agent, she would always design these phenomenal places for us to go to. My birthday would come and I would be on some Caribbean island. I wouldn’t know where I was going to go until I got to the airport, it was always a surprise she would hook up for me.
So I’ve done a lot of travelling, which also indicates and tells you clearly that I have learned a great deal because when you travel, you really gain a lot more than when you read a book. So I’ve had the pleasure of being in almost every continent and meeting some angels everywhere I’ve gone. It’s been beautiful, the journey has been wonderful so far. My ancestors and my gods have been walking by my side. I feel absolutely blessed to be here and to be able to still do what I do best.
Amazing and it’s so incredible that you welcome people into that story by opening your house, by interacting wherever you travel.
Poetry has taken on a real serious… The genre has become probably the most serious in the world right now and I will say The Last Poets can take partial credit for that because poetry before us was kind of quiet. You might have had tea and crumpets, you know, sat round and maybe whispered to each other, not talk too loud.
We put brass knuckles on it, punch you in the face with poetry, we gave it a rowdy sound, we turned up the volume and it became a war cry in many ways, for a lot of people. It became an outlet that many people could jump on and express themselves in ways they didn’t think they could express themselves before. It was more introverted in the beginning and it became something of an extrovert as time moved on.
So every place I’ve been, from Morocco to…there are poetry groups and of course, hip hop has echoed that because hip hop is really coming from the very root of poetry. It’s the same thing, except that it’s with a beat and the beat becomes more dominant than the words sometimes. Some of the words are silly and sometimes the words are very good, like Melle Mel has recorded a couple of times with us and he is the author of The Message, The Messenger, of The Message actually, which is a classic that I think the entire world knows, ‘Don’t push me cos I’m close to the edge’ and that is poetry to supreme and a lot of us are very close to the edge and I’m just about ‘to lose my head’, those things exists even to today.
So in some cases, some of the rappers have written some supremely good poetry. You got some that are just writing bubblegum and BS, they’re not doing much, other than just getting some of the fluff from being called a rapper, you know? But this is what I do.
Amazing and the way you’re describing this journey from tea and crumpets and quiet and whispers to something that’s a ‘war cry’, you said. Can you tell me a bit about some of those impulses and where they came from for you and your peers at the time and still now?
One of the impulses is the fact that Dr King was killed April 4 1968 and that for me set it off. I think not only was I set off, was I set on fire more or less, I think the whole world was because this man was obviously a man of peace, he functioned on a non-violent ticket, he was not trying to create madness, matter of fact he was trying to stop the madness in every possible way. He was a man of peace and love.
I could not even have marched with Dr King because he even preached to his congregation ‘turn the other cheek’, you know, and I’m not the ‘turn the other cheek’ kind of guy. My father taught me ‘if somebody puts their hands on you’, he didn’t say ‘hit them back’, he said ‘break their hand so when they look at their hand in a cask, they will know why they shouldn’t touch you’. That’s how I was raised.
Then to compound that, the two fights that I had in my life, basically I don’t really know how to fight, but I go crazy, so I was nicknamed ‘Panic’ because I’d just hurt you because you’ve upset me and I try not to get upset like that and thank God I haven’t had to in a long time, but I have had some memorable moments where I had to at least exercise some activity like that.
But yeah, the death of Dr King made me realise I had to be part of a movement that was not a return to….. so The Black Power movement was coming on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, so when the Black Power movement came into being and we were born on Malcolm X’s birthday and he represented Black Power, well absolutely, really in reality, Malcolm represented human rights.
A lot of people don’t realise that because he had even planned to go to United Nations to indict America for actually practising…that human rights was something that we had not received and if you’ve got your human rights, your civil rights are automatic. So he was coming from another place and I think when he went to Mecca and discovered that all white folks weren’t devils is when his humanity, his whole spirit of humanity, kicked in even more.
So we were coming from Malcolm. I always say we were like poetic disciples of Malcolm X and it’s befitting that we were born on his birthday. So those were some of the pulses that caused my heart to beat and the fact is that just becoming aware, once you become aware of what’s going on around you, about how you’ve been mistreated and abused and you start dealing with that as a poet and feeling what the people are feeling, you feel almost obligated to try to do what you can. You can’t stay still. You can’t just let it ride. You have to jump on it. So The Last Poets has been a wonderful vehicle for me to express myself and share my values and thoughts with those people who care to hear them.
When you’re talking about the beginnings of The Last Poets and you’ve been making more material lately and there has been a big resurgence and renewed interest in your work, how do you see some of the legacy being passed down to younger poets now, in the tradition which you kind of created?
First of all, one of the reasons I do this open house is to pass that on because there are quite a number of young poets who show up here at the house. I think that I have a theory that the power of example is the most moving force. I am still working and doing what I do and quite a lot of young people try to imitate and emulate that in whatever way they can.
So I think that the trend has started. I think that – and I have a number of mentees, so to speak, young people who come to me with their work for advice, call me on the phone if they can’t be here physically, and I’m patient enough to try to work with them because many of them need some guidance. I remember when I first started into the arts, I was basically singing, but my mother was a big supporter.
She told me my voice was beautiful and if I knew a song on the radio, she turned the radio down so she could hear me, call the neighbours in the house so they could hear me, she was always just giving me full support. So I’m that way about many of our young folks who are trying to develop their skills and I give them little titbits of what to do when you’re writing poetry, how you have some basic formulas because sometimes folks sit there writing poetry and they’re not, because poetry is really a fine art.
It’s not just ranting and raving. It’s not just saying something that you feel. It’s also got to relate to my senses where I can taste it, smell it, touch it, hear it. It’s got to create some kind of image that’s going to take me on a trip and take me some place where I can use my imagination as well as my reality. So I believe that we have touched that one vein that every human being can connect to.
In terms of this idea, this project, or line of enquiry aht I’m interested in – ‘What Words Are Ours’ – language being this tool of self-reclamation and dissent, but also oppression.
When I heard that title, it intrigued me because ‘What Words Are Ours’, then you had that on my email, I was saying it’s almost like you’re echoing some of my thoughts. One of my mentees is a young lady named Jessica Care Moore and she did a book called These Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth. I’ve always told folks this language is so bad, it’s a bastard language we’re speaking, this English, I said so black people couldn’t be stuck trying to take a language that does not speak to the depths of our feelings, so what we had to do was take some basic words and invert them, change the whole thing, so bad in our world ain’t bad.
If we say ‘man, that was a bad dude’, we don’t mean he did something bad like hit an old lady in the head and took her purse, no, he did something wonderful. So we’ve had to reverse some of the meanings to some of these words, just to satisfy some of our own desires, because the language is insufficient to define our feelings.
So we had to make sick something wonderful, dope becomes special. You say ‘he got stupid sneakers’, it doesn’t mean they’re uneducated or he’s uneducated. We’ve done that because of the deficiency and the inefficiency of this particular language. We’ve had to make it work for us, because a lot of times, I’ve got a brother in the room now who will tell you that it’s not even so much about the words as it is about the sound and the sound echoes.
You can say almost anything and if you say it in a certain way, you can create anger, hostility, or you can create love. It depends upon how you say what you say. Tone is a great deal, plays a great role in language and dealing in how we deal with each other. So all that stuff comes into bear when I think about ‘What Words Are Ours’. We have to claim language and sometimes recreate the language to suit ourselves because if we follow Merriam-Webster, we follow what is politically correct, we may be constipated for a long time.
I like that, constipated, is the perfect word to describe it, all bunged up and everything. It becomes organic, like water, because it’s constantly changing and flowing.
Constantly. Everything evolves. I always tell folks we could never have a revolution unless there’s an evolution. Evolution has to take place first because we could have a revolution right now and you don’t know what we’re revolting for and recreate the very thing that we just destroyed and defeat the purpose. The purpose is to make this world, as far as I’m concerned, a paradise. There are certain things we should never even have to think about money for, like healthcare for example. Food, clothing and shelter, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re here, you should get that automatically.
But if I say it too loud, ‘oh, you sound like a communist’ or ‘you sound like a socialist’. So communism and socialism should exist with a certain degree of understanding, that yes, you can have capitalism existing at the same time. All those social sciences can exist simultaneously together, but you don’t have to have one overriding everything and capitalism has buck wild in America, to the point where people are literally starving and there are people that got too much, have a surplus, and we even have a president that claims he’s supposed to be a billionaire or whatever.
He doesn’t care about the poor people, yet he does talk that talk. The poor, so-called white trash, he gives them a feeling ‘I’m going to give you America back so you can feel proud’, but he is creating hostilities between the races by doing that in many ways and consequently, we have these little wars going on since he’s been president and things are going to continue to deteriorate because he’s a lopsided guy and he doesn’t understand how to be a real people’s president.
That whole thing passed with Barack Obama. Barack Obama had a human soul, as well as his wife, and they showed some humanity. They didn’t do anything specifically for black folks, they did things for the world and for the people and it was special. That’s why he got the term. He would have been voted in for another term if they didn’t have limitations, but the fact is that as a backlash, we got to deal with this Trump character.
I try to find… Everything has a reason so I say maybe Trump is a divine assignment because there are people from all walks of life who are getting together that would never have gotten together before. Every jerk, there’s a reason for a jerk to exist. So you say ‘this guy’s a real jerk, he’s an idiot’, but you know what, you can’t discount the wisdom of idiots also.
It’s true and kind of like a reflection of ourselves when these people rise, these jerks. I like ‘lopsided’ as a way to describe Trump.
Oh yeah, he’s a bit lopsided and he’s not even an amateur at this. He’s never done this before. He’s brand-new, a novice.
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You’re listening to Cassette Tape Radio a mix-tape-style podcast, each episode totally different to the next, interviews, comedy, original music and Poetry like this:
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We’ve been made homeless in language / Kicked out of our own word / A community centre so hostile / that we clumsy through umbrella terms
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If you’re working class you inherit anger. If you’re middle class you inherit manners. And a house. (audience laughs)
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snap poll / which racist do you want on your bank note / give you default sitar solo / aka indian banjo / (audience laughs) / fuck / election time / gotta hang low / this guy’s telling me / to go back home / type nw2 / what does your sat nav show?
[Fade out to another voice]
Proverbs for a woman drinking alone / If a woman drinks / undisturbed in a forest, / does she even exist? / A man walks / into a bar, / and ruins the woman’s evening.
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Don’t push me. I’m close to the edge / at the end of my tether / whatever the weather / whatever the method / it’s all of my effort not to – / I’m doing ten toes
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I was not born under a rhyming planet, / I was born a conclusion to her motherhood / premature, spitting fire from belly / shattering uterus, taking her womb / out into the world with me.
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And it wasn’t until I saw someone on stage / Rapping away with words I’d used everyday / For years, that the tears started rolling, / There was no controlling, my mind was unfolding, / Beholding the true nature of what I had lost / that not reading books
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Make sure you subscribe, share it with a friend, leave us a review and carry on listening.
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The performances that we’ve had in the last 30 years, all over the planet, have really been exciting because there are a lot of people who need to hear The Last Poets and a lot more than just black people, because we were in Edinburgh, Scotland, last August and they put a sign up that said ‘Conversation with The Last Poets at 2.30pm’, the place was packed. And that didn’t say we were going to do any poetry, they just got to talk to us and ask us questions.
I wanted to get to why these people were so much in love with us, because we’re rebels and they were rebellious against England and they understand that whole thing. Matter of fact, when we were getting ready to perform, I mentioned I kind of felt strange coming here to Scotland and somebody yelled out ‘Braveheart!’ I said ‘OK, I got it’ because I’ve seen Braveheart with Mel Gibson and he was a rebel, he was trying to stop England, trying to get England’s foot off their necks.
So we’re trying to break their legs too. Yes, we’ve been oppressed in America, but there have been oppressed people all over the planet. The Last Poets, in a sense, we’ve become soldiers for humanity, you know? And I kind of like that.
You’re listening to Cassette Tape Radio. I’m your host, Talia Randall. This is an interview I recorded with Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poiets, we’re talking about his influence on hip hop and poetry and also the nature of language and how it can be a tool of expression and also oppression.
Those ideas are directly related to a project I run called ‘What Words Are Ours’ – you heard us chatting about it in the interview ‘What Words Are Ours’ showcases Deaf and hearing poets in a joyous poetry knees-up – if you google ‘What Words Are Ours’ you’ll see various videos connected to the project.
Its really strange listening back the interview and the political landscape of the time – how dire it was then let alone now. Its really easy to lose focus and hope and energy right now, I’ve been struggling with that a lot recently. So I’m gonna hand the last word over to Abiodun for a note on hope and kindness.
Show kindness to one another. It’s not corny, as far as I’m concerned. I think that’s a wonderful thing to do. I do this because I want to always be somebody who shares and tries to help raise levels of humanity. This is a human effort that I make. If you’re not going to be a poet or short storywriter or singer or musician, that’s OK. Just come and partake, bring good energy, bring good vibes, you know?
I want to see us feel good about ourselves in whatever way we can, because that’s a difficult task for some of us. Some of us are walking round, depressed for no reason and it hurts my heart. I’m a poet, I’m like a sponge.
Yeah you’re going to feel that stronger than others.
I feel it, I feel it, you know? And it really bothers me. It’s like Nas, one of the known rappers, had a commercial on TV now, but he says , you know, ‘people tell me stories. I see it in the eyes, I see it in their feet, the way they hold their heads. They tell me stories without ever saying a word.’ So that is a brilliant commercial. If you really are a poet, you can read from the actions and expressions on people’s faces almost their whole life story, or at least what’s happening with them now.
And sometimes, it’s very painful. Sometimes, when I walk down 125th Street, it bothers me because I see the pain and sometimes I see the joy too and I’m happy when I see that joy. If somebody lights me up with a smile, it just makes my day. I don’t know your name, I don’t know your parents, I don’t know what you practise, I don’t know if you’re gay or straight, whatever. You just gave me a smile and boom! I’m smiling.
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This has been Cassette Tape Radio by Talia Randall. If you like what you’re listening to, subscribe to us, leave us a review, share it with a friend, everything really really helps. Massive thank you to Abiodun for agreeing to meet with me and record this interview.
Big thanks to Lisa from Apples and Snakes for the connection, and to the Arts Council who supported this episode with a fund, which has now sadly closed called Artists International Development Fund. That was the only reason that I was able to go out to New York and spend that time writing, developing and researching.
And massive thank you to Jamie Payne our musical maestro, all the music is done by him and he also does our audio engineering. Tune back in next time. See ya later
Bye, see ya, bye, see ya bye bye bye
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