by Carl Jeeter*

The composition of The Last Poets may change, but the fire is still the same. This highly influential group of spoken-word artists, who performed Sept. 23rd at The Carolina Theatre in Durham, started out with three members — Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson, and Gylan Kain — when the group was born on May 19, 1968 (Malcolm X’s birthday). In the ensuing 38 years, the membership of the group has changed several times. Original group member Abiodun Oyewole and Umar bin Hassan, who joined the group shortly after its inception, performed in Durham on Saturday night, with percussionist Don Babatunde as the third man on the stage. (Babatunde opened the show with an awesome demonstration of African drumming, employing four conga drums of different pitches.)

When I first heard The Last Poets at the height of the Black Nationalist Movement in the early 1970s, they were so radical that they scared some black folk. Back then, they were activists, like the Black Panthers, who preached revolution; and they meant what they said. There were black people getting arrested, and killed for no reason. Fred Hampton, who was shot to death in his home by FBI agents, is probably the worst example.

The Last Poets understand the black experience. Their name came from a verse by South African Poet Little Willie Kgostile: “When the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk, / The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain…. / Therefore we are the last poets of the world.”

When they started out, The Last Poets tried to shock black America out of its passive acceptance of the status quo, and force them to think about revolution. Today, The Last Poets still see themselves as catalysts for change. They see themselves as poets, people who write verse to inspire people. They don’t see themselves as the same kind of radicals that they were in the early 1970s. Back then, they saw themselves as poet-warriors—people who were insightful enough to educate other people, but also ready to take off their gloves and go to battle. Nowadays, they see themselves as teachers’ people who are able to inspire people poetically. Yes, they write about politics. They also write about love and peace. They do feel that a change n the White House would be good, and they’re not the only ones.

In terms of the spoken word, and the money that’s being made by young artists who are spoken-word artists or rappers, The Last Poets would like for them to have something substantive to say, and not just be doing it for the money. They would like for these young artists — many of whom joined The Last Poets for “When We Come Together: The Tribute Album” — to use their public platforms to say something that has some depth to it, to say what they feel and not just what’s commercially viable. (The album features guest recordings by Erykah Badu, Common, Chuck D., Dead Prez, Doug E. Fresh, and Kanye West, among others.)

The Last Poets, who have been called the “Godfathers of Rap,” appreciate the fact that some of today’s rappers look up to them as the original spoken-word artists. They know what these young cats do now influences what other young people do.

But The Last Poets still accuse some black people of not being ready for change — they are ready for everything else but the radical change in thought. One of the poems that they did Saturday night is “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Some of the young rappers now use the N-word like they invented it, and think that Public Enemy is as radical as it gets. But Public Enemy acknowledges the influence that The Last Poets have had on spoken word artists of all types.

When The Last Poets started out, they were not afraid to speak their minds, to express views that some people in the black and white communities might consider radical. The Last Poets still speak out on controversial issues — and they don’t sugar-coat what they say — but they are not speaking from anger alone.

Having dedicated their Durham show to the memory of jazz saxophone legend John Coltrane, who was born in Hamlet, NC and grew up in High Point and Philadelphia, The Last Poets are not just trying to say something radical to jolt the audience out of its complacency about the plight of black people in America. They’re speaking from the context of the times — then and now — and the black experience as they have seen it.

At the time that these cats were young men, this country did not have a very good track record as far as black people are concerned. One of Abiodun Oyewole’s latest poems, called “America Is a Terrorist,” is especially strong stuff. It talks about how this country drops bombs on innocent babies in other countries, and how America left people stranded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. Oyewole also talks about the history of this country, but his message is, You got might; use it right.

At the end of the evening, the audience gave The Last Poets a standing ovation after the group exhorted the audience not to be afraid to speak truth to power. If Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been afraid to speak truth to power, say The Last Poets, Indian independence and the American civil rights movement would never have happened, let alone succeeded.

Umar bin Hassan says some people might call The Last Poets angry black men, and some people might call them radical activists; but they are artists out to make the world a better place, and to encourage their listeners to do the same.

The Carolina Theatre: The Last Poets: [inactive 1/07] (official web site), (Roots’n’Rap) and (African American Literature Book Club). Monica Daye:

*We are pleased to welcome guest critic Carl Jeeter to CVNC. Carl is a writer and jazz enthusiast who attended North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC, and earned his bachelor’s degree in business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He used to host a jazz program on various weeknights on WSHA/88.9 FM ( at Shaw University in Raleigh.