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The Last Poets - Review

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Of all the lines included in this collection - a collection which spans almost 20 years, from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s - the one that for me most tellingly sums up The Last Poets comes from the chorus to Suliaman El Hadi’s Blessed Are Those Who Struggle: ‘Bet­ter to die for a noble cause than to live and die a slave’.

 A recurring theme in the Poets’ work is expressed in the celebrat­ory Ho Chi Minh, where the frail guerrilla leader warns the all-pow­erful American invader: ‘Before we would submit, you see, we all would rather die’. The sentiment encapsulates both the political thrust of the Poets’ work and the economic reality of the group members’ actual lives.

For the Poets there is a wafer-thin dividing line between their personal life and their recorded work, and there lies the reason for much of the impact and relevance of the latter. Feted by the white liberal media all over the English-speaking world for over 15 years (ever since the release of their first album, ‘The Last Poets’, in 1970), the Poets today continue to live in the same economically de­prived conditions where they first took to the Harlem street corners to recite poetry in the late ’60s. Unusually among the ‘protest artists’ who emerged in America during the ’60s, the poets really were mem­bers of the class they championed, and occasionally vilified, in their work. They weren’t merely identifying with dispossessed urban American blacks; they were these people. And since then, despite the massive media acclaim, they have remained these people - partly from choice, partly because white ethnocentric America does not re­ward real revolutionaries with honorary professorships and the like. Had they recanted, the individual Poets would doubtless be making a fat living on the college lecture circuit.

Reading these poems up to 15 years after they were first recorded is still an intense experience. Born in the ephemeral worlds of the street comer and the popular record, their passion, anger, wit, irony and style have survived entirely unscathed. On the one hand, this is a testament to the sheer literary skill of Jalal Nuriddin and Suliaman El Hadi; on the other it is a chilling reflection of how little white America has managed - or even tried - in the 1970s and 1980s to right the wrongs and disadvantages it has inflicted on its black people. The racial tensions and injustices mapped out so vividly on early works like On the Subway or White Man’s Got A God Complex (from ‘The Last Poets’, 1970, and This Is Madness, 1971, respec­tively) are still very much a part of the black experience today. So too are the feelings of inferiority and impotence among black people which inspired the vitriolic Wake Up Niggers and Niggers Are Scared Of Revolution from their 1970 debut.

Remarkably, in the light of unjust social conditions and unchang­ingly grim personal economic life, the Poets themselves have changed and grown over the last 15 years, most notably in their ra­cial attitudes. Coming together as young men in the ugly confluence of the New York ghetto hustle in the late ’60s - a world of poverty, crime, prison, hard drugs and alcohol - they turned first to the separatist Black Muslim philosophy espoused by the late Elijah Muhammad. But, like Malcolm X, another Black Muslim refugee from the hustling life, the Poets grew to realize that Elijah Muham­mad’s anti-white beliefs ran counter to the true meaning of Islam, a religion which, despite its shortcomings (which in the West are most strongly perceived in its attitudes to women), actively propagates the equality of all races. While the Poets today are as pro-black as they ever were, they are every bit as fervently pro-white, pro-yel­low . . . pro-human. So those poems from their 1985 album ‘Oh My People’ included here are directed as much at white people as they are at black: This Is Your Life is a warning of an impending nuclear armageddon which will make no racial exceptions. Get Movin’ and the poem Oh My People itself can be taken as being directed at black people; but they can also be taken, and are intended to be taken, as talking to the white working classes who share the same depriva­tions and feelings of powerlessness as their black brothers and sis­ters.

In this context, however, it is important to remember that the Last Poets were never, even in the heady Black Muslim days, exclu­sively concerned with racial issues - and some of their most power­ful and long-lasting works, while obviously coming from a black perspective, are not directly concerned with race. E Pluribus Unum, for instance, one of Nuriddin’s most impressively original poems, is a dissection of the symbolism behind the design of the dollar bill, and that symbolism’s meaning for the American economy. Similarly El Hadi’s Delights Of The Garden is poetry of genuinely epic propor­tions.

Far from exclusively black in outlook are the anti-drug Jones Coming Down and O.D. Both of them early works, at the time they were written the heroin plague had long since spread from black ghettos to white suburbs. Jazzoeiry and Bird’s Word too, though celebrating the black creators of jazz music, do not simultaneously set out to belittle white contributions.

‘Politics,’ Nuriddin observed while discussing these poems with me in early 1985, ‘is no longer a skin issue. There are bigger issues facing us now, that black and white must overcome together - or we will perish together.’

Chris May, August 1985

 

 

 

 

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