Artistic Director of Apples and Snakes, Lisa Mead, interviewed our friends Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan from The Last Poets to discuss poetry as their chosen form of expression, the longevity of their careers and how it all began. In the first part of this blog, Abiodun and Umar share what kept them going and how their work has changed over the years.
The following is a transcript of a conversation that has been edited for readability.
L: So your careers as poets started 50 years ago, why did you choose poetry as your means of expression above all the other art forms and what was it that poetry could do for you that other art forms couldn’t or didn’t?
A: For me, poetry was the only personal language that I had a control over. With other forms of writing, there are a lot of restrictions, impediments where you don’t always have the freedom that poetry allows. Poetry allows you to curse and you don’t have to apologize about it. I mean, you can express your feelings and I think that there’s no other literature that allows you to express your feelings like poetry.
U: I’m going to tell y’all the first poem that I ever wrote, it came about when I was a shoeshine boy on the streets of Akron, Ohio eight, nine years old. This guy named Mitchell Lindsay was my shoeshine boy competitor. But not only was he shining shoes, but he also sold Jet magazine. He was always, you know, getting ahead of me because you could read his paper while he was shining shoes. One day though, there’s one lady wanted me to shine her shoes. Mitchell came up and said: “You, read my paper!” And she said: “No, I want him to shine em for me.” So out of my mouth automatically, I mean, you know, where I come from, I says,
Shoeshine, Shoeshine, can’t be beat
shoeshine, shoeshine. Give your soul a treat.
I, pop that rag. I click that brush.
A dime and a nickel ain’t too much.
And so that’s helped me. It helped me a lot. It was poetry that they helped me make money when I was in the streets.
L: Maintaining a career over this length of time is no mean feat. Pretty impressive. Was there a moment when you wanted to give it all up? What made you keep going?
U: There are a million moments where you want to give it up, every moment.
L: Why do you keep doing it?
D: We’re compelled to do it. And the truth of the matter is a lot has to do with the people. Umar and I didn’t really define ourselves as the people’s poet, the people did that. I’m proud of both of us because we’ve been able, with the help of God and all the ancestors, to carry it well.
Felipe was at my house not long ago and he was saying, you know, I’m really proud of what you and Umar have done because you have been the most consistent of all the poets. And that’s because, you know, we have a good work ethic. Umar was raised with a good work ethic. I was raised with a serious work ethic.
U: … Both of us from Ohio, that’s what makes us keep going, it’s that Midwestern work ethic. All the plants, it’s about work, get them out working. So we do.
D: That’s the bottom line. I don’t like to give up something that we know is necessary and people are constantly reinforcing that. We can’t go outside our doors without being blessed by somebody who’s listened to us and, come to us and say, man, when I first heard you, you changed my life. And I have to tell them, you change our lives, we didn’t expect to be running around the world, running out our mouth like this for 50 years, but we have, and I give thanks. I’m very, very grateful. They said in the Bible, in the beginning was the word. That’s no joke. That’s the truth. The word can set you free, but it’s got to be the right word.
If you’re going to be in this world, where are you going to use your poetry to try to help liberate yourself and others? You better be honest because if you’re not honest, it’s going to be a real monster down the line.
L: How has the way that you work changed over the years?
U: I know how to be a little more easily myself. I come to Flint, Michigan. I sat on my sister’s porch for three months. Just sat. Didn’t do nothing. Cause everybody tell me, Umar, you got to know how to relax. I just sit and relax because I’ve always been somebody moving, moving, moving, moving, you know, from shoe shining to the Last Poets, just moving, moving, moving always in some way, going somewhere, doing something. When I finally sit down I said, This is okay, to relax and just feel yourself out and, you know, be part of something that’s a little more than what you are.
Right now, today, I’ve learned how to feel much better about myself, you know. I understand why I’m here. And it helped me a whole lot. It’s learning how to relax and to be part of the scene and not trying to overtake this thing, but just to be part of it, you know, so those words can come out now a little more delicate now, little more sincerely now, a lot stronger now.
So that’s part of the growth of what I’ve been going through becoming older. It’s about knowing who I am before I start writing about other people.
D: You know, Umar’s words are my sentiments. Exactly. I feel I’ve done the same thing. One thing that we’ve always loved about Malcolm [X] was that every phase of his life he evolved. If you don’t evolve, you cannot really say you’ve grown. A growth is an evolution, and I think both Umar and I have been blessed and sensible enough to recognize certain things had to stop. We both became people that are more settled with ourselves and with a better understanding of who we are.
I had a lady who used to always say the whole process starts with you feeling good about you. If you can’t feel good about you, we can’t expect much good to come from you. But it takes a minute for you to really get to a point where you can feel good about yourself.
We have been so damaged by outside influences and our own personal insecurities. It’s really hard to come out on top after you’ve been through the ringer like we have been. But I think that we’ve been very, very blessed because we’re here, the virus hasn’t got us, whether it’s a racist virus or the Coronavirus, whatever virus they’ve got for us we’ve been able to overcome, and we’ve been able to sincerely share, to the point we’re being looked up to by the young folks and they give us love. They want us to connect with them and get some help from people who have been around the block before. So I feel very honored and blessed.
And I can say honestly, what Umar just said about being able to be with yourself to find appreciation and being a part of a situation, as opposed to trying to take over and be in charge. There’s a joy to that. There is, there’s a special joy.
Carry on with part 2.
Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson and Gylan Kain were born as The Last Poets on May 19, 1968 in Mount Morris Park in Harlem, New York. They evolved from three poets and a drummer to seven young black and Hispanic poets: Umar bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole, David Nelson, Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano, Jalal Mansur Nuruddin, Suliaman El Hadi, and two drummers Nilaja Obabi and Baba Don.
Modern day griots, fusing politically outspoken lyrics with inventive percussion – The Last Poets spoken word albums foreshadowed the work of hard-hitting rap groups such as Public Enemy. The Last Poets album (1970), is considered the first hip-hop album of all time, and This Is Madness (1971), landed them on President Nixon’s Counter-Intelligence Programming list!