In the second part of this blog, Artistic Director of Apples and Snakes, Lisa Mead, and Consulting Artistic Associate, Zena Edwards, delve a little deeper with our friends Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan from The Last Poets. They discuss how poetry has shaped them, what they think it means to be a poet, and the looking towards the future.
Want a refresh? Catch up on part 1 of this blog.
The following is a transcript of a conversation that has been edited for readability.
Z: There was something I wanted to ask you. How has writing helped you as an individual? I understand how, you know, you’re performing, sharing your work with others, but how has it been a device for you?
A: Well, for me, it’s been like having a conversation with myself and God. It’s what I feel in my heart and my soul. Me trying to explain this living that I’m doing, you know. My writing is therapeutic and at the same time, because the people have given me an avenue or a voice to speak to them I want to say something that will help heal them and help them understand.
You see, the poet’s job is never to tell you something new necessarily. I’m not going to show you another world. I want you to recognize the good that you got in this world, that you just don’t recognize.
I want you to be able to see and understand yourself. I’m not going to talk about a new self that you got to become. I want you to recognize the self that you are and deal with the parts that need to be fixed and work with those parts that are good. I believe the poet’s job is to make you see life from a different vantage point where you can have more control and a better handle on how you living.
We’re not here to give you a new life. The poets don’t do that. We expose life for what it is and let you make that choice – it’s always going to rest in your hands.
L What support do we need to enable artists to flourish at all stages of their career?
A: Well, you know, if you’re a good artist, art has a way of making a life for itself. It’s about the commitment of the person, how committed are you to your art? If you’re a painter, then you paint and you make your paintings available for folks to see. If you’re a singer, you sing. If you’re a poet you poet. But the people themselves make a decision and nobody can determine as to who’s going to pick you and make you special in their eyes. I think that the whole truth lies with what is the commitment of the artist himself or herself. How committed are you to your craft? If you’re committed to your craft, you find a way to get it where you feel you deserve to be.
And it’s always about work. You know, we have to go back to that work ethic. You gotta be able to work hard. And like, in Umar’s case, for example, he shined shoes and like the old adage, they say necessity is the mother of invention, he sees that I need to be better than this guy. I ain’t got no magazines. I ain’t got no black newspaper to sell all I got is my shoe shine boxes, my tools, and I got a voice and I got a brain and I can do my little song and maybe that’ll be enchanting enough for me to get the attention I need. So he found a way to open up an avenue for sales of his shoebox. And that’s what we have to do. We will have to find a way and I don’t have no quick fix formula.
What I do in the morning might not be what you want to do in the morning. All I know is that you got to do something that’s going to strengthen and give you the courage to move forward, but you cannot take your hands off the plow. If you about this. Be about it. Don’t tell me you’re about it, be about it.
U: Always be willing to share yourself with little people who got little organizations, who think that you are the type of person who never comes and do some poetry for them. Just show up for nothing sometime, or, you know let people know that you are here for them and you believe in them just like they believe in you. I do that. I show up. Or, you know, if I hear some poets in the streets I’ll come in and I’ll join the poet. They be amazed, like Wow, man, you came and you did some things with us. Why not? Who am I, a Last Poet? That means I’m some great, phenomenal being who just walk past you? Somebody said earlier, we are public servants. Yes. Thank you.
You know, you just gotta be open to people if you’re a poet. You can’t be closed because that means you ain’t write no good poetry. What kind of poetry are you going to write if you are closed to people and their situations, who they are and their feelings? You have to be open and not be afraid to be afraid.
D: That’s true. And it puts you in a spot. There are quite a few people who are poets, mainly because they’re introverted and can’t talk to nobody, so they only talk to themselves on paper. They just can’t share because they don’t know how, because they’re scared to death that what they share might be revealing and what they revealed might not be appealing! One of the reasons why we are here on this planet is to communicate with some other souls. And if you’re not doing that, you’re cheating yourself out of a life.
L: What do you think your greatest poetic achievement has been so far?
A: Having children.
U: That is the ultimate of being poetic.
A: Epic poems. We both have children. We have children who are a part of our lives, very important part of our lives. They make sure that we still functioning like we should. Those are our soldiers and the fathers have strength and bravado to go out and face the world and bring truth into the world.
L: So what are you planning to do next? What’s coming up?
U: I have a book out next. I’m hoping that we can get back over to England soon. And, you know, basically just tryin’ to keep myself in good health and show respect to others who deserve respect and try to be, you know, just part of humanity. That’s all. I ain’t asking for too much, you know,
A: We have a couple of projects. One of our great piano players, Theolonius Monk, his son, has a project that Umar and I’ve been participating in and it’s very powerful. He’s planning to unveil around Black History Month. He’s doing an epic tale of how we lived before they put us on the ships, our experience on the ships, the experience of being on the plantation, and then our return back to who we really are.
Every now and then something virtual will come up. I mean earlier, you asked what has changed in poetry since we started. I never did nothing virtually before that’s for damn sure.
L: What would your top tip or advice to someone starting out on their career be in order to maintain longevity – could you offer some pearls of wisdom?
A: First of all, poetry comes from the people and if you really want to have some longevity, give it back to the people that will always keep you here. Umar wrote, Niggas are Scared of Revolution. Umar can go to heaven happy today, just because of that one poem because it’s so much appreciated, it keeps you alive.
When you do something that you want to have longevity, you’ve got to reach, you got to touch the pulse of the folks that you’re that, you’re trying to reach. And if you touch their pulse, trust me, that heartbeat doesn’t ever die. I mean, Langston Hughes has been gone on how many years, and he’s very much alive just because he was able to capture the pulse of his people that he was writing about. His poetry’s mentioned all the time and that’s all, we were only judged by our work. That’s where the immortality comes in.
The house that you’re in, your body, your face, that’s cute, but the truth is, what did you do with the time you were given? What did you do? If you did nothing, then we have nothing to remember you by. If you did something, you will never be forgotten.
U: So, you know, it’s been established now throughout the many years I’ve been doing this, that I am a poet for life. I’m always trying to think how much more of a better poet can I be. I don’t want to look for any other occupation, I have established a reputation for being a poet, so I try to live that way and try to, you know, also help others who think that they want to become poets and keep the essence of being who I am, keep it real and to keep the passion real. Every morning I wake up is to have that passion for what I’m doing.
Follow the news and musings of Abiodun Oyewole on his website.
Umar’s first book – From the Inside Out (published at 72!) is available from Amazon.
Watch Painstorms – featuring narration by Umar, piano by John Medeski, bass by Michael Hynes as well as drums and programming by Jeff Firewalker Schmitt. Profits from this song will be donated to organizations that support victims of child abuse.
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!