Title: Understand What Black Is
Artist: The Last Poets
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: May 19, 2018
Before Sugar Hill Gang released “Rappers Delight” in 1979, marking the first hip hop record in history, there was The Last Poets. The Harlem-based group performed politically charged poetry over a musical backing of bebop, funk, and demonstrative solo percussion. Along with other famous poets such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets laid the “ground work” of the hip hop genre. They branded their art as “Jazzoerty,” a combination of music and spoken word that worked together simultaneously.
The Last Poets were and are a highly politically engaged group. “The Original Last Poets” were formed May 19, 1968 in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. They chose May 19th as a way to commemorate the assassination of Malcolm X, three years prior. Because their personal ideology was more in line with Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights, May 19 would became both their founding date and a political statement that continues to drive their music and spoken word art.
Understand What Black Is marks the 50th anniversary of The Last Poets and is the first project they have released in 20 years. The reggae driven album, courtesy of Brit producers Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, is fused with messages that pertain to the state of black people in America, both in the past and as it relates to the present. Group members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan celebrate blackness while also providing political, philosophical, and religious perspectives on issues with being black in America and within the diaspora. “Understand What Black is….the breath you breathe….the sweat from your brow…Black is love…Black is humanity…the source from which all things come.” These are words from the title track, setting the tone for what is to come.
“Rain of Terror” is one of the most politically charged poems on the album, where Abiodun Oyewole accuses America of being a terrorist—“being mean and nasty to those who treated him kind.” He goes on to talk about the violent nature of America and its treatment of black people and the outside world. “Though shall not kill…that’s not a part of the American dream, because to kill is a thrill they love to show on the TV screen.” This line in the poem harkens to the ways in which black people have been abused on live television during the evening news almost as if it were a normal and acceptable mode of television performance. It is not unlike America to use the death of black bodies as entertainment. This was a form of entertainment in communities in the rural South during the early 1900’s, where white Americans would bring their families to picnic like settings to watch the hanging and public shaming of Negro bodies. Oyewole’s critique on America is that at its root, the country is violent. During a time when fingers are often being pointed toward Islamic countries as being politically, economically and socially corrupt, The Last Poets beg the question, “Is America not guilty of being these things for the last 400 years until the present day?”
“How many Bullets” is a poem that speaks to the ways in which black people have endured despite the violence they have encountered in America and within the diaspora. “Took my drum, broke my hands, yanked my roots up right out of the land and rattled my soul with Jesus.” This track represents the resilience of black people in the face of trauma. Despite being stripped of their religion, their home land, their drums, and their ancestral tongue, black people both retained self and created new identity. Oyewole speaks to both the idea of retention and creation through his discussion about death, viewed through an African rooted lense, where life and death are fluid and not separated. “They shot Malcolm and all they did was multiply his power…they show King and black folks got stronger by the hour.” He also questions the use of religion, particularly Christianity, viewing it as a tool to keep black people in line both during and post- slavery.
“Is there anything not sacred anymore…freedom, justice, honesty…All being devoured by Western imitations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is drowning out the tears of deception.” On “We Must Be Sacred,” Umar Bin Hassan speaks to the ways in which our world is shifting and changing into an evil place where love and tenderness are becoming taboo topics instead of practice. He claims that we love the product but we don’t care about the person who has created the work, nor do we listen and/or interrogate the things they say. He questions if we are too far gone to be able to elicit real change. He does not, however, claim defeat. “The phoenix will come from the flames this time, there will be no ashes to ashes. Love must be there when the Dust clears.” People must try to begin to love one another again and practice tenderness. However time is not a power so tender that “we could wipe this savage onslaught from our minds.”
The Last Poets conclude their album with the “The Music.” Oyewole celebrates the black creators of music with the line, “I am the music, the sound of life all round.” He furthers his Afro-centric ideology with the line, “I gave the world song,” which connects all things in life, including music, to Africa’s historical past. “I come from mother Africa where music is how we speak… the drum is my heart beat.” He then goes on to praise African American musical influences, which permeate around the globe. However, as Hassan asks in “We Must Be Sacred,” are people engaging the music and the culture or just buying into the product at face value, not caring about the creators?
Reviewed by Bobbie E. Davis Jr.