Back in Black

Words to the wise from Last Poet Umar Bin Hassan

What writers inspired you early on?

Edgar Allen Poe, especially The Raven. I always thought that the raven was like the spirit or the conscience of the black man hovering over the white man. It's like, "I ain't goin' nowhere; you brung me here and now you gotta deal with me." But yeah, Edgar Allen Poe, and then as I became more conscious, James Baldwin, and then, of course, Amiri Baraka [Leroi Jones]. All those rebels who were different I'm down for, whether white or black. If you just try to not go along with the status quo, I'm down for that 'cause America is such a mediocre place. I mean we deal in mediocre; we pay you well for being mediocre.

So you know you're doing well if you're not getting paid.

People who really talking about making some changes here are not going to get paid for that, especially poets and artists. You know. So we have to like, scramble and scramble and do the best we can. Maybe there'd be some ground we all could meet at and learn how to work toward some change for the black kids, for the young kids in the black community who are being pillaged and raped with all this sick-ass shit coming out of -- excuse my language. Some of these record companies, you know what I'm saying. [They] keep the young black mind from thinking about voting, from thinking about trying to become good mothers and fathers, 'cause you think you gotta act like Lil' Kim or Jay-Z: "I can fuck you in the back of my Jeep"; "I can fuck you on the balcony"; "I can fuck you on the Frigidaire." I mean, what is THAT? You know, that shit is really sick. I mean we all got a little freakiness, I know we do [laughs], but, sugar, even I do too, but then you got little young kids, little young girls and little young boys sayin' that shit to each other. We got self-destructive tendencies running through our community like it's water running through our underground well, and it's like everybody just accepts it.

Do you feel like your mission as a poet is as strong or stronger than it was 30 years ago?

Yeah, because nothing has changed that much. Even some black people who have gotten in positions of power are just as twisted and demented as some white people. They figure, well I struggled so much to get to this point, why should I have to look back? We all have to look back, because you know ... When I walked through Overtown the other day, that place look as though it's just been written off the map. I mean that is SAD amongst all this wealth and abundance. It's almost like the black people in this city have been just consigned to death because of their status, so it's deep, man; it's deep. And I've been in a lot of ghettos before, but the fact that there's an air, a presence of hopelessness so pervasive, it was almost like, "We accept being here." Then you call it "Overtown," you know, and everybody else is ridin' past through there on the highway.

What would you be doing if you didn't have to speak out for change anymore?

I want to be a teacher, teach some young kids about how to learn how to enjoy life and live life correctly. You don't have to have a lot of money; you don't have to have a lot of bravado, a lot of macho shit to be a man. And you don't have to be a pretty woman to be loved by somebody. Just learn how to be yourself; just learn how to attach and to get a connection with the beauties in yourself.

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