Back in Black

Time has passed, memories have lapsed, and the revolution has all but collapsed in the decades since The Last Poets first hit the black-arts and civil-rights movements with their unique blend of political fervor, poetic justice, and righteous rhythms. Inspired by key figures of those turbulent times -- from Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, to Miles Davis and Amiri Baraka -- The Last Poets from Harlem brought inner-city activism to rallies and stages around the country, performing with a conga player and an ever-changing trio of Poets. Their early LPs touched mainstream culture with burning pleas for a revolution of the black mind and earned them a spot in history as the intellectual forefathers of rap. The year it was released, The Last Poets (1970) reached number 98 on the Billboard chart, and in 1999 Vibe magazine included This Is Madness (1971) on its list of "100 Essential Albums of the Twentieth Century."

Umar Bin Hassan left Akron, Ohio, to join the Poets in 1969, recorded three albums with them, and then, in 1974, lost more than a decade to a serious addiction to cocaine and later, crack. Even in the crackhouses, though, he says people still recognized him and wanted him to speak. He did at times. In the late Eighties he renewed his commitment to himself and The Last Poets, undeterred by squabbles over publishing rights and passionate, lingering feuds. (Bin Hassan was allegedly stabbed in the throat by a fellow Poet in the early Nineties.) Since returning, the reformed Poet has trademarked The Last Poets name; toured regularly, including a 1994 Lollapalooza stint; recorded albums (Be Bop or Be Dead and others); and coauthored with founding Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of The Last Poets. Bin Hassan says today's record moguls have no interest in "old men saying some truthful things, because this is a youth culture. They want to talk about booty, pussy, dick, and all that other kind of old stupid shit." Yet The Last Poets are still on a mission, offering a new generation revolutionary ideals. "These are our children," Bin Hassan wrote in the 1996 book. "If we can't learn and don't learn how to talk with them soon, the chasm of disrespect that exists now is going to get much deeper."

To that end he recently made the 31-hour bus trip to Miami for a little respite from the cold of Flint, Michigan, where he now lives, and a little outreach, Last Poets-style. Wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with the words "The Last Poets" on the front and "Constitutional crisis/And voter projections/Your vote is important/But not in elections" on the back, he performed here for the first time in 30 years, at an open-mike at Liberty City's African Heritage Cultural Center. "I don't know why I'm doing this," he quipped to the audience of approximately 50, many probably not even born the last time he came around. "I'm not getting paid."

For the better part of an hour he spoke, joked, wailed, and discoursed on everything from the Taliban, to God, to the need for awareness ("Everybody turning into sheep: political sheep, religious sheep, racial sheep"). They were rapt as he launched into epic poems like Malcolm, and his seminal Niggas Are Scared of Revolution, and This Is Madness. Punctuated by the beats of a conga player, Bin Hassan's powerful voice, multifaceted as a musical instrument and straining against a cold, wove itself around a rich history lesson and a timeless vision of the future.

A few days later, in the apartment of his host, he sat down for an interview.

Where does your inspiration for writing come from?

All aspects of American society. I get inspired by writing about Donald Rumsfeld [laughs] and George W. Bush.... If I see a little bit of drama on the streets that hits me, I'll start writing about it, where I can make it connect to other human beings, where they can feel what I feel, or they can feel there was something like it in their soul....

Since you brought it up, are you writing a lot about what's going on now?

There's some stuff here going on that I don't even want to write about because I know that in the end, American people are being played with and deceived and lied to and manipulated, so it's nothing funny because this is some dangerous stuff going on right now.... I mean, do we need all our civil liberties to be expunged and played with now to get a sense of security back? I don't think so. I think this is a greater plan going on here.

And what about the significance of your Muslim name?

People be callin' me bin Laden now, Umar bin Laden: "Oh, that's your cousin or your uncle." They be playin' with me. But the name I took was Umar -- "man of blood and strength" -- Bin "son of" Hassan -- "outwardly bold and inwardly beautiful," and I was trying to live up to that 'cause I'm not ever, since I was a little boy, I've never been a sheep to follow.

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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Robin Shear