The Last Poets

One of the most encouraging comebacks of the 90s is the reemergence of the Last Poets, the black performance trio that burst upon the world in the late 60s, flourished throughout the 70s, then seemed to disappear in the 80s–paralleling the momentum of the African-American community to which they spoke. Founded on Malcolm X Day in 1968, the group takes its name from South African writer Willie Kgositsile’s assertion that black poets of his generation are “the last poets” in a racially oppressive world facing revolution. The Last Poets’ early work prophesied militant change and urged listeners toward inner transformation. Influenced by the timeless oral traditions of African tribal cultures as well as the beat poetry of the 50s and early 60s, they exerted a major influence on rap music and performance poetry. Today wordsmiths Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole are focused on reclaiming the energy dissipated by Reagan-era political backlash and personal struggles: “Doon” served four years in jail on an armed robbery charge, while Umar fought addiction to crack. Much of their new work is targeted to a new generation of urban youth, probably unborn when the Last Poets released their 1970 debut album. “In the sound of the ‘hood / The beat becomes word for the wise to survive this moment of being young / Full of laughter and pain at the same time,” Umar wails on the trio’s new CD, Time Has Come. “We never lost it / We always had it /…It’s time for a future shock,” responds Doon. Melding rage and compassion in their expressive chants, whose driving rhythms are energized by conga player Don “Babatunde” Eaton’s throbbing percussion, the Last Poets make a rare Chicago appearance this week as a joint presentation of the Guild Complex’s “Musicality of Poetry Festival” and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Hip-Hop Life” series. Each performance features a different roster of local guest artists: poet-percussionist Reggie Gibson and the Innervisions poetry ensemble appear on Friday, while Saturday’s guests include poet Quraysh Ali Lansana, vocalist Glenda Afua Baker, and instrumentalists Christopher Dewreed, Raphael Dussaussoy, Craig Nakamoto, and Orisegun Olomidun. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010. February 13 and 14: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM. $15. –Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Piotr Sikora.