This is Madness
Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2005
The Last Poets Recalled
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By Ron Jacobs
Summer 1971. Frankfurt am Main, Germany. I was hanging out with a friend in his room in the Westend section of the city. We were reading Zap Comix and some new underground papers he had brought back with him from the States. A bowl of hashish had set us up nice and the Grateful Dead's Anthem of the Sun was spinning on his turntable. The music was turned low so as not to disturb his neighbors on the other side of the paper-thin wall of the rooming house. The two men who lived there, one from some place in western Africa and the other a Black man recently discharged from the US Army, worked nights and needed their sleep. Just when Pigpen began the song "Alligator" on the Dead album, a loud, intense percussive beat came through the wall. My first thought was that one of the neighbors was playing a conga. Then came the chanting voices"When the revolution comes/some of us will catch it on TV/with chicken hanging from our mouths/you'll know it's revolution/because there won't be no commercials/when the revolution comes." My friend nodded. "It's The Last Poets again."
I had met the neighbors once before when they were selling the local Black Panther paper, Voice of the Lumpen. So, on my way out of the building I stopped at their room to say hello and inquire about the music I had just heard. The vet suggested I borrow the album to give it a better listen. I did. Six months later it was for sale in the base Post Exchange and I bought it. Soon thereafter, the Poets second album, This Is Madness, was available in the German record stores downtown. This album included their classic, "The White Man's Gat a God Complex." Later that spring, some African-American friends of mine formed a music group that performed songs by the Last Poets and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The only times I saw them perform were at a Black Student Union assembly in our high school and at a concert at Goethe Universitat in Frankfurt, where they opened for the German rock band GURU GURU.
The Last Poets formed on May 19, 1968-Malcolm X's birthday. They borrowed their name from a line in a poem by South African poet Willie Kgositsile that goes:
When the moment hatches in time's womb there will be no art talk,
The only poem you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain....
Therefore we are the last poets of the world.
Driven by the steady rhythm of the percussion instruments they played, this assemblage of artists chanted songs about life in the urban streets of black America and challenged its inhabitants to get off their butts and do something about it. Their masterpiece poem, "Niggers are Scared of Revolution," portrays a population that was looking for ways to be bought off by the corporate world as hard as those who populated its white counterpart. In a graphic description of Black America's version of the one-dimensional nightmare described by Herbert Marcuse that we all live in, the Last Poets satirized the susceptibility of their listeners to Madison Avenue's latest scam. In their case, it was the "Black is Beautiful" marketing then beginning to take over the world that African-Americans lived in. In the counter-culture's case, it was the commodification of everything from the music to the drugs and even to the politics. By 1970, the Poets had released their first album. Not until hip-hop came along would the world hear something like their sound again.
Primarily geared toward an African-American audience, the song poems on the record talked about life in the Black enclaves of the US. In a vein first explored by poet Langston Hughes, Omar Ban Hassen, Alafia Pudim, and Abiodun Oyewole pound out verses about riding the New York subway up to Harlem, making love and hanging out in Black America in the middle of the 20th century. Like Hughes, there is beauty and blemish, hope and hopelessness, and life and death in their rhymes. Interspersed among these vignettes of African-American street culture are calls for Blacks in the US to rise up against the white establishment and mockeries of this audience's refusal to throw out the system that has oppressed them for so long. Oyewole would be convicted of robbery soon after the album's appearance on the US album charts. He was sentenced to fourteen years and did four.
If I were to classify the politics of the Last Poets, I would place them in the same general sphere as the part of the Internationalist wing of the Black Panther Party that became the Black Liberation Army. This wing, which was nominally led by Eldridge Cleaver from his exile in Algeria, was best represented by the New York chapter of the Party. More nationalist than Marxist-Leninist, this philosophy held with the Panther argument that the only true African-American nationalism was a nationalism that understood that the economic oppression experienced by blacks in the United States was fundamental to their national identity. However, unlike the Panthers, the Last Poets were more separatist than the international wing or the wing led by the Oakland, CA. chapter. Other forms of Black nationalism, like that promoted by United Slaves leader Ron Karenga and others, ignored the economic oppression of African-Americans and focused more on the Black nation's African roots. In the language of the Panthers and their supporters, this was considered to be reactionary nationalism, as opposed to the revolutionary nationalism of the Panthers.
It was this reactionary nationalism that enabled the African-American struggle for liberation to be manipulated by the very marketplace that oppressed them. Without an understanding of the role that US capitalism played in their oppression, Black people in the US were led to believe that could express their identity by wearing dashikis, buying Jet magazine and using Afro-Sheen cosmetic products. In a manner quite similar to the marketplace's cooptation of the counterculture revolution among the young white citizens of the US, the ability of capitalism to co-opt the trappings of the Black liberation movement was spelling that revolution's death, too. Of course, the willingness of the adherents of these liberation movements to go along with the manipulations of the market made this process all the simpler. This verse from the Last Poets' song "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution," makes this case quite clearly:
Niggers are scared of revolution
but niggers shouldn't be scared of revolution
because revolution is nothing but change, and all niggers do is change.
Niggers always going through bullshit changes.
But when it comes for a real change
Niggers are scared of revolution.
(Replace N**ger with antiwar activist or some other term denoting a member of the non-electoral opposition in the US and the logic usually works just as well. It's the history that's different.)
The Last Poets' second album, This Is Madness, explores the themes of the first album even further. One difference, however, is a more explicit anger towards not only the system but towards the average white person who upholds that system. Unlike the first album, the Poets focus some of their rage on the ordinary white men and women who support the system, actively or tacitly. In other words, those of us who live within the dynamic of white privilege and do nothing to fight that dynamic. Conversely, other songs here are considerably more positive in their estimation of blacks than the songs on the first release. If the first album was the late 1960s version of Langston Hughes, then this album is the early 1970s version of Amiri Baraka-anger that is ready to explode at any time and at anyone who might even look like the enemy. In short, this album is representative of the time: cops and Feds killing and jailing radicals, Blacks and hippies; racists and reactionaries calling for a police state with Nixon and company happy to oblige; and revolutionaries blowing up buildings and attacking cops. Tolerance was not a word taken to heart by many because too many people felt that the time had passed for that sentiment.
In a song whose title is more figurative than literal (if only because the white man's also got some darker-skinned folks doing his dirty work), the Last Poets provide the listener with a succinct analysis of European-American imperialism. Titled "The White Man's Got A God Complex," this piece lays out the fundamental motivation for the mess of a world that colonialism and imperialism has made. It could easily have been written today. On the top of a syncopated rhythm that mixes the mood of the street with that of the African-American Sunday church service (and a little Howlin' Wolf thrown in), this poem's last verse provides the listener with their ten-line outline of the world's history ever since Columbus hit Hispaniola.
A'makin' guns. I'm God!
A'makin' bombs. I'm God!
A'makin' gas. I'm God!
A'makin' freak machines. I'm God!
Birth control pills, I'm God!
Killed Indians who discovered him. I'm God!
Killed Japanese with the A-bomb. I'm God!
Killed and still killin' black people. I'm God!
Enslaving the earth. I'm God!
Done went to the moon. I'm God!
Add a line or two (How about, Killed some Arabs and more Africans. I'm God! Put Bayview on the TV screens of the world. I'm God!) and the song works all too well for today, which may be why they still occasionally perform. George Bush and Bill Clinton still wouldn't get it, but the Last Poets weren't writing for them, anyhow.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. Reprinted from counterpunch.org with permission from the author.
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