THE LAST POETS
At La Pea Cultural Center, Berkeley, Saturday, February 17.
By Sylvia W. Chan
Due to the overwhelming turnout for the Last
Poets' initially-scheduled one-night engagement
at La Pea, another show was added for
Saturday so those who were turned away from
Friday night's performance would get a chance
to witness the legends in action. Though we
could have purchased standing-room tickets for
opening night, my companion and I opted to
return for Saturday's show (which also ended up
being sold out). We wanted to sit down for this
one, to fully absorb what poet/vocalists Abiodun
Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, and drummer Don
"Babatunde" Eaton had to say.
Friday's opening act, Los Delicados, did not
return the next day, and instead, poet
Mariahdessa "Ekiere" Tallie filled the slot, and delivered
a lovely spoken-word performance with grace and ease.
With her tell-it-like-it-is delivery, the young talent embodied
the legacy the Last Poets have passed on to a new
generation of socially conscious wordsmiths.
"Like bamboo, I only look fragile," Tallie
exclaimed, eyes twinkling as she read from her
poem "Height" in a sweet, honeyed voice. Her
final piece, a poem "for all those people who are
label whores," sent the crowd into a flurry of
hollering and applause, as Tallie took to task all
the ballers and flossers out there, exposing how
folks have been duped into fronting supposed
status symbols (i.e. "Hilfiger," "Nike," "Polo"),
symbols that perpetuate a new form of slavery
on the streets. "You should be tired of being
branded," Tallie scolded emphatically. "The rent
is dangling from your elbows."
Babatunde and local percussionist Raymond
Graham (Mingus Amungus, Hueman Flavor) took
the stage immediately after Tallie's performance
with an impassioned shakere (a hollow, beaded
gourd instrument from Africa) duet, the two
masters circling around each other in a swirl of
rhythms. Then, Graham left, leaving Babatunde
to deliver a fiery conga solo. Midway through it,
a dreadlocked man sporting a Bob Marley jersey
rushed onstage, and stuffed a dollar bill under
the brim of Eaton's hat, causing audience
members to wonder what the hell was going on.
Then Oyewole and Bin Hassan emerged. Two of
the founding members of the Brooklyn-based
outfit birthed on May 19, 1968, the anniversary
of Malcolm X's birthday, the duo came out
blazing, chanting, "When the heart beats, the
river flows^" Now in their late forties, they both
looked gloriously spry, with Oyewole swaying
back and forth with a dancer's grace and Umar
sporting b-boy style cargo pants and black
T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Tuff Bong."
The two poets launched into an
almost-hour-long introductory rap session of
swapping barb after caustic barb, a
conversation that speared and deconstructed
everyone from Tiger Woods ("We're waiting for a
real black person to play golf") to Jalal
Nuriddin, the former Last Poet who allegedly
stabbed Bin Hassan in the early 1990s over use
of the group's name. Oyewole called Nurridin
"very talented, but very fucked up," and stated
seriously that if Nurridin walked into the room
right then, he'd "kick his ass."
Unsettling moments of tension such as these
peppered the evening's performance, with Bin
Hassan seeming to become genuinely angry
when the same dreadlocked fellow from before
ran up again and asked if he could play shakere
with the group later on. "I hate surprises,"
muttered Bin Hassan, as Oyewole explained that
he knew the man, who was later identified as a
local percussionist named Shango. But it was
also these moments that revealed the humanity
of the featured performers onstage. The Last
Poets are not saints. They are ordinary men
fighting for what they believe in, and as they
delivered their stunning spoken-word invectives,
such as "The Time Has Come," "For the Millions,"
and the heart-wrenching "Streets Are Calling" (a
piece Bin Hassan dedicated to "all the young
brothers," and "for my son, who thinks he's a
Brooklyn gangsta"), their willingness to expose
their own vulnerabilities and faults only served to
illuminate the wisdom behind their words.
During a rendition of their 1971 classic "This Is
Madness," the two conveyed a fervent, desperate
frustration that was absolutely bone-chilling, as
Oyewole and Bin Hassan screeched the lyrics with
abandon. Furthermore, the chemistry between the
men remained electric throughout. Oyewole and
Bin Hassan traded looks of complete respect as
they swapped lead vocals.
"We are still in the business of revolution,"
Oyewole said at one point, a serene smile on his
face, the bottomless, tar-thick timbre of his
basso profundo rumbling gently through the room
on this cold, rainy Saturday evening. And thank
God. Through the power of the spoken word and
the beat of a drum, the Last Poets continue to
remind us that a revolution is still possible, viable,
and in so many ways, completely and utterly necessary.
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