Harlem's Last Poet

Abiodun Oyewole Raps about Building the Architecture for the Culture of a Generation, the Ultimate PT Barnum Clown, America’s Old Spiritual Wars and Pelourinho

The video, "Something Beautiful" is the first in a series of short films highlighting the life and poetry of Abiodun Oyewole
The video, "Something Beautiful" is the first in a series of short films highlighting the life and poetry of Abiodun Oyewole by Vagabond
The video, "Something Beautiful" is the first in a series of short films highlighting the life and poetry of Abiodun Oyewole
The video, "Something Beautiful" is the first in a series of short films highlighting the life and poetry of Abiodun Oyewole by Vagabond
I wanted to say something beautiful/ how we turn garbage into gold/ how we made a swamp fertile land/ how we turned a curse, into a blessing” Abiodun Oyewole, SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL Poem, 2Leaf Press

If God speak with voice, it might sound as Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole’s. The authority. The metaphysical fire that fires passions. Wisdom fleshed with tenor. A strength. The off world fire that burns wood of life within the fire. The gruff. The grizzle. The song. The power. The knowing. The innocence. His Love.

Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole wrote Something Beautiful in 2014, released through 2Leaf Press but who knows? Perhaps the way things can work in another epoch, in another time, he wrote time with that poem. Perhaps, Last Poet Abiodun is a seer. Perhaps he is a griot in the tradition of our ancestors. Perhaps Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole speaks a living breathing word and perhaps he spoke of these current times before they became our current time. Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole wants to say something beautiful but bad feelings and unresolved history seem to be getting in his way. Perhaps, his vision sees what is the real and like x-ray vision, sees through the bone to the granular marrow of our lives.

I wanted to say something that would make us stand up and be proud/ with the sun shining on our faces and in our hearts/ I wanted to say but the day wouldn’t let me/ and the skies were too gray/ the air were choking my dreams/ and all the smiles on the faces of people had turned to frowns” SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL Poem, Branches of the Tree of Life, 2Leaf Press

Now listen:

Are we so loving that we love what hates us/ that we love what breaks us/ that we love the pain that twists our minds into creatures we can’t even recognize/ Are we so strong that we play being weak? SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL Poem, 2Leaf Press

Abiodun Oyewole is a founding member of The Last Poets. The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron cleared a path for the birth of Hip-Hop. Kids in the Bronx and Harlem like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc took their cues from the work of The Last Poets.

Aboiodun published his first poetry collection, Branches of the Tree of Life - The Collected Poems of Abiodun Oyewole 1969-2014 in 2014. But Abiodun has been doing this a long, long time - honing his craft and perfecting the spirit of words that live. I tell him something that Jaki Shelton Green, Poet of the People told me. She had just seen the critically acclaimed film, “I Am Not Your Negro” by James Baldwin and through a series of revelations came to the conclusion that the only obstacle black folk have to their complete liberation is themselves.

“She is absolutely correct.” Abiodun bellows baritone, “ We are the folks we been looking for. That was a mantra. That’s always been my mission. That was always my mission and the mission of the Last Poets but we just got funky with it.” The group’s message, deeply rooted in Black Nationalism, quickly became recognized, emulated and cannonized within the African American community. The Last Poets along with the artist Gil Scott-Heron are credited as having had a profound effect on the development of hip-hop music. Their pioneering work foreshadowed the work of hard-hitting hip hop like Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, and Kendrick Lamar, blending consciousness, with beats in rhythms irresistable.

“I do it because there is a need for us to come together and have communion. I have been doing it primarily for poets. Since I have a reputation, I believe it is an obligation of mine to share and enjoy. There is a need for this kind of work. Poetry has become a major voice in the world”

As he speaks, Abiodun Oyewole's voice is earthed with granular knowing and how a soul speaks itself into greater being, speaks for a whole generation. What he knows is the power of language, language that speaks from the soul of man. He knows, as a last poet, as a 35 year resident of Harlem, how language and sounds have and will change the world. He knows the soul of America. Somehow our conversation turns to the first 100 days of the president and he’s got something for that too, “Am I the only one who noticed that Barnum and Bailey’s is closing it’s doors at the same time Donald Trump was elected?” The PT Barnum and Baileys Circus will close in May 2017 after 146 years. “P.T.” Barnum was an American politician, showman and businessman who founded the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He is widely and incorrectly credited with the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Abiodun continues, “It’s like we can’t have two circuses going at the same time! Trump is a self destructive brat, suffering from a heavy dose of immaturity. But he is like so many of his kind where we helped them be children. We enable their behavior. But Trump is the worse of them. He got that new toy called “executive order” and man, does he like his new toy.

“It’s very sad that this country has allowed this character to become the president. He’s not very smart. He’s a con artist. I guess he has to be smart to do that. It’s a bad example about what this country is to be about.

“I honestly believe that something good is going to come out of Trump. You have to have a balance. I do believe there will be a balance. I don’t know what angle it will come in. I do see us coming together as a people. We actually come together and make it possible for some change by galvanizing. We have power. I do expect us to have that fortitude. Our strength is unquestionable.“

“Yes we are at war in America. It’s a spiritual war and its been going on for a long time. It has picked up steam recently but we have always been at war. That war will continue until we realize we are one race - the human race.”

Every Sunday Abiodun does “sit ins” with poets, dances, singers, dancers and musicians. He has been doing it for 39 years and says, “I do it because there is a need for us to come together and have communion. I have been doing it primarily for poets. Since I have a reputation, I believe it is an obligation of mine to share and enjoy. There is a need for this kind of work. Poetry has become a major voice in the world.”

I ask Abiodun my questions:

Will you talk with me about the Last Poets being founders of Hip Hop?

We were born May 19, 1968, Malcolm X day. The last poets were born May 19th 1968. It was Malcolm X day. Charles Davis was my American name. I had an African name but I wasn’t using it yet. In 1968 we came and performed at the commemoration of Malcolm X’s birthday. There was a lot of revolution activity at that park in Harlem and it was crowded. The park was very crowded. David Nelson went about searching for a name for us. Gylan went looking for a place we could operate from. I was young and bold and didn’t know much and was willing to be a part of this. I was totally messed up by the killing of Dr. King. I realized we were in grave danger. I realized that anything we did would as a people for total liberation would put us in grave danger. I really respected him (Dr. King) even though I was not about the turn the other cheek thing.

We came to own a place - the East Wing. We got our name from a South African poet named K. William Kgositile. The poem was called “Walk in the Sun”. In the poem it states: This wind you hear is the birth of memory. When the moment hatches in time's womb, there will be no more art talk. The only poem you'll hear, will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain, the timeless native son dancing like crazy to the retrieved rhythms of desire fading into memory"

David Nelson (co-founder of the Last Poets) added, "Therefore, we are The Last Poets of the world."

10 years ago when we went to South Africa and every one of the two thousand of the students at that school in Johannesburg knew who the Last Poets were.

The last conversation we had - you had some tough words for Donald Trump and the State of America. You said, “For people that have faith in that system - they are going to suffer. Marvin L. Mills, an emerging hip hop artist had a thesis he published to critical acclaim -IS THERE A WAR IN AMERICA? Are we at war in America?

Yes we are at war in America. It’s a spiritual war and its been going on for a long time. It has picked up steam recently but we have always been at war. That war will continue until we realize we are one race - the human race.

There is a war spiritually - we have to use our spirits to fight. We are getting shot in the streets but we have to fight. We are still under attack by a very evil character who does not respect life. But I still have faith in people. But its going to take moment.

Tell me about your new song Pelourinho. It seems that song is about healing, truth and peace. Pelourinho is the Historic Center or Centre of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, also known as the Pelourinho or Pelo. It is a historic neighborhood in western Salvador, Bahia Can you talk about that song - it’s inspiration?

It was the first time I worked with a drone for the shooting of that video. It looked like a toy and it was deep.

“When the light is clear I know how beautiful I will be” — that is really the summation of all of lives. We have worked towards a goal and we want that to be the salvation of our souls. So we don’t have to be alert about danger. And we would like to live in a place where we don’t have to live in fear. When we consider what black people have been through, with systemic discrimination, with the abuse, the mis-educations, the cruelty - it is amazing. We want to arrive at a point where we and our ancestors, we understand our glory and we are going to celebrate that. That for everybody but particularly for our people.

That is why I consider myself a revolutionary.

So, let’s finish that poem Something Beautiful:

Are we so strong/ that we play being weak/ I wanted to say something beautiful that would lift us up/ kick depression to the curve/ and walk tall in the middle of the storm/ but the storm is raging/ and we are tossed about like rag dolls/ played with by children of dogs/ and we allow this/ and dance with this noise and call it music.

See: God, a black man crowned with a tweed kofi walking the streets of Harlem, doing gatherings in living rooms, barrel-chested, a veteran of Civil Rights Wars and solemn with knowing life though without the hope of the future diminished in his eyes. Imagine God’s peace. Imagine God’s humanity in the body of a man, yes? Imagine Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole. Okay, I’ve convinced myself and at least a few of you- Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole is a voice of God.

“Dress up in the debris/ of a shattered world/ where broken bodies and broken hearts/ and blisters from a swollen like infect our world with disease and yet we are the only cure for a world gone mad.”

He knows the history of the blues. There is experiential knowledge about the world and the depths our America has come from. He speaks knowing Hip Hop, having begun it. He speaks as a devotee of jazz and the spirit that moves through Harlem. He speaks thoughtfully, intimately acquainted with the American prison industrial system. He knows his djembe - the rhythmic heart and beat going back to the beginning. He knows the history of black American music.

“If we could stop and see and smell the flowers we planted long ago/ Ahh! I wanted to say something beautiful/ but ugly like a brick in my path/ keep tripping me up causing me to fall on my face/ and make me forget how beautiful we can be.”

But let’s ground these words to earth and bring the high talk to earth. What a blessing it is to converse with the elders; to glean their wisdom with simple truths, simple talk. Their words are like a benediction. They are sonar bridges throughout the ages. Are we listening to our elders? What Abiodun embodies is the beauty of our elders. And we are a wealthy people. Billions is a meager number when compared to the riches of our soul, of our legacy. Our elders are rich with time, cosmic beings who know no limits. These are the shoulders we stand upon. And this is the measure by which our children will look to us, their forebearers, a new power generation.

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