by Minister of Information JR
By far one of the most revolutionary cultural groups to put words to music in the United States is the Last Poets. Many, including myself, trace the roots of rap music to the spoken word, lyrics and speeches of the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and the current political prisoner Imam Jamil Al-Amin, otherwise known as H. Rap Brown.
I had the opportunity to talk to Umar Bin Hassan, one half of the legendary group the Last Poets, about rap, culture, Malcolm X, jazz and John Coltrane. Umar’s cultural work over the decades definitely qualifies him to be one of our elders, and not just some old fool who hides behind their gray hair begging for respect like so many without reputable track records.
This interview was done at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in May 2009 in East Oakland.
MOI JR: A lot of people, Umar, talk about the founding of hip hop and attribute it to people like Melle Mel and people who did hip hop in the late ‘70s. But personally I attribute the beginning of what we call hip hop or rap to people like yourself, people like H. Rap Brown, now known as Imam Jamil Al-Amin, and Gil Scott Heron. How do you see hip hop? What is the history of hip hop? And how does it relate to the movement, because I know that is what you have been doing?
Umar: Well, first of all, it is wonderful to be out here at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival, because I was on the third one that they did. So to be here and see this grow and to see the diversification of humanity here enjoying themselves is really a pleasure.
But we’re talking about hip hop now, and we are going back to that thing that we’re the godfathers and the originators of and all of that. But basically hip hop, the Last Poets, jazz, be-bop – we all come from one tree: It’s called the African oral tradition tree of expressing ourselves, of trying to enable people, to uplift people, to raise people’s consciousness. So you know hip hop wasn’t nothing new.
The Last Poets ain’t nothing new, because as you said before there were people before the Last Poets, if we go back to the blues, if we go back to the field work songs, if we go back to the levy-camp hollers. I mean there is so much music. And we could go back to the six jubilee singers and all this music that we stood on the shoulders of, and whom hip hop stood on.
That’s the only thing about hip hop that has to be clarified: They got to understand what the history is all about. They got to understand the beginning and the end of where they’re going because if you don’t understand where you come from, you ain’t never going to know where you are going.
But we’re all a part of it. We’re just branches of that tree called the African oral tradition. So no one part started the other one part. It came out of our misery, our enslavement, our determination and our defiance to constantly express ourselves. So all of these forms of music have helped us express ourselves – and helped us to know, helped us to let our oppressors to know, our captors know, that we have not been beaten down.
It’s just like when hip hop first came out, they didn’t like it. They liked it but I always told them that you might not listen to the words, but listen to the beat that these young kids are putting out, because the beat is the most important thing. And I got into the beats automatically because the beat is the heartbeat, and the heartbeat is Africa. It’s still something in there to keep us moving, to keep us going. They themselves have to figure out the depth of the ingenuity, the creativity, of the heritage.
M.O.I. JR: Well one of the quotes for this Malcolm X Jazz Festival that they used to promote it was “Culture is an indispensable weapon in the struggle for human rights, for our self-determination.” I’m paraphrasing it a little bit. It was a quote that they took from Malcolm. Now what role does culture play? I know that you have been one of the legendary cultural workers of our neighborhoods for decades. And I mean neighborhood as far as Black people who are fighting for justice and self-determination. How do you see culture being right alongside the spiritual role, the political role? What role does culture play?
Umar: When you say culture, you are going to have to start talking about artists and writers and poets and all kinds of other aspects of the art world. In the art world, the artist’s first thing is to try to capture people’s minds to get their attention on the depravity, the oppression or the indignity, the unconscious nihilism and the self-destruction that is going on around them.
So culture is very important because, like I said, that’s the artist. These are the people that know how to get to people’s souls and touch their minds and get their attention, because the best thing an artist could do is … We might not turn nobody into revolutionaries or into hard core radicals, but if we can get them to think it, if the artist could get them to think it, then we’ve done our jobs. And the other politicians or revolutionaries, that’s when they come in and get those minds.
Just like a long time ago when I first came to Oakland about 10 years ago and I was talking to David Hilliard, and I told them as I constantly tell them all every time I see him and Bobby, “When I saw y’all go into that state office with them guns and Huey firing on the cop, I wanted to come here so bad to be with y’all.”
He said, “Let me tell you something, Umar.” He said, “Do you know how important you guys were? You were the guys, when people listened to y’all, you made people want to join the Panthers and the Nation of Islam and the Republic of New Africa. Y’all was probably more dangerous anyway because y’all got into people’s minds and raised their consciousness level.”
I began to understand how important that is because back then we just thought we was just some revolutionaries that was getting people ready to make a new change. We made some things. We made some mistakes. We made some good things. But the biggest mistake that we made is we was always talking about tearing things down. We got to also talk about building things up so we could leave something for the next generation.
“I got into the beats automatically because the beat is the heartbeat, and the heartbeat is Africa.”
What we did was kind of leave them in a gap, and they had to go into all kinds of other things to find their way, like hip hop, like selling drugs, like the bling-bling. But it all comes back sooner or later in the same circle.
We’ve been meeting now. Look at all the different kinds of people here. It is different kinds of cultures out here and different kinds of people who are meeting and sitting down enjoying themselves. A long time ago, you might not have seen this in America, but some things are changing. They might not change in the way that we want them to, but we gotta stay on that change. We got to keep forcing the oppressor’s hand. Those that want to keep us divided, we got to keep forcing their hands. We’ve got to be here.
M.O.I. JR: Let me ask you this. This is called the Malcolm X Jazz Festival. What is the importance of Malcolm X to our struggle for self-determination, and what is the relationship between Malcolm X and jazz?
Umar: Well, first of all, Malcolm. Here is a man that came from all of the societal ills and diseases that could have been put on one human being. And he conquered those ills, devastations and sicknesses to become somewhat of a spiritual, wholesome, moral and ethical character man. That’s who first inspired me to want to get out and you know.
Besides the Black Panthers, when I was in Ohio just out of high school, selling Robitussin and reefer at the time too, so I had my little hustles, but I read Malcolm and Malcolm was like, “Come on, man, come on in out of the street and use this talent that you have,” because I’ve always had the gift of gab – I got that as a shoe-shine boy in the streets. So “use that talent for someone else; to raise up some people, to raise their consciousness, to make them want to be better people.”
And the thing about jazz, you know that a whole lot of our great leaders listened to jazz. Malcolm listened to Byrd and Miles Davis and Martin Luther King listened to some Bessie Smith. So jazz has always been very important, because jazz just came out of blues, and blues is one of the first original art forms that there is.
M.O.I. JR: They say that when he was young he used to work in some of the clubs and Billie used to come in with some of the other big jazz artists.
Umar: Malcolm knew all of these musicians and they knew who Malcolm was. Redd Foxx knew who he was. Redd Foxx hung out with him, working on the trains going back and forth from the Midwest to the East Coast.
So jazz has been a very important part of our history because most of the jazz musicians are the first ones to transition from us being negro into becoming Black, like Max Roach. I can’t think of some of the other musicians who made that transition to make us want to be Black and to understand what Africa is all about and where our sound, our feeling and our souls come from.
M.O.I. JR: A little bit off topic, with me being a little bit younger than yourself, what is the importance of somebody like Coltrane? There’s people who have the John Coltrane Church. People talk about the revolutionary aspects of his music that doesn’t necessarily even have vocals on it. Why is John Coltrane such a revered figure in the struggle, and why has he been such an inspiration to people involved in the progressive Black movement specifically?
Umar: Well, because he made a transition from that which was normal and usual into something that is different and very rare and something that is very strong and spiritual. Because you know a lot of people couldn’t understand Trane when he used to start going up and down that horn on those rifts. Man, they just thought this nigga’s crazy.
Old musicians like Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington were like, “He ain’t playing no music.” And after a while when they let themselves go, or when they let their feelings go and they opened their souls up to what he was saying, then they understood. This is where we should all be trying to work towards, this spirtitual enlightenment. We all should be trying to work towards some spiritual enlightenment.
So he was very important. He is very important to you in the younger generation, because I know that a lot of you are getting hip to the sound of what John was playing like in “A Love Supreme” and “My Favorite Things.” So he’s been there. He is a very important part of this aspect of our music, of our lives, of our struggle to be free. And you know he is one of the icons.
M.O.I. JR: Last but not least, what’s up with the Last Poets today in 2009? What are you guys up to?
Umar: Well, you know, man, about a month ago we was in the middle of the epidemic in Mexico City. We was down there from May 20th until the 26th. I know we got in that night on the plane and everything looked cool. Waking up the next morning, and everybody was wearing masks, I thought it was a ritual or festival or something. You know, I don’t know what’s going on. So I asked everybody, “What’s going on?” So she said, “Y’all are in the middle of an epidemic.” I said, “What kind of epidemic?” “The Swine Flu.” I said, “Well, how do you catch the swine flu?” They don’t know. But they really don’t want to tell you that “I ate too much of that pork. That’s how you catch the swine flu.” They don’t want to mess up the pork industry.
Yeah, we was there. Then we came back and went over to Europe. We have a dvd that is coming out soon – as soon as these people in France want to release it and stop their neo-French colonialism and decide to release it. I had to send them an email in them terms the other day: “Well, you know I thought that French colonialism was over. What’s up with our dvd?” They said, “Oh, Umar, it’s coming out.” So that’s happening.
And we’re with some people now who had been interviewing us for TV One, who decided to do a movie on the Last Poets. If the Last Poets do that, we’ll see. We’re still here, man. We’re also going to try to work on a new album and bring that out too, man.