“The Last Poets are the microcosm of black America,” said Umar Bin Hassan, one of the founding members of the group, when I first met him in Harlem, New York, a decade ago. And he’s right: the turbulent and sometimes violent history of this legendary group of African American men who became famous worldwide in the late 1960s and early 70s with self-critical, militant poems (“Niggers are scared of revolution. Niggers love anything but themselves”) not only influenced generations of hip-hop and soul artists – such as Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T, 2Pac, Common, Mos Def and Erykah Badu – but also the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Their fluent and funky conga-rhythms transformed poetry into rap (a novelty at the time, though perhaps not today).
Umar Bin Hassan, now 68, is in a position to reflect on their remarkable collective strength, resilience and hope. The Poets always bounced back, no matter how much they struggled – and boy, did they struggle. Umar, in particular, lived on the streets as a crack addict for years and found success very hard to handle. Growing up in a ghetto, where he was told “You ain’t shit” from a very young age, Umar worked as a shoeshine boy in a red-light district to escape his father’s abuse. Racism, poverty and social exclusion left their destructive marks on him; as Bin Hassan put it in one of his autobiographical poems: “Self-hatred wrapped up in a twisted, demented but well-controlled smile.”