For the Millions

Abiodun21As a research assistant for Dr. Bernard W. Bell at Penn State, I heard my share of stories. I listened especially closely when he reminisced about the Black Student Movement during the late 60s and early 70s. While working with Dr. Bell, he published a provocative account of founding Black Studies at UMass, emphasizing his role in the institutional history. Many of the events chronicled in the essay, “Passing on the Radical Legacy of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts: The W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, 1968-71,” took place at the New Africa House.

Although I know Dr. Bell’s version isn’t the only one, I carried these memories with me to Amherst when I went to see Abiodun Oyewole speak and perform poetry with a rhythm section at the New Africa House. Oyewole co-founded The Last Poets in 1969, becoming a leader in the populist movement to unite poetic and musical forms using revolutionary, postcolonial, and Afrocentric practices that reflect the political realities and aesthetic sensibilities of black people. The exigence for this radical experiment with multimedia remains the same as it was during the Black Arts era, and Oyewole hasn’t lost his fire.

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The name, The Last Poets, comes from the South African writer Keorapetse Kgositsile; it became something of a franchise–picked up by different groups of poets around the same time. Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson founded a group that came to be called The Original Last Poets, who recorded the film Right On!: Poetry on Film in 1968 and released the soundtrack as an album. A year later, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole formed the more well-known line-up.

The Last Poets’ self-titled album took its cue from Amiri Baraka’s early experiments with recording poetry accompanied by improvised music. Such albums transformed audio into a politicized medium that affirmed black consciousness and resisted constraints on black literacy. The Last Poets helped inspire mass participation in the Black Arts Movement, including by a young Gil Scott-Heron, then a student at Lincoln University, whose early recordings owe much to the The Last Poets’ synthesis of African percussion, collective chant, and revolutionary politics. Both The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron are featured in the new Black Arts Movement reader, SOS–Calling All Black People, edited by UMass professors John H. Bracy, Jr. and James Smethurst and the poet Sonia Sanchez.

At the New Africa House, Abiodun Oyewole was supported by Tony Vacca and Kevin Harrington (percussion), Donald Geesling (bass), Tantra Zawadi (poetry/vocals), and Massamba Diop (talking drum). I recorded a poem called “For the Millions,” which is included in his new volume of collected poems, Branches of the Tree of Life, published this year by 2Leaf Press.

Raw Soul

The second installment of the Instrumental Voices radio program aired on November 20, featuring live cuts from R&B, Funk, and Soul legends. Live records are special to me because they preserve the social dimensions of the performance. Listen to the audience respond to Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”; one audience member can be heard to say “Alright, this is it,” over Hathaway’s vibrato-laden Wurlitzer intro. Her interjection captures the anticipation and foreknowledge of the landmark recording. Later, when Hathaway asks the audience for a soul-clap, they are so present, so responsive that they don’t miss a beat. Hathaway conducts this antiphony with self-assured grace.

Improvised raps, like that on Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” and throughout Curtis/Live, shape the meaning of the performance and preserve important details of the historical and political moment. Mayfield refers to an article in a John H. Johnson publication (Ebony, Negro Digest/Black World) about radio stations’ reluctance to play such a politically-minded, yet relentlessly positive song. As yet, I have not located the precise article to which he refers, but the back issues are all available through Google Books if you want to take a look.

Not only the contextual details, but the musicianship and improvisational genius found in the extended solos, breakdowns, collaborative exchange among performers, the bandleader’s directions, and even the mistakes make these enduring records. The exchange between artists is heightened in the live setting, and there are several cover tunes here. Aretha’s rendition of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” for me, surpasses all other versions. Later on that record, Ray Charles comes to the stage to perform “Spirit in the Dark,” but that recording almost didn’t make it on to the album because Charles was embarrassed about forgetting lyrics, making up his own as he went along (“It’s like a movie star / Talking to Ray Charles”).

This is representative of the way in which cultural memory becomes encoded in these performances–they mark special places and charged moments. Represented here are famous venues like the Apollo, the Fillmore West, the Bitter End, and Carnegie Hall, and festivals like Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival, and the Newport Jazz Festival. These live records present an alternative mode of social history–one inscribed in wax.