As 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.
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.