In 2018, pioneering spoken-word collective the Last Poets returned with their first album in more than 20 years. Now the group — consisting of Seventies-era members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan, along with percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde and a slew of collaborators, including renowned avant-jazz bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma — is back with a follow-up. Due May 10th, Transcending Toxic Times finds the group addressing themes it’s been tackling since its founding in Harlem in 1968, including racism, oppression and the sins of America’s past.
In “For the Millions,” which the group is unveiling today, Abiodun speaks in a booming, dramatic voice, chronicling the horrors of the African-American experience, from slavery (“For the millions of scars/On their backs and faces by the bullwhips”) to lynching (“For the millions …/Whose flesh has rotten/With the trees they hung us from”).
Despite the track’s grim subject matter, a steady funk groove led by Tacuma’s bass and Babatunde’s hand drums adds a sense of resilience. By the end, Abiodun has moved from a catalog of suffering to a message of pride and uplift:
We decided to stop and take a look
At the beauty of ourselves
At this colored skin
And this thick hair
And these full lips
And this Africa inside our souls
Still breathing the breath of gods
In our lungs
Greatness is where we’re coming from
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“At the end of ‘For the Millions,’ I say ‘It’s time to return to our spiritual home,'” Abiodun says via e-mail of the song’s meaning. “All of us have a spirit that should be nurtured and cherished. The spirit sees life as something sacred. The mind and body do not. I want to make living a good habit not dying. This is what America has to offer.”
Both Abiodun and Bin Hassan appeared on the group’s first album, long regarded as a proto–hip-hop classic. “The intense Black Nationalist fare of their 1970 self-titled debut was not only politically explosive — its most famous tracks include ‘When the Revolution Comes’ and ‘Niggers Are Scared of Revolution’ — it was also nationally popular,” Mosi Reeves wrote in a 2018 Rolling Stone piece, “peaking at Number 29 on the Billboard album charts and ultimately winding up as inspiration or samples for Notorious B.I.G. (“Party & Bullshit”), Digable Planets (“Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”), N.W.A (“100 Miles and Runnin’”) and more.”
Transcending Toxic Times bassist and producer Tacuma, known for his collaborations with Ornette Coleman, Marc Ribot and many other jazz luminaries, recalls enlightening early encounters with the Poets’ work while he was growing up in North Philadelphia.
“I was first introduced to the Last Poets … in a house that was filled with burning incense, black-light bulbs illuminating psychedelic and African-American black-light posters,” he writes in an e-mail. “There I was informed and listened to explanations and depictions of the current life of African-Americans in the United States. I was young at the time but something struck me because I knew something was going on in the community and the the Last Poets brought positive consciousness and race reality to forefront of the community at large. … I was so completely inspired by the artistry, and the words of the Last Poets were the foundation of my awakening as a young black man in America.”
Percussionist Babatunde tells a similar story. “When I was 12 years old, my brother and I got a copy of the [Last Poets] album 49 years ago which was at that time the start of the Black Arts Movement, Civil Rights and Black Power struggle,” he writes. “The album was a call to pay attention and look at our self from self-destruction to empowerment. What made this message unique was the drum and beat that kept you listening to the word like in a hypnotic state. My fascination with the drums drove me to where I’m now. What a paradox that I find myself working with the Last Poets at their request.”
Bin Hassan credits Babatunde, Tacuma and Abiodun for coming up with the new album’s title and core concept. “It’s about transcending toxic times with our poetry, to get our message to the people,” he writes, “to get out of this madness and to start to move forward as one people, as a united people, with human decency and understanding of others.”
Though “For the Millions” indicates some degree of progress, Abiodun still feels that America has a long way to go. “Unfortunately, nothing much has changed when it comes to racism, which is a disease like cancer,” he writes. “I would love to live in a world where all people of all races live without class systems or racial discrimination, but that world has not been discovered yet. There are too many insecure and jealous people in America even now.”
The Last Poets’ Transcending Toxic Times is out May 10th via Ropeadope.
Transcending Toxic Times Track List
1. “We Are the Last Poets”
2. “For the Millions”
3. “A.M. Project”
5. “If We Only Knew”
6. “Young Love”
7. “Black Rage”
8. “Soul Reflection”
9. “Don’t Know What I’d Do”
10. “Personal Things”
12. “JuJu JIMI”
13. “Rain of Terror”