The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen. […] Perhaps it can’t be done without the poet, but it certainly can’t be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other.
— James Baldwin
ABIODUN OYEWOLE is one of the founding members of The Last Poets, often considered to be the first hip-hop group. The appropriately named group, founded in 1968, can also be seen as the bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and hip-hop. Rolling Stone freelancer Jason Ankeny wrote, “With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, The Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop.” Abiodun’s collected poems were published in 2014, as Branches of the Tree of Life, and he has a new poetry collection, Naked, due out in October from 2Leaf Press that deals with self-love, forgiveness, lost love, survival, and cultural identity.
PATRICK HOWELL: Abiodun, some of your words from a 2016 interview I did with you seem sager than ever:
Yes, we are at war in America. It’s a spiritual war and it’s been going on for a long time. It has picked up steam recently, but we have always been at war. That war will continue until we realize we are one race — the human race.
I honestly believe that something good is going to come out of Trump. You have to have a balance. I do believe there will be a balance. I don’t know what angle it will come in. I do see us coming together as a people. We actually come together and make it possible for some change by galvanizing. We have power. I do expect us to have that fortitude. Our strength is unquestionable.
You predicted the protests and our current moment with startling accuracy. I see the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd and the rainbow of young Americans coming together in your prescient comments. What do you see for America in the 21st century and, more immediately, in the forthcoming presidential election?
ABIODUN OYEWOLE: All of these protests and revelations of living in a world entrenched in racism will mean nothing if Blacks don’t come away with being the decision-makers and defining who we are and who we should be. In short, we must have real power in 2021. Biden should be the president, but Trump is planning to cheat as usual. The vice-presidential choice is significant. America will struggle from both pandemics, but humanity will ultimately win the battle.
Why do you think the vice president selection is significant?
Joe Biden is a seasoned politician and was a good vice president for Obama, but he is a white man. In order for this country to move forward, he must have a woman vice president and preferably a Black woman. As dire as things are in the world, it is very necessary that we honor the matriarch. Men in general have done enough damage.
Whether it is an expression of the spirit or of our survival for the past 400 years, I sense a love and pride in your expressions — spoken-word, poetry, song, leadership. As they like to say now, the “culture will not be cancelled.” Can you talk a little about that creativity?
When we create, we are communicating with God. It is the God in us that allows us to create under any circumstance. Our creativity is limitless. There is the expression, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” You can say that African American people are the mothers and fathers of creativity. We can take nothing and turn it into something of value.
Can you talk a little about adversity — what struggle means to exaltation? Both in personal terms and as a people. What does the experience of Abiodun Oyewole have to teach us all about struggle, success, winning, losing, adversity, and exaltation?
To quote Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” What we’re going through had to happen on Trump’s watch. He is the sickness of America personified. He is there to expose the ugliness so that those of us who appreciate beauty will see just how valuable and righteous our mission must be. This a very pivotal moment not only in American history but in world history.
You’ve seen a lot in your time — you’ve been in the public eye for nearly seven decades. You have been woke and have been awakening others from the real world to the world of spirits. Because of your prescient insights in 2016 — some may even say visions — I categorized you as a prophet in my book Dispatches from the Vanguard.
I don’t see myself as a prophet. I see myself as a poet who pays attention to all the signs. Having been here for a while enables me to have some clarity about life and what life has to offer. Everything comes in cycles. As we go around, we should also evolve. History will teach us about our future.
I like that wisdom. That sentiment reminds me of some of the lyrics in one of the Last Poets signature songs, “When the Revolution Comes,” where you rhymed, “Understand the beginning to be the end and nothing is in between but space and time that I make, or you make, to relate, or not to relate, to the world outside my mind, your mind.” Do you think the revolution spoken of not only by the Last Poets but by many of the poets and spoken-word artists throughout time — for example, Gil Scott-Heron or June Jordan — has happened?
When any writer or thinker tries to assess what has happened and what is happening, revolution is an obvious conclusion. This revolution will be more cultural than bloody. There will be, unfortunately, more bloodshed, but during this process we will get back to what matters most, and we will regain our consciousness and hold sacred our humanity.
In your forthcoming book from 2Leaf Press, Naked, you talk about the trees as ancestors. Can you talk a little about this?
When I spend time talking to trees, I am talking to my ancestors. There is no such thing as death in my world. Life is a continuation. It takes on different forms over time, but it never dies. People will die a million deaths before our souls will ever extinguish. I am a part of every living thing, and since I know the people I’m connected to, I ask them to assist me in whatever way they can in this life at this moment. Trees are some of God’s greatest sculptures. They have seen and heard it all. So, I go to them to meditate and communicate with my ancestors. Then I use the tree to write my thoughts and feelings down.
Patrick A. Howell is author of Dispatches from the Vanguard: The Global International African Arts Movement versus Donald J. Trump (2020), as well as a debut book of poetry, Yes, We Be (2018). He is a LARB contributing editor.