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Living Legends Deserve Their Flowers, Not Just a Thank You For "Back Then"

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Giving them flowers means more than just flowers.

There’s a lot of concerts I never got a chance to see Prince, Michael Jackson, Teena Marie (my mom raised me on R&B if you can’t tell already). Their music and influence still carry in their name and we remember their story fondly. Luckily some legends I did have a chance to see, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez were the biggest names. I got my photo, of course, asked my question, bought whatever book was being sold, and skipped back to my college campus as they flew to the next stop of their literary tour. I remember being so grateful that they were still here and had the ears of the world to impart their wisdom and lessons. However, the older I got the more legends I learned about and their stories were not as known, and their contributions are hidden under the guise of “legends.” I’m here to tell you: Some of those legends are still here and they deserve more than a thank you. The Last Poets and Abiodun Oyewole are some of those legends.

Upon moving to New York in 2015, I was dropped into a hip-hop Master Class of hip-hop history. I worked for a public figure well-versed in the subject and I was being schooled by family and friends who still had the history of hip-hop on their shoulders. The Last Poets were introduced to me as one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, the bridge that brought a revolution, spoken word, African culture, in the same group. I expected that this would be another legendary group that I would only get to read about or see in a crowded stadium. Imagine my surprise when I was able to meet one of the original members in 2016, Abiodun Oyewole. He was still traveling the world and doing the work he did when he first became a member of Last Poets, and a weekly open house to all poets and artists to share their work in his Harlem home. If only y’all knew the stories he had, and I know I only heard .1% of it. I imagined myself back in an auditorium listening to Nikki Giovanni, as I sat in his living room and he imparted his wisdom about poetry, history, love, and art in the crowded room. It was great to be so close, but it occurred to me, this room is nowhere big enough for the number of people and ears that needed to hear him. The Last Poets are even in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Here I was, looking at one of the first steps in hip-hop and some people outside of this room didn’t know his name or the group’s contribution. That didn’t sit well with me.

Netflix’s documentary, Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell further confirmed my discomfort. The documentary states indirectly that Abiodun’s poem, When the Revolution Comes, performed by The Last Poets was the inspiration for Party and Bullshit, the hit that sparked Biggie’s career, and yet when I look online, all I see are curt accounts of his dismissed court case "chasing" to receive credit for the words he wrote that were remixed, sample, and resampled. For some reason, I do not think this would happen to other legends and I was appalled to see the indifference regarding him and the historical group. I was furious. I was furious that the passion of the artist and the harsh reality of capitalism rarely mix and probably play a part in how proper credit got lost in the business. The silence around his voice and the timely “thank you’s” when it was convenient left a bad taste in my mouth. This piece of history seems to have been forgotten by some and it doesn’t make sense to me. I have so many questions for the hip-hop artists who were inspired by The Last Poets and don’t even know it.

The Last Poets and all the other legends I have yet to learn about deserve their flowers not just a thank you and quick edits on a documentary. Flowers mean financial compensation for their contribution to history; flowers mean a seat the table that they put their heart and souls into building for the next generation; yes, it means museum space; yes, it means supporting, promoting, and providing opportunities for them to share the work that they’re still creating; yes, it means speaking about the deals made and not made back in the day that lead to the artist’s silence in the business; yes it means archiving their stories, lessons, and lives. Anything less than this is disrespectful and negligent. The hip-hop community knows better and should do better. As I left the open house, having heard stories of elders and youth in the same room in a symphony, I decided to spend more time appreciating and putting my energy towards the legends that mass media don’t mention until Black History Month. Want to join me? Start with The Last Poets and Abiodun Oyewole.

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