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The Last Poets: the hip-hop forefathers who gave black America its voice

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It is half a century since the Last Poets stood in Harlem, uttered their first words in public, and created the blueprint for hip-hop. At an intimate open house session, they explain why their revolutionary words are still needed

You can trace the birth of hip-hop to the summer of 1973 when Kool Herc DJ’d the first extended breakbeat, much to the thrill of the dancers at a South Bronx block party. You can trace its conception, however, to five years earlier – 19 May 1968, 50 years ago this weekend – when the founding members of the Last Poets stood together in Mount Morris park – now Marcus Garvey park – in Harlem and uttered their first poems in public. They commemorated what would have been the 43rd birthday of Malcolm X, who had been slain three years earlier. Not two months had passed since the assassination of Martin Luther King. “Growing up, I was scheduled to be a nice little coloured guy. I was liked by everybody,” says the Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole. He was 18 and in college when he heard the news. “But when they killed Dr King, all bets were off.”

That day led to the Last Poets’ revelatory, self-titled 1970 debut of vitriolic black power poems spoken over the beat of a congo drum. Half a century later, the slaughter continues daily, in the form of assaults, school shootings and excessive police force. “America is a terrorist, killing the natives of the land / America is a terrorist, with a slave system in place,” Oyewole declares on the Last Poets’ new album, Understanding What Black Is, in which he and Umar Bin Hassan trade poems over reggae orchestration, horns, drums and flute. It’s their first album in 20 years, reminding a new generation of hip-hop’s roots in protest poetry.

Related: The Last Poets: Understand What Black Is review – hip-hop progenitors bounce back wiser

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