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Understand What Black Is — ‘struggle and striving’

Understand What Black Is — ‘struggle and striving’

May 20
23:35 2018

The Last Poets

Understand What Black Is

(Studio Rockers)

“There must be struggle and striving,” Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets intones on their new album, which comes out almost 50 years to the day after the group formed in Harlem. In those days they were on the cultural wing of the black power movement, delivering spoken-word calls for revolution over African-inspired percussion and jazz. Now, with Understand What Black Is, they bring their version of the struggle into the “Black Lives Matter” era.

After a complicated history of line-up changes, The Last Poets today comprise Hassan (who joined in 1969), founding member Abiodun Oyewole and percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde. The original group is credited as forerunners of hip-hop(you can hear the pre-echo of Public Enemy’s Chuck D in Oyewole’s commanding tones). But Understand What Black Is looks to a different genre for inspiration: reggae.

The title track is a visionary account of the meaning of blackness (“It is not a complexion, it is a reflection of all complexions called human”), set to the deep pulse of dub reggae and dramatic orchestral effects. “She Is”, a tribute to the range of African-American popular music, adds jazz to the mix. The reggae template strikes an odd note on “North East West South”, Hassan’s meandering tribute to Prince. But elsewhere it adds a hypnotic backdrop to the duo’s verses.


The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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