Be Bop or Be Dead

BONGANI MADONDO

MR BONGANI MADONDO – the author, critic, curator, raconteur, journalist, rabble rouser and our Associate Editor – launches his latest book, SIGH, THE BELOVED COUNTRY – Braai talk, Rock ‘n Roll and other stories tomorrow. In this exclusive extract from this, his third offering, he recalls a conflicted midnight conversation with Mr Abiodun Oyewole, the complex co-founder of  The Last Poets.

The wind you hear is the birth of memory when the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spear-point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain
– Keorapetse Kgositsile, ‘Towards a Walk in the Sun’, Black Fire

Talking with – and not to – Abiodun Oyewole of the iconic 1970s poetry and rap collective, The Last Poets, feels like attending a three-hundred- year-long African ideology rally with only one item on the agenda: Freeing ‘the souls of black folk’ as per W.E.B. Du Bois.

Formed in May 1968, ten years after Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo’s ill- advised if gallant resistance against Christian co-option in the fictional Umofia (Things Fall Apart, African Writers Series, Heinemann) and three years after The Autobiography of Malcolm X galvanised global African resistance, The Last Poets have observed more than their fair share of revolutions. Not only does their very name conjure up images of defiance, but it was inspired by the fiendishly rouge, red and hot battle by the then exiled South African blues poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, now famously known for being the lamented, yet, yearned-for-dad of the philosophical rapper Thebe Kgositsile, better known as Earl Sweatshirt of the Los Angeles-based, Odd Future.

‘When the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk,’ Kgositsile’s poem rings an alarm, before, searingly in ways to render your skin crawl with fear, ‘The only poem you will hear will be the spear-point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain.’ You can appreciate how that would appeal to the revolutionary zeal and passion of an African American poetry collective weaned on Curtis Mayfield, and Sam Cooke’s ‘negro spirituals’: ‘Therefore we are the last poets of the world.’

Having known each other in various community, music and poetry activities in Harlem, Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan, David Nelson, Jalal Nuriddin, Felipe Luciano, Suliaman El Hadi and Gylan Kain banded together on 19 May 1968, the birthday of their hero Malcolm X. There, at the tail-end of the Civil Rights movement and the high point of radical Black Consciousness, with rock ’n’ roll’s flower power gaining ground, they marched and rhymed, mastered the African bongo and djembe drums, added timbales and shakes and created a unique marriage of word and sound, fury and creativity.

Seen in historical context, The Last Poets, with their melding of rage, percussive music and performance poetry, were planting the early seeds of rap music. Their blend of politics and music inspired hip-hop acts such as De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers and, later, A Tribe Called Quest, who har- nessed the art and became iconic in their own right.

Seen in historical context, The Last Poets, with their melding of rage, percussive music and performance poetry, were planting the early seeds of rap music.

Lest the amnesia midnight train come and sweep us all from our comfy spaces into la-la-lands, where history is a swear word, memory a ruse and jiving our past away is the peak of what passes for progressive, nay, modern life, we are obliged, at least, to never piss on the chain linking the dreams of our grandparents, the hard work of their scions and the fruits of the so-called ‘freedom times’ now enjoyed by their children in this, the Bling Bling Post-Memory Age.

If we do, we’ll remember ever more urgently of the works of those who came before us. Their Last Poets recordings had a direct bearing on the likes of the US-Afro Caribbean cult band The Fugees’ Grammy- winning album, The Score. In South Africa they could be felt in the verse, voice and veneer of the 1970s Medupe Poets, in Mafika Gwala’s alchemic blends of mbaqanga and the American South’s spirituals into a distinct Mzansi Blues argot, and most visibly, most aurally, into Sandile Dikeni’s later adventures into jazz and poetry experiments, Guava Juice. Thus, The Last Poets were the harbingers and the link between our yesterdays and the unknown tomorrows.

I had been following their work since I sprang out of my local, township pop and punk peer pressure circles such as the Nine Big Boys, Twisted Sister, Crazy Punks, and so on, out of the sweet-grip of Wham! In search of something satisfying, something I could hang my coat of youth and teenage-angst on. Imported post-wave punk culture from Maggie Thatcher or Reagan was not it.

I needed rescuing. Rescuing from the pout-ful-sneer; the smell of bleach off Billy Idol’s mohawk. I needed rescuing from all the Top 40 magazine schmaltz, as I quested for something that would speak to my Black experience. Not that, at that age, I had a rat’s ass idea on what The Black Experience meant. Cut my foolish-teen-self some slack, will ya?

Sigh the Beloved Country - 300dpi

At the age of sixteen, I, and everyone I knew of my generation, imagined there was a single set of compressed conditions and ways of life, that collectively constituted the Who We Are. Ever heard of the expression, ‘Don’t bother, it’s a Black thing, you won’t get it?’ Ehe! These were the mid-to-late 1980s. Truth is we were not even sure we were Black then, just African. Some of us were Senegalese blue, others English-rose rouge, others pale pink, others chocolate browns, tans and so on, all beautiful African hues.

Still whenever someone spoke of this mysterious, beautiful, sacred and oh-so-cool condition known as blackness, our ignorance as to what it was, from whence it emanated, where it was headed to and what it demanded of us, could not quell the electric tinge of Black Pride, what it was not and the perils of its excess was not part of our immediate interest. Youth!

The benefit of course was that in my digging of this experience, I was introduced to the works of The Last Poets. I was introduced to all this by the Black Consciousness political commissar in our region of Tshwane and Bophuthatswana, an artist called Tlokwe Sehume, now a musician of no lean talent. So, when, later in life, my work sent me all over the world – Paris banlieues, Rome’s Spanish steps, out into the Harlem nights, creolised Cape Town, tropical Thekwini – I never stopped learning.

I also never forgot those artists, those Last Poets who rescued me from The Cure and their spooked-out hairdo, from the Sex Pistols and from eVoid and PJ Powers’ testing the endurance of her whisky soaked larynx, week after week in Soweto, at least that’s what my favourite television show of the time, Lapologa beamed back to us: J-a-b-oooo-lah-ni. Kristu!

It was with this gratitude that I jumped at the invitation of hanging out with The Last Poets in their visit to Johannesburg in the winter of 2005. I did not have many expectations. You never know with these Americans. They come here, kiss the airport’s marbled floors and talk about being connected to the Mother Earth, and I am like what the flip? Also, I had been burned before.

Three years earlier I had met my still all time favourite funk- blues-poet Gil Scott-Heron, who was on heroin back then. He came to Johannesburg on a series of gigs, the main one at the Bassline in Newtown. I had been speaking with his people the entire year in advance. Two days after his arrival, I stepped off to greet and pay my respects only to be viciously stopped by his partner or manager or – it couldn’t have been his bodyguard: A White Woman who kept him at her side 24/7. I swear had I insisted on extending my hand to greet the poet, that fiery blonde would have jiu-jitsu’d me with flying kicks right down my groin. She was meaner than the other blonde who had hovered around us like a room-cooling fan but never looked half as menacing, years later, when I was summoned to a secret suite at The Saxon to interview the only man who doesn’t look ridiculous playing God in Hollywood flicks, Morgan Freeman.

Truth is we were not even sure we were Black then, just African. Some of us were Senegalese blue, others English-rose rouge, others pale pink, others chocolate browns, tans and so on, all beautiful African hues.

The Last Poets turned out to be something different: Mellower, foul-mouthed, a riot of beautiful elderly men, out to have Africa. We drove around Johannesburg’s night life, all long exchanging wicked bon- mots. We shot the breeze, more like the chill, until, Oyewole, who seemed like the leader, pulled me aside for a conversation, while others leaned on. As I recall, they came to drop me back home after a light, if chilly night out, and we were all in a kombi-van, the sort they hire out for tourists. The conversation was conducted right in front of the apartment block I lived in, then, Dukes Court, round midnight.
I asked Oyewole his thoughts on the state of hip-hop as an art-form originating out of the creolisation of the African, Latin and African American speech-patterns, plays, community dance, black abstract art via graffiti and like Kgositsile reminded, a call to arms, a verbal and visual coded speak to assert Black Pride … how did it alter its intent and movement, resulting into a multi-billion dollar industrial complex? Did they, the prophetic ones, see that coming?

How rap and break-dancing, graffiti and literature hatched out of black and brown ghettos morphed into an industry complete with fashion lines, cereal adverts, swanky addresses, feminist revolutions, misogynistic nihilism, cover appearances on Vanity Fair, private jets, private bankers, and a choke-hold over the youth in far-flung spaces, from Havana’s barrios to Hollywood Boulevard.

‘It was not always like that,’ he cautioned. ‘For us spoken word and music, rap and whatever you want to call it, was a way of awakening and engaging Black people to stand up and take responsibility for the course their lives were taking. It was also a way of talking directly to white America. Telling her, we might have been brought to the country as slaves though we have no intentions of remaining so.’

Oyewole, with a snow-white goatee, was a study of nerves, a man in no hurry to get somewhere. Slowly, he laid it out: ‘So, you know, for us, creativity and a search for our roots was all part of it: Make no mistake, we are Africans, even though we are now speaking in foreign tongues.’ He told of a story about how in their work, they are able to communicate with the African oracles. ‘They cry out loud, demanding to be fed, engaged, hence the use of the drum in our music.’

For us spoken word and music, rap and whatever you want to call it, was a way of awakening and engaging Black people to stand up and take responsibility for the course their lives were taking. It was also a way of talking directly to white America.

He is too modest to allow the band to hog the fashionable revolutionary vanguard spotlight. ‘It is all flattering, but that’s not part of the agenda,’ he put, inviting me into the roots and routes of Black America’s musical expressions, from African slave chants to gospel, boogie-woogie, riddim ’n blues right up to rap music. ‘We did not create rap. We are just one in the long chain that includes the boxer Muhammad Ali’s taunts to his opponents, Malcolm X’s black consciousness ghetto wit utilised in his black Islam teachings, to the beatnik poets Amiri Baraka and Bob Kauffman. That is the base. Also we are not all about poetry. Actual musical production forms a core part of our repertoire. Our style issues out of a confluence of healers; John Coltrane and Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, as well as the Motown sound that gave birth to Martha and The Vandellas and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and “We Are Darker Than Blue”.’ And it don’t stop.

‘We are all part of that and more: white rock and folk innovators such as Bob Dylan, American Indians like Richie Havens, son of the Yankees’ James Taylor, all of those taught us a thing or two about push- ing the boundaries. When we started we were speaking directly to the niggers in us. We knew what many Black folk knew about but did nothing about it: That the only way modern slavery would continue is through our willing participation. Today everybody is riffling on about weapons of mass destruction. What about the internal weapons of mass destruction that are messing up America and the world: Corruption, cultural looting, religion’s industries and its armies of modern missionaries, rape, and spiritual death?’ For Oyewole, the more the world moves from one social plague to another, the more his band is energised.

The band’s latest recording ‘When We Come Together’ features collaborations with some of today’s most stylish innovators – the likes of Kanye West, John Legend, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, and Chuck D, many of whom are part of an Africanist Revolutionary vanguard. These are among the current crop of artists cooking fresher, funkier, straight-out heritage musical gumbos more exploratory than the the soul-sapping gangstah raps, now passing for art.

‘What we set out to do with this album was to reclaim rap back into where it actually belongs. We are all part of an African oral tradition that has the drum as its base. Of course there are various branches of this family tree, varying from generation to generation … gospel, the blues, funk, spoken poetry and now the hip-hop art that rap has become.’

At times the talk threatened to combust, when, for example, it turned to Black America’s lack of leadership, why forty years later African Americans are still looking for a new Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. That was a good four years before a mulatto with an Arabic name and his black family straight out of Chicago via Kenya’s Luo people, inspired a history re-narration when he pimp-rolled into the White House to govern ‘the greatest country’ if tragic nation.

I was also uncomfortable and deeply disappointed at the turns his revolutionary sermon lapsed into plain homophobia. Faggot this, faggot that, peppered his sermon, eating away from some of the spiritenhanc- ing lessons he clearly had to share with us. I refused to allow him an easy pass and chalk that down as ‘ah, he’s a man of his time’. For if you are homophobic, however slight, or unaware, you are inevitably misogynous. Still, selfishly, I was not going to just pack up and leave the conversation mid-flow. I knew I was complicit with the tacit homo and other unnecessary phobias some of our elders in the African community are still entrapped by. We proceeded to talk about leadership. What does that mean, to The Last Poets?

I was also uncomfortable and deeply disappointed at the turns his revolutionary sermon lapsed into plain homophobia. Faggot this, faggot that, peppered his sermon, eating away from some of the spirit-enhancing lessons he clearly had to share with us.

‘Leadership … mhhh? Listen-up kid, I believe that Americans and all the oppressed people should stop looking at that one larger-than-life person, that Messiah to lead us to some wacky promised land. We are now talking about Malcolm and Martin in the way we do, elevating them to godly status because they are not here. In death, they are harmless. Those that are alive, like Louis Farrakhan, we spit on them, hold them responsible for all sorts of maladies: Anti-Semitism, Malcolm X’s assassination, the works. Truth be told, Farrakhan is the truth that binds.’

It is at that point I felt a burning sensation building up in my ass, and felt like asking: ‘I mean really, Mr Oyewole?’ But then the conversation spiralled out a bit: To music industry sell-outs, and then back again to homophobia. ‘Today all we see in the music industry is the creation of little Black men who are the parodies of big white men, running the new music plantations such as BMG Records, Sony, Universal Vivendi. All they are doing is building up an industry that promotes gangstah and bitches philosophies. An industry that keeps on reminding itself to “keep it real”. How fuckin’ real is that?’

I never got the chance to explain to him that Sony Records is not owned by big white men in America, but little yellow men in Japan. But also that the record company as a business entity as we knew it, is dead. I never got to stab him with rap-novellas and lyrics that extol those who promote gangstahs and ‘bitches’. I certainly never dared twist-in the knife and remind him that those ‘gangstah’ and ‘bitch’ mongers are now presidents running the American pop industry as it evolves today. No, the man was on a roll: ‘Also, there’s a whole lot of homosexuality being promoted in the glitzy pop world. Sad that Black people are jumping on it in large numbers, or at least, that’s what the magazines tell us. I have a problem with this latent exhibitionism, all this unnecessary sexual expression.’

Oh my, we are back here? Do I interject here and ask him if he believes that homosexuality is not inherent to all humanity? Let it go. It won’t help. Not because arguing these things will get me lumped with exhibitionist sexual ogres, but because you know not much would have swayed him. Sad, though, because, like Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets forever altered how music was used as a tool of liberation. Artists such as The Last Poets have shone a light on generations of Black folks, serving as touchstones; springs, often, of sustenance in the long battle for dignity that had sapped the air out of many a progressive. It is for that knowledge that I tried to wrestle with it, the bigotry embedded within this man. I tried to make sense of the senseless. In my weak attempts, I wanted to know what to make of this historically important man who, obviously, has no place in the modern world: I asked myself questions: Am I not at all complicit with this bigotry? Do I not catch myself laughing at some of his bigoted wise-cracks?

I wrestled with this three hundred pound baboon called bigotry and failed. I remembered the lessons my late mother Nomvula used to share with us: Humanity is complex and God and the gods sometimes relish playing jokes on us. Put it this way, bigots of all stripes are among some of the men and women who have altered, in quite positive and uplifting ways, ways in which people had internalised oppressive attitudes into dreamers towards an optimistic future. Without ever ceasing or graduating from their bigotry.

At the Franschoek Literary Festival
Mr Bongani Madondo captured at the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival.

How soon we forget. Was it not yesterday when that truly gifted author, out of whose twisted soul issued gems such as The Adventures of Augie March, Humboldt’s Gift, Ravelstein, Herzog, Saul Bellow, in an outlandish bigotry towards non-Westerners wondered to an interviewer: ‘But then again, who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?’ in a context and slur meant to belittle the indieGenius people’s capacity to produce ‘serious’ literature.

History is littered with corpses of bigots, and yet, the mass-murderous Mao Zedong is still regarded by many today as an untouchable hero, along with the likes of the fatwa-flipping Ayatollah Khomeini. People seldom want to speak about the sexual, political, financial, personal and religious indiscretions and intolerances of the flames of the struggles. You try, you get burned.

So we ended up conjoined in laughter when Oyewole launched into a tirade against new, blinging slaves.

‘First, we were sharecropping slaves,’ he jabbed the air, ‘later civil rights freedom slaves, then the mid-1980s to mid-1990s brought a new version: The million-dollar athlete slave. Now we have a bling slave in the pop industry.’ I joked: You do know that most African Kings and Queens you folks love to romanticise about prided themselves on the gold-bling they owned and wore, right? ‘Dig,’ I thrust forward, tongue firmly in cheek. ‘African royalty were the original ballers.’ No response.

Right then it dawned on me we were right back in Afro Diaspora Revolution 101 class. Heated though the class was, it was sometimes confusing, silly and affirming at turns. I floated on air as I walked from the panel van to my apartment, wondering, was I disrespectful to ask some of the questions? Do you ever get to spit at your childhood heroes and sleep tight with the thought?

School’s out.

SIGH, THE BELOVED COUNTRY is published by Picador Africa.

Images: Jayforce.com and supplied.

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