After the Party: Music and the Black Panthers
Musicians don't often end up on FBI watch lists, but the Last Poets did, thanks to their links with the Black Panthers. Dorian Lynskey looks back at a time when pop and politics collided as never before
The Last Poets in 1970, left to right, Umar Bin Hassan, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and Abiodun Oyewole. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns
They were survivors of a turbulent period. In 1968, just two years after Oakland residents Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panthers, FBI director J Edgar Hoover called the party "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" and set about spending millions of dollars to infiltrate, sabotage and divide it. By the mid 70s, it was in terminal decline, and Hampton was far from the only fatality.
The Panthers' legacy has been fiercely debated ever since. Some people claim the leadership, especially Newton, were their own worst enemies: paranoid hotheads prone to violence and cronyism. Others regard them as heroes who gave young African-Americans power and pride in the face of endemic racism, only to be brought down by Hoover's machinations. A new project, Tongues on Fire, aims to accentuate the positive, bringing together the party's official artist and minister of culture, Emory Douglas, with musicians such as the Last Poets, the Roots and jazz saxophonist David Murray.
Valerie Malot, a Frenchwoman who is Murray's wife and producer, conceived Tongues on Fire after attending an activist convention in Oakland and seeing Bobby Seale selling a Panther-themed hot sauce named after the famous 60s war cry Burn Baby Burn.
When Newton and Seale were preparing the first edition of the newspaper in 1966, they listened obsessively to "brother Bobby" Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, especially Ballad of a Thin Man, which Newton read, rather fancifully, as a parable of racist oppression. At this point, black artists were still using code words such as "respect" and "pushing" when dealing with the subject of race. Even after blackness entered pop's lexicon via James Brown's Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, Newton and Seale's rhetoric, and Douglas's artwork, only found their musical analogue with the arrival of the Last Poets.
Formed in Harlem in 1968, the Last Poets lost most of their founding members before they even recorded their debut album. The classic lineup on the Poets' eponymous 1970 release consisted of Abiodun Oyewole, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin and Umar Bin Hassan. In his hometown of Akron, Ohio, Hassan had been an angry young man looking for direction when he saw the Panthers' first televised action: their armed entrance into the California legislature in May 1967.
"Woah," he remembers. "I was so excited to see some young black men do that. The Panthers were my first introduction to black militancy. About two months later I saw Huey Newton on the news, standing on the fenders of two cars and throwing down his fists at these white cops. I thought the revolution was going to begin and end in California. I ain't never been in a gang, but if I was going to be in a gang I wanted to be in a gang that stood up and defended the black community from racist cops."
Nobody had ever heard anything like the Last Poets. They combined the militant spirit of avant-garde jazz musicians such as Archie Shepp with the furious poetry of Amiri Baraka, who called for "poems that kill: assassin poems". Their rage was aimed at both white America ("the Statue of Liberty is a prostitute") and apathetic, unrevolutionary black people. Controversially, they called these people "niggers".
"The Last Poets out-niggered everybody," Hassan says with a throaty chuckle. "We had Wake Up Niggers, Niggers Are Scared of Revolution … Our thing was not to use that word as casually as the kids today. You got young kids who think it's OK to be a nigger. Nah, it ain't OK. We were trying to get rid of the nigger in our community and in ourselves. The difference between us and hip-hop is we had direction, we had a movement, we had people who kept our eyes on the prize. We weren't just bullshitting and jiving."
Despite zero airplay, the response to the album from those who heard it was "overwhelming" and the Panthers saw a fantastic recruitment opportunity in the Poets. "Everybody knew how much the people liked us and everybody wanted us to become a part of their thing," says Hassan. "But we kept ourselves independent." They did not need to be card-carrying members in order to be useful. "Music to [the Panthers] was something to get people's attention so they could speak," says David Murray, who was a teenager at the time. "Like a trumpet sounds and then there's a speech."
Very soon the party had a soundtrack, with such radical poets as the Watts Prophets, Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron emerging almost simultaneously (although Scott-Heron was sceptical about "would-be revolutionaries" with "afros, handshakes and dashikis" in his song Brother). Sympathetic rock stars such as Santana and the Grateful Dead played fundraisers. The party even attempted to launch its own musical stars. Elaine Brown, a new recruit who later became the party's minister of information and, eventually, chairman, recorded a vocal jazz album called Seize the Time and a follow-up for Motown, Until We're Free. At Emory Douglas's suggestion, four San Francisco Panthers formed a Temptations-style soul group with the Marx-inspired name of the Lumpen, though songs such as Revolution Is the Only Solution and Old Pig Nixon were a long way from the Temptations in terms of chart appeal.
Unlike the Last Poets' output, this was pure propaganda music. As the Lumpen's Michael Torrance explains on the Black Panther history site It's About Time:
In 1970, the year the Last Poets began their album with the ominous phrase "time is running out", it seemed to many US radicals, black and white alike, that revolution was imminent. But within a couple of years, the Black Panther Party was in disarray, largely thanks to the dirty tricks of the FBI. "Those who have the power always have the time and resources to get together," Hassan says. "They took their blows for a minute but then they realised, 'We gotta come back at this.'"
The agency fomented civil war between Newton and Cleaver, with bloody consequences. Douglas, who was regularly tailed by FBI agents, remembers seeing his artwork imitated on a forged pamphlet attacking another black organisation.
Not all the blame, however, can be laid at the government's door. The Huey Newton who emerged from jail to retake the party leadership in late 1970 was a troubled, paranoid character who acquired a taste for cocaine and groupies and soon fell out with Cleaver. "Bobby Seale was the brains," says David Murray. "Huey Newton was an action person. He would just go and do it. That might also be why he's not alive [Newton was shot by a crack dealer in 1989]."
Despite positive achievements such as a free breakfast programme for poor children, the mood of mistrust caused Panther members to desert en masse. Elaine Brown resigned the chairmanship in 1977 after Newton approved the beating of a female party administrator. Eight years earlier she had recorded Seize the Time. Now the time was definitely past.
Asked about the Panthers' balance sheet, Emory Douglas draws a long sigh.
Tongues on Fire demonstrates that the era's revolutionary art, visual and musical, outlasted the party that inspired it. Chaka Khan and Chic's Nile Rodgers drew from their experience as members. Bands such as Public Enemy (whose Chuck D remembers singing "Free Huey!" as a child) pitched themselves as the Panthers' heirs: "This party started right in '66/ With a pro-black radical mix." Naturally, they were fans of the Last Poets.
A few years ago, Hassan met former Panther chairman David Hilliard in Oakland.