The spoken word group known as The Last Poets set the foundation for early hip-hop with poems that raised the collective Black consciousness. Their work evoked the uncompromising spirit of Malcolm X, whose life and legacy inspired their 1968 inception.
On Sunday, several poets, singers and instrumentalists carried on that tradition during a five-hour outdoor event named in The Last Poets’ honor.
Throughout much of the evening, guests who attended The Last Poets Block Party grooved and nodded their heads to the sounds of Talib Kweli, Smif-N-Wessun, Black Alley and a slew of locally and nationally renowned spoken word artists.
“One of the messages the Last Poets shared with the world is the power and beauty of Black people,” said Sabriyah Hassan, daughter of The Last Poets founding member Umar Bin Hassan and executive director of Team Triumphant, a Baltimore-based youth-development nonprofit that hosted The Last Poets Block Party, which commemorated the group’s founding and Malcolm X’s birth anniversary, both of which fall on the same day.
Other live acts on Sunday evening included 2019 DC Youth Slam Grand Champion Marjan Naderi, Dwayne B! The Crochet KingPin, Rasheed Copeland, Ke’era Ingram of Howard University’s P.O.E.T. Out, Malachi “MalPractice” Byrd and Theresa Tha Songbird. Revelers took in the sounds, participated in live painting and board games and purchased a slew of books, jewelry, candles and other Afrocentric wares.
Hassan said Anacostia served as the ideal neighborhood for the May 19 block party because of its connection to Frederick Douglass, a one-time resident and Black historical figure she learned more about in her role at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.
“It’s been [The Last Poets’] goal to share the message that Black people are the master creators,” Hassan said. “That wasn’t something popular for anyone — Black or white — to say. That’s why my father penned The Last Poets’ most famous poem, ‘N*ggas are Scared of Revolution.’ We can’t be afraid to show and use our poets, and what better way to celebrate The Last Poets than on El Hajj Malik Shabazz’s birthday?”
From 1968 on, The Last Poets changed its lineup several times, with Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan and Baba Donn Babatunde counting among its most prominent members. The group’s 1971 album “This is Madness” caught the attention of the Nixon Administration, who placed them on the COINTELPRO list alongside Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, The Last Poets gained notoriety as the grandfathers of the hip-hop genre, in part solidified by cameos in “Big Fun in the Big Town” and John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice.” They’ve also appeared on songs with rappers Common, Nas, and Kanye West and hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan.
In tying Sunday’s event to burgeoning #DontMuteDC movement, Pages Matam, a nationally renowned slam poetry champion who recruited the spoken word acts, said he wanted to circulate positive energy and encourage awareness about the issues affecting people on the margins of society.
“Art has been a voice and tool of revolution,” said Matam, also director of poetry events for Busboys and Poets. “Just about every revolution utilized art in some kind of way, either as a protest, celebration, or historical keepsake. The songs are created and things are said to keep memories. It’s important that we have events like this that shed light and provide a platform for people to speak for their community.”