Abiodun Oyewole is a talented poet, teacher, as well as member of African-American music and spoken-word group The Last Poets. He joins Aja in conversation about the power of community, how creativity is more than just poetry, art, and music, and how caring for one another is caring for oneself. Please note that this episode contains discussion of mental illness and includes sensitive, adult content that some may have difficulty engaging with.
Aja Monet 00:11
Hello listeners. My name is Aja Monet, and I'm a blues surrealist poet and organizer. I am your host for this show, The Sound Bath, a podcast brought to you by Lush Cosmetics, where you'll be hearing conversations that cleanse. Thank you for joining us today. This podcast explores what personal, social, and environmental care and wellbeing really mean in today's society. This show is designed to be listened to in the bath. So sit back and enjoy the conversation. At the end, stick around for a beautiful meditative sonic sound bath. I am thrilled to be able to speak with my godfather, friend and comrade and spiritual advisor and mentor, all things important and valuable in my life. His name is Abiodun Oyewole, who is a member of the legendary Last Poets, a poetry group that laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip hop, as well as the Black Arts Movement. I spent many years sitting at the feet of Abiodun Oyewole and his stories. He's one of the most profound storytellers I know. And he is a true revolutionary poet. I am so grateful to have him in conversation with me today. And I know you all will enjoy this conversation as much as I have.
Abiodun Oyewole 01:44
How are you doing?
Aja Monet 01:49
Hi, I miss you!
Abiodun Oyewole 01:51
I miss you, too, baby.
Aja Monet 01:53
Pops, as you know, I've known you forever. And I consider you a father in my life. You are my father as far as I'm concerned. And I've also just admired always the sort of poet and thinker and leader and storyteller and figure you've been in the community, in the Black community, and particularly in Harlem, in New York, but in the world at large. And so when I was asked to do a podcast and thinking about people I wanted to have conversations with, you're probably one of the most important and pivotal people in my life that have transformed my worldview. And just I've always wanted to share you with as many people as possible. So I want to say thank you for joining me on this podcast, on this conversation. And I want to ask you if you wouldn't mind to please introduce yourself to the listeners, how you would like to be seen in the world or how you identify, what ways you'd like to represent your cool to the people.
Abiodun Oyewole 02:53
Okay. Aja, it's always a pleasure to, just to see you, to talk with you because you one of my favorite people, as Judy and I always used to say, if we had a daughter, it would have to be you because you definitely represent the values and the love and, and the heartfelt feelings of life that represented what we always appreciated. And you continue to be consistent in your efforts. My name is Abiodun Oyewole. And many people call me Dune. Because as I say, Abiodun is a mouthful and many of us are not versed in the Yoruba language. I happened to be one of the founding members of The Last Poets. And The Last Poets was a special group of poets who actually laid the foundation for what people refer to as a hip hop. We're not hip-hop artists, we’re poets. But our style of poetry gave kind of a platform for many of the hip-hop artists to emerge. And I refer to myself really more as a poet educator. I'm a poet without question. But above and beyond everything else, I love to teach, teaching is my passion. So that would be a definition of who I am.
Aja Monet 04:11
Yeah, you are definitely a teacher. Thank you for that. I always love the role that storytelling in the Black tradition, but definitely in the African tradition has played in our relationship and in the relationship of so many people's lives who you touched over the years, and you have this open house that you do every weekend. And every time you go up to work with young kids, and you perform, I find that stories are so much of how you animate your poetry, how you animate the world around you. And I would argue that storytelling is a part of our wellness practice, is a part of our tradition. And I wanted to ask you what stories or what storytellers did you find pivotal in your life that helped shape your love for storytelling?
Abiodun Oyewole 04:56
Well, the one thing I've discovered in recent years is that my mother is a tremendous storyteller. So I think that some of my storytelling must have come through DNA because my mother, even though she complains, and she's still with us at 95 years old, she, she, she says things like, “My memory is not as good as it used to be.” And yet she could sit there and tell us a story of what she did when she was in the third grade and just go way back in time. And she gives you the beginning, the middle and the end, and she gives you the setting. I mean, she's just a wonderful storyteller. So I think there's some of that stuff I got genetically. But the fact is that there are quite a few poets that I've looked at as great storytellers. I think Langston Hughes is a committed storyteller. I mean, he wrote poetry we know, but all poems have a story composite, because in order for you to really capture people's imaginations, they want stories to be told, even if it's only a few lines, and we refer to it as poetry, isn't (really) in those lines, the story gives us a kind of opening to a world that we wouldn't normally have an opening to. And so I believe that stories are very key in the world entirely. I remember when I was at Shaw University, I had 2-hour shows on the radio station at Shaw, and my name, my shows were Variations Phase One, Variations Phase Two. And because I didn't know what I was going to do, so I just called it Variations. So we do; I did a bunch of stuff. But the thing that I did that I appreciated the most was the first hour of my show, I would read 15-minute segments of a book. And the first book I read was “Native Son”, and my promo was, “If anyone asks you if you've read a book, tell them you have even though someone is reading to you”, because I know, I know that people would listen. And I was basically doing it for the brothers incarcerated in prison in North Carolina because they had their headphones, and the only thing that they could connect with in the free world supposedly was through the radio, as long as they had their headphones. So I knew that they would be getting the message. And the guys, when I come back to the prison, they would always say, “I can't wait for next week, man, and what happened in the next episode of the story.” So storytelling is a key part of our lives. I think every human being is captivated by stories.
Aja Monet 07:32
Yeah, wow. I love hearing that. I think there was so much, you know, the movement and the time at which you came up, there was a real concerted effort, obviously, with the Black Arts Movement to instill a certain value system within the people. And I think that is still necessary now. And it's, and it will always be necessary. But I wonder what are the things that you learned being in community with Black poets up and coming during that time that that revolutionary movement, that you think is important for young people to know about now, young poets to know about now.
Abiodun Oyewole 08:06
I learned that Black people are poetry themselves. We are poetic. And poetry is just not just confined to what you write on a page. Poetry is the way we walk, the way we talk, the attitude that we bring into the situation. We are so poetic until we don't even understand the value of our poetic existence. Everything we do has a poetic flair to it. And I discovered that by, when The Last Poets were first getting started, David Nelson who is a brother who actually had the idea of putting this group together, he told me that he put my name and Gylan Kain’s name on the lists to read poetry. And it was about a month after King had been assassinated. And he said, “We're going to read some poetry at Mount Morris Park, on Malcolm X's birthday.” I was very excited because I was going to do something in Harlem for the first time other than whatever I had done in church. But at the same time, I was intimidated because I always saw Black folks as a tough crowd to please. And I kind of felt like, trying to perform in Harlem would be like trying to perform at amateur night at the Apollo. If they don't like you, the same man come and snatch you off the stage. So I wasn't certain as to how I was going to prepare myself to get on stage and do something that would be appealing, at the same time I wanted desperately to be a part of the Black Power movement. Because as far as I was concerned, they'd killed the civil rights movement when they killed Dr. King, and the poetry kind of saved my life in a sense, but because of my intimidation of the fact that I was going to read poetry in Harlem, and I didn't know how I could write something to be appealing, I did the best thing I ever did, and I still do it. I came to Harlem. I walked around; I listened, I observed, and poetic phrases were flying out of the mouths of people who I was listening to. And one of those phrases was “What's your thing, brother?” And it was, a lot of times our songs mirror our lives. At the time, that hit song was “It’s Your Thing Do What You Wanna Do” by the Isley Brothers. But the brothers in the movement were saying, “What's your thing?”, thing was like a revolutionary pronoun and meant what's your affiliation with the movement and a brother might say, “I'm a member of the Nation Islam, or I'm a Black Panther, or I'm in RNA.” Different people had different roles that they would play in the movement. So I wrote a poem entitled “What Is Your Thing? Brother?” Is it a Black thing will say, Black women and children. I learned, most importantly, that poetry comes from the people that you're trying to write it for. What the poet does, we don't give you anything new. We give you what you already know. But we make you see it in a way you haven't thought of it before.
Aja Monet 10:55
Yeah, I think that, you know, there's so much that you and The Last Poets were able to instill not just in the movement and people but other poets. And we know that Gil Scott-Heron could not have written “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” without having heard your poem.
Abiodun Oyewole 11:13
The poem that he heard was “When the Revolution Comes”.
Aja Monet 11:16
Yes, yes. Yes.
Gil Scott-Heron 11:18
♪ When the revolution comes ♪
♪ When the revolution comes ♪
♪ When the revolution comes,
♪ Some of us will probably catch it on TV, with chicken hanging
♪ from our mouths ♪
♪ You'll know it's revolution because there won't be no
♪ commercials ♪
♪ When the revolution comes ♪
♪ When the revolution comes ♪
Abiodun Oyewole 11:36
Yeah, I'd written that and we went to Lincoln University, and Gil Scott-Heron was the student body representative. He was the one who actually brought us on stage. And at the end of the concert, Gil Scott came to the dressing room, and he said, “I want to start a group just like you guys, man, I want a group just like this.” And I told Gil right the, and it's in his book by the way, I said, “Go for it Gil. We want Last Poets all over the world.” Because we wanted to create a whole movement of poets that spoke poetry that would lead you into the next phase of our lives. So we were saying we’re the last poets because this is the last message before stuff hits the fan, so to speak. And um, Gil was truly, truly my brother. And people would come to me sometimes and say things like, “Yeah brother, I love The Last Poets, the revolution not be televised.” And I know that they're confusing the two poems. It's okay, and I say “Yeah right on”, I don't have time to explain to them. And Gil told me that people would come up to him and say “Yeah, Gil love your work man, when the revolution comes brother.” And he'd say the same thing.
Aja Monet 12:39
Yeah, that's such a great story. Can you tell us the story about actually how The Last Poets got their name because I think most people don't actually know this. But I was so fascinated to learn about it.
Abiodun Oyewole 12:50
The greatest anthology done to date, as far as I'm concerned, that kind of depicts a period of this, of the 60s and that Black Power movement, was an anthology put together by, at that time his name was LeRoi Jones, and Larry Neal was the other person and the name of the anthology is called “Black Fire”. In that book, there's a poem called “Towards a Walk in the Sun”. And it was written by Keorapetse Kgositsile. Now no one can say his first name too well, so he was affectionately called Little Bully, Little Bully Kgositsile. So Little Bully was his name, he was a short brother, but a very big brother in terms of his mindset, and a beautiful person, a nice spirit. He had a poem that talked about the horrible conditions that the brothers and sisters in South Africa had to live under the apartheid regime because they had to walk around with their IDs; if they didn't have their IDs on, they'd be put to jail. And this was an ongoing nightmare for those natives of South Africa. And you could tell in the poem that he was very upset with the way his people were being treated and talked about how they were collecting taxes from these folks, and it was a very upsetting poem. And he changed a part in the poem, to bold letters and toward the end. And he says, “This wind you hear is the birth of a memory when the moment hatches in time’s womb there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spearhead pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain; and the timeless native son dancing like crazy to the retrieved rhythms of desire, fading into memory. Therefore we are the last poets of the world.” So we had a creed. And what's so beautiful about that, Aja, is that we had a gig in South Africa some years ago about maybe, it was during the time when Mandela was with us and Kgositsile had been given a position as Minister of Culture, so he had a position on Mandela administration. And we were performing at the University of Johannesburg. The place was packed, it was I think 2000 students were in the audience, it was a beautiful thing. And when we walked out on stage, it brought tears to my eyes, the entire audience did that piece that I just shared with you. “This wind you hear is the birth of a memory.” So they knew that that had been the influence that was the basic platform by which we named ourselves because David had been doing the research on what we were going to call ourselves. So he read a poem called “Strong Men Keep On Coming” by Sterling Brown. He read a poem by Margaret Walker, “My people”, he read a number of poems before he decided that that was the poem that was going to give us our name. And then after he had read that poem, and we had been named The Last Poets, David himself brought a poem entitled “The Last Poets, We're Here to Turn Tears Into Spears,” which I thought was a wonderful poem as well. But we actually got our name from Kgositsile's poem “Towards a Walk in the Sun.
Aja Monet 16:04
That's such a beautiful story, I’m so glad that we got to share that with people. So much of our history as poets and Black poets has been lost and has not been taught in schools, etc, so it's up to us to really make sure that our young people learn about it and that our communities know that at the same time that MFA programs were being created, at the same time, Black poets all across the country, and writers and thinkers and theatre performers were workshopping in homes and in basements and coffee shops. And you had Obasi in Chicago, and you had The Watts Prophets in LA, you had, you know, Amiri Baraka, and you guys and what you all were doing in, in New York, like there was this movement that was happening, of organizing the people around art, around poetry, which was so intentional. And while movement is so crucial and critical to our lives as Black people, one of the things that I think gets lost on our movement spaces is the role that art plays, not just in the sense of politicizing and getting us to think, you know, in this very, you know, militant sort of way, art I think also gets us to be full human beings, honor what we are going through together. I guess what I would ask you is what role do you think art plays in organizing our mental health as well as our strategic response to state violence and the issues that we're facing at large politically?
Abiodun Oyewole 17:32
Art is the lifeline of our existence. We are natural artists. And art takes place in so many aspects, in the way we cook our food and the clothes we put on our body and the inklings that we do, the poems that we write to music that we do. And when you look at art, when you look at poetry, I mean, it wasn't necessarily trying to make a militant out of us as much as trying to enhance our way of life, our culture. I mean, that's what art does; it kind of makes this clear statement, I'm alive and well, and I believe in God. That’s all your sayin when you’re participating in art. Any time you are a creative artist, you are actually trying to have a conversation with God, or whatever label you refer to God as, even those people that say they don't believe in God, you're imitating God right now by being a creative artist because that's what God is, that’s the force of God as far as I'm concerned, is his creation, we are part of that creation, and our creation is nothing less than artistic. And so, and we simply reflect that in our day-to-day lives. And without art, we are dead. It's like being in a desert with no water. I mean, we really have got to respect the fact that art makes everything live, even dead things come to light through art, because that's what art is supposed to do. It's supposed to bring out the very essence of the best of a human being. You have to express your feelings, and art is that avenue that does that; if you don't have a way to express your feelings, you become constipated inside, and you blow up, your thinking will have bad thoughts about taking your life. Your light must be shared. Art is one way to share your life and whatever you think life is all about. That's the best way to do it. And it doesn't have to be writing poetry. It doesn't have to be singing a song or writing a book. It could be just making a sweet potato pie. It could be sewing something, there are so many ways that we need to express ourselves, and this society we're living in is so caught up with dollars and cents. What makes money? IPeople ask me, somebody came in here and said, “Hey, man, how much do you charge for this painting?” I mean I can't charge you for it. I'm not a painter. I'm doing this for therapeutic purposes. I mean, if you enjoy, you like it, I mean like listen, my ex-wife came up here and she just took a couple pieces, she says “I want this to put up in my house”. My son Evan, he took seven of my paintings. He's had his house decorated with it. I'm amazed, and I feel very, very honored because I'm just learning how to do this. This is all brand new, but it is an expression that gives me a great deal of peace and comfort. And I definitely cherish it. Art is vital. Without art. Your heart will stop beating.
Aja Monet 20:24
Oh, a word. A word. Yeah, that is, I mean, that's definitely I would, I would not be here. Art saves my life every day, every single day, because of the state of the country and the way that we, the system commodifies everything, you know.
Abiodun Oyewole 20:43
Aja Monet 20:44
I think that it's really unfortunate because there's these beautiful things about social media and expression and people putting their stuff online and trying to reach people. And then there's like young people whose art is suffering because they're trying to produce and produce and produce and share and share and create content and do this and do that. And so they don't actually really understand what creation I think is about anymore. They lose the sense of what it means to create and why they're creating. And so I wanted to see what advice would you give to young artists coming up about keeping the integrity of making art and keeping your dignity in how you make art?
Abiodun Oyewole 21:21
To everything we do should be done with integrity. My advice is that first of all, let's take hip hop. Since, since hip hop is so big on the scale when it comes out, young people keep up should be a Rolls Royce of an art form because you got all this space to say all these words with a fat beat behind it. But we’re saying nothing. We're wasting time talking foolishness, talking about petty things, talking about bitches and hoes and things and money and when value should be shared. And you could be funky sharing values, you could still use, have all the funk in the world. But we need to learn patience and determination, we need to learn how to persevere, we need to learn how to pay attention., we need to learn how to concentrate, we need to learn how to focus. There are so many things that can be taught through our art form. We are creative geniuses, we took European instruments and created a whole genre of music called jazz. I know Mozart and Beethoven and those characters are rolling over in their graves when they hear what John Coltrane and them had done with, with classic tunes that they considered great symphonic pieces, the fact is that we have, we have art as a major weapon in our lives, for the good of us. And it should be used, it should not be trash. There are quite a few people, are working with young people who will come to me. For example, there's a young man in Philadelphia he wanted to do something that was a salute to the ancestors. When he told me that he wanted to do something that dealt with the ancestors, I said right away, I said “That is what I'm talking about.” If you pay respect to your ancestors, that’s like you paying respect to yourself, and you're giving values that we need to have These values aren’t talked about. So he said, “Well I would like for you to write a poem, dealing with that, to go along with what I've said”, so I wrote a poem. And he came over to my house, and he filmed it. And he's got a video working right now. But there's so much that could be done. This is a moment when we really need to recognize what love is. Love is not just a word, it's an action. And we need to show that in every possible way. We got people that are suffering from depression. Depression will take you out quicker than a virus. And when we know that there's somebody around that we’re familiar with, maybe don't even know that well, but they're depressed and not happy, we' need to reach out. Because if we're not happy, the best way to solve your unhappiness is to reach out to somebody else. Get your mind off of yourself, and think about somebody else. And that will help you relieve your tension. Because now you ,because when you're depressed, you're caught up like in a ball or within yourself, and you can't see anybody else. Your vision is cloudy. Everything is about you and your pain when the whole wide world is going through pain and suffering. And we need to reach out to each other. We have always been a sociable people that cared for one another. Unfortunately, they have not viewed us like that on the TV and in movies. They always show us tearing each other apart, stabbing each other in the back. When that is not the lot of us. If that were the case with us, we would not be here. We have helped each other in more ways than we can imagine. When sick when sister Sadie makes a sweet potato pie, and she lives on maybe the 12th floor in the project, she might bring some downstairs to somebody on the 10th floor, just so they can try it out. That's exactly what we need to do. Share that sweet potato pie. Share the, share those good things with each other. Look out for one another. And it's not difficult. It was hard. But many of us get into our little shells and we try to actually avoid being connected when that is definitely anti-human. That's not the human way to be. Hip hop can set the tone for us to share and love and not be corny. I know that everybody wants to be funky, everybody wants to be slick and have some swag. You could have all those values portrayed and have swag and funk and slick, all that could be there. But we need to share values that will be wholesome, that will help us appreciate each other and ourselves much more. And it's not something that we need to just look at like it's a little thing. No, this is a very big thing. We need to recognize that we're sitting on top of the world with our creative genius, use it wisely so that the world will not perish.
Aja Monet 22:20
Yes, yes, yes, yes. I want to ask you, what are some of the lessons that were passed on to you that you think ought to be passed on to our children or onto those who come after us about care and about wellness, you know, some of the things that maybe you saw within the community that, that even if we didn't have money, we still looked out for each other, we still found ways to take care of each other that you would like to bestow upon the next generation?
Abiodun Oyewole 26:27
First of all, I was raised by parents who believed in having something to take care of yourself, who grew their own collard greens and grew corn and tomatoes, and peppers. So if we wanted to eat some fresh vegetables, you’d just go out in the garden yard and pick it, and you can’t beat that. That’s really living. I'm eating fresh vegetables that we grow. And that's important. We don't grow anything, we look forward to going to the store and buying stuff that lord knows how long it's been there. I mean, so we need to get back to the organic way of doing things. We need to get back into the soil. That's very important. There, there are all kinds of viruses going around, from HIV to COVID. There’s a whole bunch of viruses. And sometimes we can be sick and not even realize it. You might see a change in your actions, in your body and not recognize where it's coming from. And there are things that we do, we abuse ourselves so often, we got folks that want to abuse the idea, listen, I like to smoke herb, but you don't wake up in the morning smoking a joint. There is a time and a place for every single thing. And we have to recognize that. Discipline is still required. And we need to employ some discipline. There are a lot of people who frown upon that, they think discipline is somebody hanging over there with a big strap ready to whoop their butt. But no, discipline keeps you in order, keeps you in check, it allows you to appreciate the very best of life in a wonderful way. If you just take every single sweet, sweet thing that you see it and eat it, you're going to end up with sugar diabetes. You need to learn how to just step back and recognize, I want to be here and my body is valuable, and it needs to be taken care of like it's something important. I shouldn't trash my body, just like what we said about mouths is very important. We need to weigh our words before we just blurt out things that could hurt other people, ultimately hurt ourselves as well. So it's a certain kind of consciousness that goes beyond the political realms of being a Black person recognizing that I'm Black, and I'm proud. No, let’s start out with, I'm a human being. And being human means that I should respect what mother nature has provided. I should respect the trees and flowers and all other living things around me. I mean, recognize your humanity before anything else, the Black and the white and the gay and the straight, all those things are actually tags. There's only one race here. It's the human race. We're going to promote the humanity of us. And that humanity of us requires some discipline. It requires some love. It requires some sharing. These are the values that we need to promote in our raps, in our songs. I remember back in the day when I was growing up, man, there was nothing like a good love song. Smokey Robinson made Motown special, because he wrote some phenomenal songs, love songs. We don't hear enough love, we need to hear more love songs. We need to have more love songs in our lives. We need to know that this is a part of who we are. We are lovers. We're not killers. We're not murderers. We're people who care, and we have a phenomenal capacity to love, we even love our enemies, which of course, many people think is crazy. But love can be a strong weapon, and you cannot defeat love. My advice to all my young artists, my young rappers, and everything else is to learn how to love yourself and share that love with others.
Aja Monet 30:01
Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Pops. That's really good. I am going to close out, the last question I have for you is about sound and what sound or sounds resonate deeply with you, that bring you a peace of mind or a sense of calm, that make you feel well, make you feel whole, make you feel at peace?
Abiodun Oyewole 30:25
Jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz, I love jazz. “Speak Like a Child”, “Maiden Voyage” Herbie Hancock. I mean, give me some jazz, that music was made for you to think by. I've told principals in schools where I've worked here in the city if they were to pump jazz in the hallway while the kids are changing classes, or while the kids are in the bathroom, or while they're eating lunch, they will see a different kind of kid after a while because it has an effect, you feel it. And that's what sounds do. And the sound is vital to our existence. I love jazz and I said jazzy initially because it takes all those European instruments and gives you a sound that all those guys that created the saxophone and the clarinet and all that, had no clue that you could get those sounds out of those instruments. But they didn't have the broad view of life. Or how should I say? They weren't left with their souls to define who they were. When you strip away all the other stuff, and the only thing you left with is your bare soul, you can come up with jazz, as well as, as well as other things that will help you survive a human experience.
Aja Monet 31:46
Mmm, ooof. Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Yeah, that is the heart of everything. I believe and stand for it. And I want to thank you for putting words to something I feel so deeply as an affirming code or ethic. And I, I admire you, I'm inspired by you, I love you. I'm always so grateful that I had you in my life. I feel so lucky and spoiled. And so, you know, I try my best to try to spoil others by sharing you with the world and just thank you, thank you for choosing your purpose and your calling and teaching so many of us how to be and how to love ourselves so ferociously.
Abiodun Oyewole 32:22
Well, thank you. I wanna thank you, Aja. Because you've been, you've been a real champion as far as I'm concerned. And I'm just very happy that you've been a good mindset to try to bring the, put the dots together and help us elevate ourselves to the next level. Thank you for your participation in life, baby.
Aja Monet 32:41
I love you, Pops. Yeah, I've only been able to do what I can becauseI know you got my back.
Abiodun Oyewole 32:47
Yeah, that's it, baby. I love it. Thank you so much. And we'll talk soon. All right.
Aja Monet 32:53
All right. Speak soon.
Abiodun Oyewole 32:55
All right, baby. Peace.
Aja Monet 32:57