One day last December, Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets attended a gathering in Chicago to commemorate local Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who was shot dead by the police 40 years earlier. There were about 30 people, including the widows of Hampton and fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver, and former members of radical groups such as Weatherman. “We laughed and drank wine and talked about what we all had been through,” Hassan says. “I’m glad I made it. It was good to see a lot of those people still living, you know?”
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. “I was really shocked when you’ve tried all your life to change people’s conditions and you end up selling hot sauce at a convention,” she says. Malot’s focus on Douglas makes sense. He came to work on the Black Panther newspaper when the party had barely a dozen members, and the vivid, revolutionary designs he produced during the subsequent decade are part of the era’s visual vocabulary. But the Panthers’ relationship with music was much more complex.
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: “The music was simply another facet of service to the Party and the Revolution. Furthermore, since we were an educational cadre, rigorous study was necessary to be able to translate the ideology of the BPP into song.” The musicians employed the same strategy as Douglas did with his artwork. “Huey and Bobby always said that the African-American community wasn’t a reading community but they learned through observation and participation,” Douglas says. “[African revolutionary] Samora Machel said you have to be able to speak in a way that a child could understand.” Indeed, the Panthers’ most famous song, written after Newton’s arrest for murdering a police officer in 1967, was a two-line chant that even children could sing: “Black is beautiful/ Free Huey!”
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. “They tried to destroy and discredit the Black Panther Party by any means necessary,” he says. “We knew what was going on but you couldn’t put your finger on it.” The Watts Writers Workshop, the base of the Watts Prophets, was burned to the ground by a trusted employee who, it transpired, was an FBI plant. The Last Poets were constantly monitored, as Hassan discovered years later when he saw his FBI files. “We were on President Nixon’s list, the defence department list, the national security list. It kind of blew my mind.”
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.
“We all thought we were moving towards bringing about something new, something good, for America – not just for black people, but for all people,” Hassan says. “But when you started seeing one brother go one way and another brother snitching, a lot of us went back on to the streets doing what we were doing before, selling drugs or hustling, because we were disappointed.” Hassan himself left the Last Poets in 1974 and became a cocaine addict, giving poetry readings in crackhouses. “Yeah man, there was a lot of disappointment.”
Asked about the Panthers’ balance sheet, Emory Douglas draws a long sigh. “I would say we did the best we could under the circumstances. You have to understand that never in the history of the country had any organisation stood up to the challenges in the way we did and at such a young age.” David Murray thinks the party has to be seen in context. “This was a time when California was changing the world. I was a hippie, I was a Black Panther, I was in the Nation of Islam. That was how you grew up during that time – you had to dabble in each one.”
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. “He said, ‘Do you know how important you guys were? People listened to y’all. Y’all made people want to be Panthers and join the Nation of Islam. Y’all were as important as anyone because you made people think.’ It took me a long time to understand how much influence we had on that time.”