Poet Abiodun Oyewole says hip-hop artists ‘must be catalysts for social change’

His apartment in Manhattan usually comes alive late evening time. Every Sunday at 3:00 p.m., he opens up his home to any brave soul who yearns to share a lyrical, vocal or instrumental gift. You may find as many as twenty talented young people from throughout New York City and as far away as New Jersey, gathering in his mid-sized living room.

No Sunday performance is exactly the same. There is always a new rap verse to vibe to, a new poem to reflect upon or a new song to sing. It is as if old and new performers continue to set the bar higher every week. Various people perform each night.

African artifacts fill the living room. The room also has a piano with black history books on its lid. Tooly, the cat, prances around and sometimes lounges on the fluffy couches. His presence makes you think that he isn’t afraid of anyone. When the house is full of people, all of Tooly’s precious sitting spots are taken, including the piano bench. No hard feelings seem to be felt. When his seats are commandeered, he walks around and settles for a quick back massage. He usually gets his way. For the most part, he does his own thing while the day goes on.

Before gathering for “communion,” people flood the kitchen to enjoy a glass of juice or eat a quick treat. The refrigerator stays stocked every Sunday for their pleasure.

One performer after another will sit on colorful floor pillows, which are stacked upon each other near the television set in the living room. This signifies that they are ready to share what they have prepared for the night. At this point, everyone gets quiet for the artist on the invisible stage.

About five or six people muster up the courage to perform. Love songs are sung by singers, poets speak about current events or their skills as a poet. Most of the performers are black.

A high school student, named Carlos, is the youngest of them all. You will usually find him every Sunday strumming his acoustic guitar while singing one of his original songs. You may see him wearing a colorful headband to hold back his big afro, as Jimi Hendrix might have done. His songs are usually about love and are full of imagination.

After the artist finishes a performance, Abiodun Oyewole, gives praises to the performer and offers advice on how to perfect their skills. Oyewole’s wisdom is valued by performers. They say, “Thank you,” and some give hugs and smiles in recognition. Peers also chime in and give encouraging remarks. The performer will then find a seat back in the crowd. A new conversation will begin. At any given moment, a rap cypher may reign supreme. That’s when a group of rappers come together to freestyle, usually over a beat. In other words, it’s like a jam session with spoken word and spectators.

Rappers participating in the cypher will engage with their audience by giving them clever punch-lines to ponder. Each rapper will stand up and take turns showing off lyrical skills. Seconds, minutes or hours later, another soul will grace the stage to perform and to get feedback from their peers and Oyewole. Out of respect, the room will quiet down again.

The night usually ends with people sharing contact information. When the clock strikes midnight, the apartment turns into a pumpkin.

These performers are practitioners of a continuing tradition that existed over forty years ago. They are hip-hop. They are kings and queens. They are powerful. These entertainers have the ability to move mountains with their words and their minds.

For thirty-five years, Abiodun Oyewole, born Charles Franklin Davis, has provided a creative platform for budding stars. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but moved with his aunt and her husband to Queens, New York at the age of three. Today, he lives in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, within the Columbia University community. He is affiliated with the school because he received a Charles H. Revson Fellowship from Columbia in 1989.

Oyewole, 68, speaks with total confidence. He is a black man of average stature, with straightened grey hair that touches the back of his neck in a slicked back style. He is full of stories. Often, he entertains his guests with events from his past. When he speaks, he says that he aims to give life to every word.

Oyewole makes a living by traveling the world and giving speeches, teaching students in classrooms about the art of creative writing, volunteering for literary workshops at schools, selling books, releasing albums, going on tour, collaborating with well-known hip-hop artists like Nas on their CDs and having his poems published in textbooks all over the country. His latest book is, “Branches of the Tree of Life,” a compilation of poems he wrote from 1969 to 2013.

Oyewole is best known as a poet. He is one of the founding members of The Last Poets, a music and spoken word group who shared the same political ideas—black nationalism. Unity, self-determination and independence from a Eurocentric society were ideologies that the group upheld. The Last Poets are recognized worldwide as setting the foundation for the emergence of hip-hop music.

The poetry of The Last Poets was uncensored and always full of lines meant to unify African-Americans and to set them on the road to self-love, according to Oyewole.

He looks at himself as someone who “put brass knuckles on the words and punched you in the face.” For instance, the poem “When the Revolution Comes,” read by Oyewole on the album “The Last Poets” says, “Speak not of revolution until you are willing to eat rats to survive” and “When the revolution comes, Jesus Christ is going to be standing on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th St. trying to catch the first gypsy cab out of Harlem, when the revolution comes.”

On a personal level, Oyewole said he gets his inspiration to write poetry from nature and people. Watching people is his specialty.

“Listening and observing are the biggest teachers for me to write poetry,” Oyewole said.

“Nas has a great commercial,” he continued. “He’s on the train and he says, ‘People tell me stories without saying one word, so I listen.’ Man, that’s one of the most profound commercials I’ve ever seen.”

Through his poetry, Oyewole said he has found a way to heal thyself. He said he writes for his personal salvation, because it’s therapeutic to his soul. He said he will continue dropping hot verses until the day he dies.

“It’s a way I can talk to myself without being crazy and I think it helps my sanity,” Oyewole said. I write a lot because it’s a perfect way for me to discus with me what I’m doing with my life. It’s a way for me to express myself.

“I need to have a way of expressing what’s on my heart and my mind. It doesn’t have to be made known public, I just have to get it out,” Oyewole said.

This legendary poet also gets his inspiration from other musical greats, like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Al Jarreau. Oh, did I forget Abiodun Oyewole? Yes, he inspires himself too. His new album “Love Has No Season” makes him smile with satisfaction, he said.

When it comes to artists today, Oyewole said they are not reflecting the times in their music. He thinks many artists, specifically hip-hop artists, should have a lot to say about social issues plaguing black communities nationwide.

“Some are making an effort, like Kendrick Lamar,” he said. “There’s some effort being made, but not on the level of a Nina Simone. She embraced the Civil Rights Movement and became one of the vocal standouts.”

Oyewole said he believes artists must be catalysts for social change.

“We got to really deal with the reality of what’s going on,” he said. “Black kids are being abused and things are not happening the way they should. Justice is foreign to us here and it shouldn’t be like that. We got some stuff that need to be put on the table.”

Oyewole said artists don’t have to become “black power movement leaders,” but they should have something to say about the current circumstances black people are facing today, including police brutality, mass incarceration and joblessness to name a few.

“I don’t think that we can go on and party as usual when we have disparity in the hood like we do,” Oyewole said. “We have kids getting killed and cops being found not guilty and this is happening over and over and over again. I believe artists need to step up.

“In the absence of a movement, the circus comes to town and that’s what we’re dealing with today,” Oyewole said when comparing today’s rap music to a circus performance.

There is no movement happening in our generation, right now, according to Oyewole. He said he doesn’t consider Black Lives Matter to be a movement that he’s used to.

“It’s a happening right now,” he said. “It hasn’t come into a movement. A movement takes on a different vibe. Movements mobilize the people. This hasn’t really mobilized people. Black Lives Matter comes in moments. They have little rallies here and there and it’s cute. It’s nice. I don’t like it in particular, because I already assume that black lives matter. I want us to go beyond that.”

Oyewole says that people have to want change in order to get change. He then explains how this generation of hip-hop lovers have to have a movement.

“A movement requires dedication and it requires, on peoples parts, in terms of wanting change seriously and wanting it passionately enough to sacrifice some things,” he said. “We need to lift the banner on who we are. We need to raise the level of our understanding of ourselves and the genius of us and stop wallowing around in the mire of who we are.”

6 thoughts

  1. This is a great article! I love what he’s doing and what he represents. I think we need people like him that not only give young people the platform we need for our art, but also teaches us to support our own first, and be the change we want to see in our communities. Great work!

    1. Thank you very much. It was truly an honor to have meet such a vibrant soul. Having a legend critique the work of a young black poet, singer or rapper is priceless.

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