“C.Y.N.,” Abiodun Oyewole advised a mostly-black audience: Control your (inner) “nigger” — except when you need to fight.
The black nationalist “Last Poet” rapped out irreverent anecdotes, provocative statements, and some classic poetry to a crowd at Dixwell’s Stetson Library.
Nearly half a century after the birth of a cutting-edge group widely considered the precursor to hip-hop, Oyewole’s appearance showed how the same questions he and his colleagues began provoking two generations ago—questions about race, revolution, respectability politics, and the role of women—continue to resonate. He didn’t mince words, even when those words were “nigger” and “bitch.”
His appearance at Stetson Wednesday night weaved together poetry and prose. Oyewole charmed and wowed the dozens present, including local slam poets and students from Common Ground High School, with his vision of blackness in America.
“Unfortunately, many of us think our history started with slavery,” he said. “Who is really the slave? We were put in the position to raise white people in America.”
Oyewole’s stories marked a rough outline of his history as “revolutionary,” from a child growing up in Queens to a Columbia University fellow, with a three-year stint in prison in between.
He is an original and current member of The Last Poets, a group of writers and musicians born from the 1960s civil rights and black nationalist movements. For The Last Poets’ first performance in Harlem on May 19, 1968, Malcolm X’s birthday, they took the stage chanting, “Are you ready, niggers?” Four to five thousand people, gathered in what is now Marcus Garvey Park, chanted along with them.
But Oyewole wanted to be in the thick of the “struggle.”
In 1969, he left the Last Poets—“to get my hands bloody”—and headed for Shaw University, where he began recruiting students to join an African village called Oyotunji in Sheldon, S.C. Anyone who joined had to wear “African clothing” and take on an “African name,” he said.
After a heckler at a town meeting taunted the group for not being able to defend their women, Oyewole led a mission to rob “$20,000 worth of guns” from two guns stores in North Carolina and stash them in the university president’s mansion.
But his two student accomplices “dropped the duffel bag” of guns when a noise startled them, and they were arrested.
To get the money needed to spring his accomplices, Oyewole decided to rob the Ku Klux Klan. He would be killing two birds with one stone: “Rob the Klan, get my boys out of jail. Sounds good, right? It would’ve been good, if I didn’t get thrown into jail.”
After a harrowing chase that lasted more than seven hours, Oyewole was caught and ultimately sentenced to 12 to 20 years in the state penitentiary. He served three years and nine months.
“It was the best three years and nine months of my life,” he said. The time in jail “focused” him and calmed him down. “I turned prison into a university for myself.”
Though he may be a calmer figure today, Oyewole was no less provocative at Stetson.
He recalled a conversation he had with rapper Ice Cube, which was organized by and featured in the New York Times. The Times reporter had wanted him to metaphorically “spank” Ice Cube and warn him not to call women “bitches” or black people “niggers.”
But Oyewole said he agreed too much with Ice Cube to scold him: “If a woman’s a bitch, call her a bitch.”
These days, he lives in Manhattan on a fellowship from Columbia University and travels the world performing with The Last Poets. He gives lectures to prisoners throughout the country, disproportionately black men, whom he refers to as his “fraternity brothers.”
Oyewole described the reality of black people in America using the parable of an eagle, a majestic creature, tricked into living the life of an earthbound chicken.
“All those years, he was living as a chicken, when he was an eagle and could fly away.”