The Wire

In Writing

Greg Tate remembers Jalal Nuriddin of The Last Poets

June 2018

“Nuriddin’s musicality, lucidity and crackling charismatic vitality as a poetic messenger accounts for why his best work can still throttle our synapses”

It’s been asserted that all poetry aspires to the condition of music but the poetry that the Black Power movement blew into the world aspired to the music of John Coltrane’s tenor and Malcolm X’s eloquent, vernacular assaults on systemic racism. Amiri Baraka is rightly recognised as the Father of Black Arts Movement poetics but Jalal Nuriddin and Gil Scott Heron became its most vaunted sons – the lyrical progeny who carried those radically streetwise poetics into the Black pop mainstream of the 1970s and provided the template for hiphop’s word drunk takeover of same in the 80s and beyond.

Nuriddin’s musicality, lucidity and crackling charismatic vitality as a poetic messenger accounts for why his best work can still throttle our synapses. When his “Wake Up, Niggers” suddenly appears in Performance (Nic Roeg’s psychedelic psycho-thriller star feature for Mick Jagger) the film’s belaboured surrealism gets disrupted and out-weirded by a sonic shock wave –Nuriddin’s reminder that nightmarish visions of annihilation from Black America can flatten the faux gangster decadence of entitled rock stars and their baroque enablers in a heartbeat. The resources of Black language, culture and political critique Nuriddin drew upon were vast and deep. They also possess a currency and contemporaneity that the violent virulence of Euro-American racism has never yet become yesterday’s news, let alone stale, give or take a homophobic or transphobic throwback riposte or two.

Nuridden didn’t do it alone and he didn’t do it in a vacuum. On The Last Poets’ chart-busting debut album, he is flanked by Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan. Both gentlemen contributed memorable pieces to that initial album's canon as Nuriddin did. It is they who have also maintained the group in the four decades since Nuriddin left the band. But two of Nuriddin's most indelible and memorable works appear on the LP Chastisements (1974). One of them, “Bird’s Word”, is the most rivetting, soulful and gender inclusive History of Jazz tracks ever spun in six minutes and change. A rhymed Who’s Who of improvisors, the track is also a testament to how ‘The Music’ (as those who abhor the J word took to calling the artform in the post revolutionary 70s) was appreciated and circulated within the Black Community’s hearts, minds and vinyl collections. In several cases artists are referenced by their most beloved albums, in others by their emotional impact on folk. Betty Carter, Shirley Scott and Nina Simone don’t turn up as essential listening in most jazz documentaries but in Professor Nuriddin’s syllabus they are accorded equal ground with all the major dudes he mentions, as was the case when all three were alive.

“E Pluribus Unum” is Nuruddin’s learned treatise/deconstruction of the masonic meanings behind the Roman symbols and Latin phrases on American money. The poem connects slavery, capitalism and the crypto-fascist mysticism of the slaveholding founding fathers with pith, wit and a grand, scholarly command of exhumed historical details and sublimated rage.

Nuriddin’s best known work among hiphop cognoscenti, the streetlife-immersive Hustlers Convention, proved he could go longform solo without the band and hold the frame with proto-gangsta bravura and braggadocio. As much as anybody Nuriddin demonstrated seven prophetic years before “Rappers Delight” that one helluva inventive lyricist could cinematically deliver 30 minutes of couplets that would become quotable holy writ on street corners and basketball courts throughout The Community, ie the euphemism we adopted in the 70s in abeyance of the G word ‘ghetto’. A less well known epic by Nuriddin, “BeYonDer” from Delights Of The Garden (1977) is a graphic novel in verse waiting to happen as an animated feature—in it he retells the Nation of Islam’s Myth of Yacub – about how an evil genius/African demon deserves the blame for vaingloriously gene-splicing the white race into being. From revolutionary nationalism to Black Marxist analysis to retro Afro Futurist jihan panegyrics, Nuriddin was a word wizard for all unapologetically Black protest-poetics seasons.

Jalal Mansur Nuriddin died on 4 June, aged 73

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well done thank you

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