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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Revolutionary commentary from the early 70s (1/2)

As I ponder various current events and prospects for "revolution," I turn to the Last Poets' Harlem-based perspective toward social change.

Yup, you read that correctly: this one’s a two-parter.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a combination of major world events — i.e. the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and movements to which I’m in closer proximity, and how these various political movement are linked by acts of protest. Whenever I roam through Sproul Plaza, I see posters and signs speaking out against the war, as well as against domestic issues such as diminishing national rights to abortion, and more local matters including Cal's recent enrollment freeze. There is frequent discussion of “revolution,” the potential for it, and what it may bring about (and I should note that I don't buy a lot of that, but it's what I hear, so it impacts me). It all leads me to a set of key questions which I will address over this and the next post:

If revolution does come, what will it look like? What will be the level of direct human involvement? What will the demographic makeup of that revolution be, and who will truly benefit from it?

I'll be examining this question through two pieces, the second of which is a response to the first. Both come from the same place and cultural background: early 1970s Harlem. A prominent Black community which has gone through cycles of crime and poverty, Harlem has been the genesis of a wealth of cultural developments, including R&B and hip-hop. Spoken-word groups like the Last Poets have proven to be massive stepping stones to rap, both in its musical style and its politically conscious content. The Last Poets' "When the Revolution Comes" presents the perspective of a revolution sourced from their own people, one which will trample societally entrenched ideas of White supremacy and entangled broader American understanding of religion.

The beat and title cry and response of "When the Revolution Comes" had come into my head innocently enough on one of those walks through Sproul, but after it persisted, I knew I would want to highlight it and ponder the effect of its narrative a half-century on. I want to start with the title itself: "When the Revolution Comes" implies that the Last Poets are not going to be the sparking force behind the revolution. Later lines from the track's lead vocalist Umar Bin Hassan indicate that they will be more than willing participants in the revolution, upending systems that have oppressed their families and kin for generations, but in not providing the impetus for such chance, one may go to wonder if they are implicitly helping to uphold said systems.

The first stanza — "Some of us will probably catch it on TV," etc. — catches my attention for multiple reasons. One of those reasons will be the topic of tomorrow's post (hint hint), but within the context of this one poem, it's also a remarkable statement on how the evolution of media has shaped our role as citizens. There remains plenty of potential for activism, as I am well aware as a Berkeley student and resident, but the greater sociopolitical climate has transitioned into being a spectator sport other than for state and federal elections. Even if the revolution would have a larger effect than any one electoral victory of piece of legislation would, the likelihood is that many will simply watch while few will do the real work of generating meaningful change.

"When the Revolution Comes" then sees the development of a damning critique of religion as configured by the White majority. In the second stanza, Bin Hassan speaks of "[p]reacher pimps" who "are gonna split the scene with the communion wine stuck in their back pockets," noting both the divisiveness of religion and its ability to be harnessed as a money-grabber. Later on, a statement about Jesus "trying to catch the first gypsy cab out of Harlem / When the revolution comes" reflects the contradiction between the morals of Christianity and those of its adherents. Love for one's fellow man seems to be all too commonly thrown out the window at the slightest notion of trouble, especially when minority and/or otherwise disadvantaged populations are the ones in need.

Then, of course, there's the central theme of race relations as it relates to the revolution. In focusing on the role of Black cultural centers "supplying the revolutionaries with food and arms," a nod to the community work of the Black Panther Party, the Last Poets present the need for the revolution (if it is to come) to be fed by the common people. Meanwhile, a simultaneous narrative of confusion and redefinition of identity emerges with talk of Frank Schiffman "giv[ing] away the Apollo to the first person he sees wearing a blue dashiki" and the attempted identity swaps of "Afros" and "straightened heads." A consistent byproduct of large-scale social change is the shift in stratification of various identities — perhaps not racial or ethnic groups, but divisions that are visible within said groups. The various people trying to change their identity may think they're ahead of the curve, but the question remains how their group will emerge from the revolution... not to mention whether the revolution will come at all.

"When the Revolution Comes" paints a gritty picture of 1970 American and the general unreadiness of the population to be a willing part of forming a more perfect union, especially when it comes from a Black perspective like that of the Last Poets. The calls for revolution have continued, but a half-century on I think it's fair to say the revolution has not come. As a result, the societal plagues that beleaguered late 20th century discourse have endured to the modern day, only to be accepted by a greater proportion of the population and pushed underneath more newly arising issues. There is an inherent danger in neglecting said plagues, as their adverse effects continue to inflict division and suffering on the populace both from its most vulnerable sections outward and from the outside back in onto the marginalized.


That's one social and artistic perspective of the revolution, alleging the unready and uncooperative nature of the people at large while stating the cause for change all the same. Tomorrow, I'll present a the other side of this revolutionary spoken-word coin, which emerged from the same Harlem background as the Last Poets. (Update: Here's Part 2.)

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