Proto-rap — a look at black soul and jazz poetry for Black History Month


In my freshman year of college I remember being hipped to the Last Poets by LaRon Johnson, another temporary housing refugee. He basically told me that they were rap music before rap music. This was back in 1992, a year after CERN released the World-Wide Web and when most music was shared via cassette tapes or compact discs. There was no Napster or YouTube and in Iowa, there weren’t a lot of copies of obscure, 1970s, militant, black spoken word records floating around so for years I could only wonder what they and other soul and jazz poets sounded like. Today there’s no reason anyone with access to a computer can’t check them out so for Black History Month, here’s a brief introduction to the ones that I’m familiar with. (If there are others, please let me know in the comment section).



Greenwood MS, 1966, on the Meredith March. SNCC Chairman Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) calls for “Black Power.”

The late 1960s and early ‘70s were a time of great change and turmoil in America’s black community.Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and a few months later The Watts Rebellion scorched South Los Angeles. In the aftermath, the black militant US Organization formed in 1965. In 1966, the Watts Writers Workshop was established. That same year, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In 1969, FBIdirector J. Edgar Hoover declared “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country” and a few months later Black Panther Fred Hampton was assassinated by an FBI-led tactical unit. That same year a gun battle erupted between US and the Black Panthers on the UCLA campus after the FBI covertly worked to pit them against one another. Also in 1969,Gordon Parks made The Learning Tree, the first Hollywood film directed by a black filmmaker. In 1970,Melvin van Peebles made Watermelon Man. It was out of this period that the black soul and jazz poetry scene rose in prominence.


The Watts Prophets

There were earlier recordings that could be considered proto-rap (Bo Diddley, Oscar Brown, Pigmeat Markham, James Brown, Lead Belly and others recorded music that had something of a rap-like delivery) and hip-hop influences can be heard in old field hollers and shouts but The Watts Prophets were the first (near as I can tell) to really bring an attitude that seems so close to that of later generations of hip-hop artists.

The Watts Prophets were formed as Watts Fire by Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton (born Anthony Hamilton), and Otis O’Solomon in 1967 at the Watts Writers Worskshop.  As The Black Voicesthey released On the Streets in Watts in 1969, recorded for Ala Records in the Crenshaw district. Two years later they returned with 1971’s Rappin’ Black in a White World (recorded in 1970). In 1975, the Watts Writers Workshop was burned down by FBI informant Darthard Perry. It wasn’t until 1997 that they released their third album, When the 90’s Came.



The Last Poets

The Last Poets formed at Marcus Garvey Park in East Harlem on what would’ve been Malcolm X’s birthday (19 May) in 1968. The core members were Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, Abiodun Oyewole, and Nilaja Obabi. Their debut album, The Last Poets, was released in 1970. Hassan left the group following their second album, This Is Madness, and was replaced by Suliaman El-Hadi forChastisment (1972). With their third album, they began referring to their music as “jazzoetry.” They released two more studio albums in the 1970s, two studio albums in the 1980s, and two studio albums in the 1990s.


Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron was born 1 April, 1949 in Chicago to an opera singer mother (who’d performed with New York Oratorio Society) and a Jamaican footballer father (who’d played for Celtic FC). However, from an early age until he was twelve he was raised by his maternal grandmother in Tennessee. After she passed away he returned to the Bronx to live with his then-single mother.

He attended Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University. There he formed a band, Black & Blues, and began writing novels including The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. He credited Missouri-born poet Langston Hughes as being his biggest influence. His first album, a solo effort, was 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The artwork introduced him as “A New Black Poet” although he referred to himself as a “bluesologist.” He went on to release another eight studio albums in the 1970s, four studio albums in the ‘80s, and only one studio album in the ‘90s.

Sadly, the final decade of Scott-Heron’s life was characterized more by personal set-backs than creativity. In 2001 he was arrested for cocaine possession. He recorded with Blackalicious a year later, and a year before he was released on parole. In 2006 he again ran afoul of the law and was paroled in 2007. In 2008 he confirmed that he was HIV positive and the following year he was again arrested for cocaine possession. In 2010 he released his first record in sixteen years, I’m New Here. Scott-Heron died on 27 May, 2011, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, age 62.

Further suggested listening: Listen Whitey!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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