Voice permeates Gratitude, the new solo album by Abiodun Oyewole. Oyewole’s physical voice grips the listener, rendering one rapt by his deep register parsing and pronouncing syncopated wisdom. He is also a conduit who gives voices to regions and places like Harlem and Brooklyn, speaking in the rich diversity of their cultural expressions. Finally, voice functions in the sense that Abiodun Oyewole’s work here gives voice to the sweep of his life, the depth of his loves, and the place gratitude and abiding joy hold in relation to his passion for justice in a world in need of healing repair.
Abiodun Oyewole is a foundational figure in American poetry, the Black Power and Civil Rights movement, and the formation of American hip-hop and rap as a co-founder of the Last Poets. On 19 May 1968, Oyewole, along with David Nelson and Gylan Kain, performed poetry drenched in the beauty and themes of Black Nationalism in a Harlem park on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday, three years after his assassination. Jazz producer Alan Douglas later signed a reconfigured group that included Oyewole, and by 1970, the Last Poets had released their first self-titled album that created powerful cultural ripples.
As Kalefah Sanneh puts it in his recent book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, “The unapologetic brashness of this music [of the Last Poets and other spoken word artists] anticipated the unapologetic brashness of the rappers who came afterward; ever since hip-hop, most other forms of music have seemed rather self-effacing, by comparison.” Their legacy is manifest in Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”, and the work of artists like Lauryn Hill and Chuck D of Public Enemy, to mention just a few branches from their tree.
Now in his early 70s, Abiodun Oyewole has released a new solo album that—according to Interviewer Pat Thomas’ intro to the album’s accompanying 16-page booklet—”…captures the beauty of life in the face of this horrible shit we’re facing”. Gratitude is that statement, a 12-song celebration of the abiding joy, beauty, and the rich heritage to which Oyewole’s deep, rich baritone intonations give expression and life. This album is a testimony in the classic sense, a witness to the depth and ambiguity of spiritual movement in our midst. Abiodun Oyewole is still giving voice to the spirit of revolution, revealing it here as the spirit of life emerging from the beauty of Black life and culture in America.
The listener is showered immediately with the soft sound of the rain accompanied by quiet finger snaps and piano before Taylor Pace’s soulful vocals join with a smooth drum beat to introduce “Rain”, the album’s first song. Oyewole’s resonant, authoritative poetic words enter into this scene to reflect on the symbolic complexity of rain, that which both nourishes us but is often accompanied by force and danger. The song introduces themes he will expand throughout the album—the necessity of struggle for growth, the legacy of family and ancestors who both comfort and confront, and life-giving rain showers that can be bittersweet. He moves into “My Life”, a proclamation of independence and responsibility, a message across the generational gap of the wisdom inherent in recognizing one’s power and finitude.
Oyewole’s power emerges in “A Poem”. The third track is a statement of authenticity and passion in the midst of what Oyewole shares within the insert’s interview as so much “fake poetry”. It is protest and performative instruction, a verbal gauntlet thrown down that separates the oral wheat from the chaff. It is delivered as an apocalyptic message and testifies to the profound cost of making oneself vulnerable in the cause of truth. The poet is one who “peels off a piece of their soul” in a righteous declaration to share their “naked feelings with the world.”
“Harlem” and “Brooklyn” follow as back-to-back odes to Black culture’s rich artistry and power manifested in historic New York City neighborhoods. The juxtaposed songs embody their respective namesakes in contrasting musical and lyrical styles. “Harlem” is a silky R&B love letter to the hub of Black cultural riches in art, music, food, dance, and literature. It is a comprehensive tour, spanning symbolic territory from Abyssinian Baptist Church to Club Baron. By contrast, “Brooklyn” exudes a more straightforward strength, driven by a jazz drum beat of percussive swagger to match the bravado and badass nature of the neighborhood. Brooklyn is not to be trifled with, and in the song, Abiodun Oyewole’s poetic verses are complimented by a rap from his youngest son, Ada da Poet. The songs are celebrations of Black power and the rich beauty of Black culture. They are revolutionary in their praise as their testimony brings into relief a broken and racist culture of white supremacy that has plundered the treasures of Black life and creativity and in which it is revolutionary and necessary to claim that “Black Lives Matter”.
Other songs on the album plumb the profundity of gratitude as a life force. Perhaps, its central spiritual expression is found within the track, “Praise the Lord”. Oyewole’s sonorous baritone ushers us into the song’s sanctuary with a “praise the Lord, sister” and “praise the Lord, brother” greetings as the pianist and the choir soloist warm up. As the gospel-infused hymn unfolds, Oyewole unwraps an ecumenical, interreligious vision of the potency of transcendence deeply rooted in the human spirit. The poet’s wordplay of “praise” and “raise” embodies his gut-level faith that a divine spark is at the heart of human be-ing in the world. Far from an escapist gospel, this is a call to the spirit at the heart of all creativity, love, and resistance. The song testifies to the revolutionary power of gratitude.
Other songs, including “To Begin”, “Spirit”, and “Occupy” (a playful expansion on the goals of the Occupy movement of 2011), repeat and broaden this theme of spiritual and emotional resources. The album’s closer, “What I Want to See”, is an echo of the Last Poets vibe with its sparse percussive accompaniment in the beat of hand drums joined with Abiodun Oyewole’s vision of a world to come, one that is being born right now and straining to emerge in full. It hearkens the listener back to that first concert in 1968 in Marcus Garvey park while simultaneously propelling them into the promised future. It is a summation that is also a call to envision the fruit of gratitude within the struggle.
The condensed wisdom of five decades of poetry and activism, Gratitude is an essential statement for such a time as this from one of the more influential voices informing the American musical tradition of hip-hop and rap. This new album offers a compelling case that Abiodun Oyewole’s work of mentoring and poetic prophesying is still relevant and needed.